“…and your mind doth begin to expand.” – Alma 32:34

 While some set faith at odds with critical thinking, Meridian’s “Expand” promotes an alternative model of the life of the mind. It engages current moral, political and cultural issues with intellectual rigor from a faithful LDS standpoint.

I read Timothy Wilson’s book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change a few years ago, and one of the things that I still remember was his discussion of some of the psychology literature around gratitude. Unsurprisingly, there’s a fairly well-known link between gratitude and emotional well-being. Practices like “gratitude journals” are popular elements of positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy. However, the benefits of gratitude journals can be overstated. At issue is the hedonic treadmill or what Wilson calls “the pleasure paradox”:

The pleasure paradox helps explain why a popular way of increasing happiness—keeping gratitude journals, in which people write about the things in their lives for which they are thankful—does not always work. Although it seems like taking time to stop and smell the flowers in this manner would increase people’s well-being, studies that have examined this technique have yielded mixed results. A few studies have found that keeping gratitude journals makes people happier, but many other have found that doing so has no impact on people’s happiness.

Wilson then describes the euphoric reaction he had to his first academic publication and contrasts that with his reaction after decades of success in the field, “stopping and smelling that particular rose doesn’t do much for my current mood, to be honest.”

There is a way around this problem, however. Wilson calls it the George Bailey technique (after the main character in It’s a Wonderful Life) and describes it this way:

Instead of writing about something you are grateful for, like a career breakthrough, try writing about all the ways that that good thing might not have occurred.

As an example of the efficacy of this approach, Wilson points to a study in which one set of happily married participants were asked to write about how they met and the other set was asked to write about what their lives would have been like if they hadn’t met. The participants who just told the story of how they met their spouses were telling a story that they had probably told many times before, and it had little impact. “But,” as Wilson writes, “imagining how one of the most important things in their lives might not have happened made it seem surprising and special again, and maybe a little mysterious—the very conditions that prolong the pleasure we get from the good things in life.”

Thus: light from darkness. The capacity to imagine negative events (or the absence of positive ones) can become a rejuvenating spring for a sincere sense of gratitude. This is convenient if, like me, you have a bit of a morbid side to your inner narrative. Instead of melodrama and anxiety, there’s the possibility of converting a predisposition towards bitterness into fuel for gratitude. Imagine what could go wrong becomes; instead, imagine what could have gone wrong. It is, to the extent that you can pull it off, a nice little bit of self-counseling emotional akido.

And yet there is something more.

I have learned through sad and repeated experience how quickly I am to forget the Lord my God the very moment things start going well. (Alma 46:8) There have been extended times in my life where I have felt the burden of anxiety so heavily that it has made my shoulders physically ache. There have been weeks and even months where slow-motion failure has twisted so painfully inside me that I endured my daily bus ride hunched over with teeth gritted against the pain. And yet, as awful as those experiences were to me, fervent prayer never came more easily. In this way, too, darkness begets light.

I understood (in the rational but hollow way in which someone in the depths of a bout with the flu understands that they will feel better in a few days) that the painful experiences would pass. And I worried that without a heavy load to struggle beneath I would find my neck stiff, my heart callous, and my knees unbending. Of course, that is precisely what happened. That’s what always happens because there is a spiritual treadmill to go alongside the hedonic one. Today’s miracles are by definition tomorrow’s everyday experience.

But, just as there are ways to circumvent the hedonic treadmill, there are ways to get off the spiritual treadmill, or at least to slow it down. They say to count your blessings, and surely this is good advice, but the more profound hymn of gratitude is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be,
Let that grace now like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

In order to bind our wandering hearts, it takes not just the blessings, but the juxtaposition of those blessings with the way things could have been without them. We can only appreciate His grace when we feel the constraints of our debts. These lyrics convey an appreciation for the necessity of the darkness and the light. As Alma the Younger told his son Helaman:

There could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.(Alma 36:21)

Americans are maximizers. It is a virtue and a vice. What we do, we tend to do to the extreme. And so there’s a reflexive response to Alma’s words: oh, should we self-inflict as much misery and pain as possible in order to maximize the subsequent joy? This is foolishness. “It must needs be that offences come,” said Jesus, “but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7)

I have never faced true tragedy in my life. I have never lost a child, battled mortal illness, or survived in a warzone. So I commend this lesson only to those who—like me—are working their way through the ordinary and everyday failures and setbacks of life. But here’s the lesson: be grateful for burdens and trials because, like the constant pang of hunger when we’re fasting, they can be turned to spiritual ends and bring us closer to God. And when life is easy or average (as sometimes it is), you can resist the urge to stop caring about heavenly things by reminding yourself of the times when things were harder and the way things could be harder even now. A heartfelt sense of gratitude can help keep us close to God even in the perilous times when we might otherwise forget how much we need Him.

And so: in times of shadow, remember the sunshine. But in times of sunshine, remember the shadow.