Gratitude raises mood. Raised mood lowers stress. Lowered stress boosts health.
This is all in keeping with what scientific studies are showing us. And gratitude itself can be sparked intentionally, seemingly out of nowhere, just by choosing to bring to mind a list of things you’re glad about. A technique often recommended is the Gratitude Journal – an ongoing list of things day to day that you feel thankful for.
However, gratitude is an emotion, and emotions respond to rhyme, rhythm and rhetoric…to poetry. What’s more, a poetic form already exists that’s perfect for stirring and amplifying gratitude…the Ode.
If you’re a creative soul who likes to take pride in their writing, and keeping a run of the mill journal seems like a bit of a chore; if you like to push the envelope and feel not just good but amazing…a glorified, poetical version is what you’re looking for. Well I never – that was almost a poem itself. Bit of tinkering and it could easily be made into one – but I’ll save my tinkering for my Odes for now.
If you’re a creative soul who likes to take pride in their writing, and keeping a run of the mill journal seems like a bit of a chore; if you like to push the envelope and feel not just good but amazing…a glorified, poetical version is what you’re looking for. Well I never – that was almost a poem itself. Bit of tinkering and it could easily be made into one – but I’ll save my tinkering for my Odes for now. Oh alright, just a very quick one:
Keep a running list, they say
Of things that make you glad
Just jot them down in note form with
A biro in a pad
But if you’re a Creative type
A simple list will bore
A flounced-up thing with full-blown odes
Is what we’re looking for.
It’s not enough for us, you see
To simply note them down
If it’s worth doing, do it well
Come on – go to town!
Useful tip though – write your ideas as simple prose first, then keep tinkering to get the rhymes and rhythm you’re after and in no time you’ll have formed it into a poem. Don’t be put off by thinking it’s hard – it’s not. It is a good mental workout though – equivalent to doing the cross-word or some such – but with more feeling and you get to keep the result, and get joy back from it in the future. You could do that with a completed cross-word, but I doubt the effect would be the same.
So, simply, the Glory of Glad looks at how we can harness the power of the Ode to give a gratitude journal more power, more dignity, more grandeur even, with the aim of supercharging its power to raise mood, and help you achieve better mental, emotional, physical and (dare I say it?) spiritual health (any spiritual practice worth its salt ought to make you more appreciative of stuff, which is basically the same as feeling gratitude).
Odes confer dignity. What does dignity have to do with gratitude? A great deal. Dignity says: I deserve good things. Gratitude says: thank you for good things. You keep a gratitude journal to remind you that you do get good things. Reminding yourself you get good things helps you feel like you deserve good things. So both dignity and gratitude are about seeing yourself getting good things. Looked at like that, why on Earth would you keep a gratitude list that did not also feel dignified?
So yes, you’re still keeping your journal, as a physical object (not just a file on a hard drive or online collection), but it’s very much a glorified version. More creative. More fun. More powerful.
Another thing actual scientific studies have shown is that emotions are contagious – they spread socially in groups – and that more expressive people are more effective mood spreaders. And of course, by expressing your gratitude in the form of an ode, you’re also turning it into something you could – if you felt like it – share. In this way you could help infect a social group with uplifted mood, which could then echo that back at you like a wave off a harbour wall. Authority is also thought to amplify the degree of contagion, and the dignified, well-measured tones of your odes will give oodles more authority to your expressions of gladness. Just don’t’ share them with people who may be critical of their literary qualities if you’re sensitive about such things – this is about raising mood, not risking a big downer.
Before you say anything, yes, I know ‘The Glory of Glad’ is not standard grammar. It’s deliberately a bit wonky to make it more memorable – a cunning trick. It’s a standard rhetorical device with its own name – enallage: shifting a word from its usual part of speech to an uncharacteristic function to draw attention. Like Coke with their tagline: ‘I’m lovin’ it.’ Correct the grammar to ‘I love it’ and you instantly lose its memorability. Whether this works for my own title, only time will tell, but I thought it worth mentioning here because rhetorical tricks of the trade will be one of our themes.
