I am not a religious man. In fact, in a survey of character strengths, spirituality or “religiousness” comes out as my lowest strength, number 24 out of 24. If there is a weakness that I need to work on . . . this is it.
A lot of the guidance that comes out of positive psychology suggests that we ignore our weaknesses and instead focus on our “signature” strengths. , those top 3 or 4 or 5 strengths that we truly relate to and feel energized by. Focusing on our top strengths is certainly better than dwelling only on our weaknesses, but I think there is much to be learned from spending some time working on the things that we aren’t good at.
This is one of many lessons I learned while taking Chris Peterson’s course on character strengths in the Applied Positive Psychology program at University of Pennsylvania. Chris assigned all of his students to take one week focusing on one of our top strengths. But then he assigned us to take one week working on one of our bottom strengths. I chose to work on my religiousness.
Every day, for one week, I decided to say “grace” before every meal and say a prayer each night before going to bed. I can’t say that I “found religion” during this week, but I did get a lot of benefit out of taking on these traditionally religious practices. These rituals encourage people to pause at specific moments throughout the day and reflect on things that are most important to them. Who do we love? What are we hoping for? What are we grateful for?
I learned a lot through my week of experimenting with these rituals. Sometimes, I have been too quick to dismiss religious practices as being outdated or supporting institutions that I see separating people rather than bring them together. But a simple ritual like saying grace, can remind us to not take life for granted. To appreciate the good things we have.
I couldn’t help but think of this today as we go into Thanksgiving. This American holiday is the one day of the year when people of all faiths and denominations come to their dining room tables with “grace” in their hearts.
According to Bob Emmons, perhaps the world’s leading scholar on the benefits of gratitude, expressions of thankfulness, even during the holiday season, might come more readily to people of faith. It is easier to appreciate the blessings of life when you believe they come from a beneficent God.
In Emmons’ book on gratitude, he cites research showing that religious people are more likely to participate in a traditional Thanksgiving holiday than their more agnostic counterparts. The traditions and rituals of most religious practices help people remember the need to come together in an expression of gratitude.
To my fellow agnostics, don’t miss this opportunity to experience the practice of saying grace. Regardless of your beliefs or persuasion, we all have much to be thankful for.
References and recommended reading:
Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Houghton Mifflin Company.