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King: The power of gratitude can lift us higher
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When the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know" came out in 2004, I drove to Atlanta to see it. Its theme, the connection between spiritually, quantum physics and human consciousness, fascinates me. 

Having read that human emotion can affect the molecular structure of water crystals, I was particularly interested in part of the movie that showed photographs of the phenomenon. The pictures were beautiful, but the science behind them does not hold up. The theory has been dismissed as a hoax.

However, I liked the idea of expressing "love and gratitude" when doing something as mundane as watering a houseplant. For a while, part of my early morning ritual was to address the philodendron in my bathroom with the words "love and gratitude" as I poured a few drops of water into its pot.

This went on for quite a while until one day the plant looked decidedly sick. I took it down from its perch above the bathtub and discovered I'd almost killed the poor thing by drowning its roots. So much for blessing water with loving words, but the idea of addressing the world with gratitude has stuck. Each morning, I greet the new day with words of gratitude and in return experience a feeling of wonder and happiness.

During the recent Thanksgiving season, the papers ran a number of stories linking human happiness with gratitude, and unlike the water molecule theory, this material has held up under scientific scrutiny. Robert A. Emmons at the University of California, Davis describes his research in a new book called "Thanks."

The people in Emmons' test group who expressed gratitude were not only happier than those who didn't, they were also healthier. However, was this real gratitude or something less laudable? Were these people simply comparing themselves to others less fortunate than they were and feeling good about it?

But when Emmons ran a study of people living with chronic diseases or in other less than fortunate circumstance — people who had no special reason to feel lucky or superior — those "in the gratitude condition" as he put it, were still happier than average.

The opposite of gratitude is entitlement, the feeling that you deserve certain advantages just because of who or what you are. (Don't confuse this kind of entitlement with programs like Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, veterans benefits, and so forth. These government-sponsored undertakings might better be called "social insurance.")

The entitlement of which I speak is emotional entitlement, as in "I deserve advantages by virtue of being ... a good churchgoing person, the prettiest girl in school, the smartest man in the room, a white man in the South, decendants of the Mayflower ..." you fill in the blank. In short, anyone who believes they are in some way special and should have their needs met because of it.

That probably includes all of us at one time or another. The media tells us we are entitled. After all, we are a consumer culture. We won't accumulate if we don't believe we have a right to do so, but accumulation doesn't make us happy. Gratitude, apparently, does.

The Dalai Lama believes in happiness. He even wrote a book about it, "The Art of Happiness." Happiness, he says, is the purpose of life. This is a far cry from so many Western preachers who emphasize suffering, sin and redemption, but most of history's great religious teachers have talked more about compassion and kindness and love and gratitude than about human failings.

Gratitude is not a natural emotion. It is an art that has to be practiced. It is not merely being thankful. It is the recognition of the inherent beauty in the life force, and the happiness that comes with this enlightenment.

Joan King is a Sautee resident whose columns appear biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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