What is gratitude? Here’s a broad definition: positive feelings from noticing the presence of something good in your life, inspiring some kind of desire to reciprocate by expression of those feelings. So it’s not just when you come into ownership of something solid; it can be inspired just by the opportunity to see a beautiful view, hear a beautiful sound, and so on.
What does Science have to say on the benefits of gratitude?
Gratitude has been shown in studies to have a strong and consistent correlation with increased happiness, and it even helps people to improve their health. Much research has been carried out, for example by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. For example, they carried out a study where participants wrote a few sentences per week, with different groups focusing on different types of sentence. One group focused on things from the week that had made them feel grateful, another wrote about things that had irritated them, and a third wrote non-specifically about events that had affected them, whether positive or negative. The first group, who focused on gratitude, not only became more upbeat about their lives but also exercised more and needed less visits to doctors!
So the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal are pretty clear. But we’re the kind of people who like to do things with a bit of pizazz, am I right? The idea of keeping to a regimen of humdrum journaling seems a bit dull to us, yes? So we’re choosing to tart it up a bit, by writing odes. Which brings us to our next (rhetorical) question:
What is an Ode?
At the most generalised level, an ode is a poem with a formal structure that expresses praise for something in lofty tones.
There are various forms you could choose, or you could invent your own, but there are certain traditions which provide some excellent food for thought. Generally, in an ode the structure of the verse (or stanza) will not be too simplistic, either in terms of its rhyming or metrical arrangement, but the counterpart to this complexity is that exactly the same arrangement will be used in the next stanza. Hence ‘formal’. There may also be a pattern that plays out over the stanzas, a common one being the triad. This is known as a Pindaric Ode. The tradition is that the structures of the first two stanzas are identical, but the third introduces a variation to that structure, and then you get another two going back to that orignal structure, and then the sixth has exactly the same variation that the third had, and so it goes on, reiterating that pattern. The variation in the the third helps to define the repeating structure of three stanzas., and so it serves a purpose, but everything about the Pindaric structure should have some kind of symmetry, so the same variation has to occur i the 6th, 9th, and so on. If you’re only writing three stanzas in total though for an ode, it no longer makes sense to introduce variation in the third, because you won’t be able to repeat that pattern, and it would just be randomness for no reason. The idea is that the perspective changes from stanza to stanza, with the first one offering up some relatively simple praise for the thing in question, the second coming at it from another perspective that might perhaps introduce some contrary points of view, but then the third either producing a new synthesis or else finding a reason to bat off that other point of view and go back with renewed resolve and justification to the original assertion.
Sometimes, you might find your thoughts about something following this type of course naturally: you feel grateful about something, then other thoughts crop up that bring in a different perspective, but then you rise to the challenge and like a protagonist in a film, you triumph over the change of fortune and end up even happier than you were in the first place. If you do find yourself following that type of train of thought – take note of it: it might be the perfect subject for a three stanza ode.
Alternatively, you might come up with a great opening stanza full of gushing praise for something you like, but then feel unsure of where to take it from there to extend the poem. Here, the form comes to the rescue. You could deliberately – artificially you could say – produce the other two stanzas based on a deliberate choice of some contrary perspective followed by a resolution or revelation. You may well, in the process, cover ground you feel just as sincere about as your initial gushing, but which wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to you. So don’t be frightened of form.
But don’t feel imprisoned by it either. It’s not a law. There may be aspects of form that you want to drop, just as I have launched straight into The Glory of Glad without bothering to write an introduction. Introductions have a bit of an optional feel to them, like they’re not really important, or they’re just a bit of fleshing out for the sake of it ‘cause everyone knows you have to have one. Right now, I can’t be doing with it. Either it’s worth saying or it isn’t. So, this is not an introduction, OK? Skip this bit and you’ve missed key features of the main thread of the thing.
A third thing Science is now telling us is that the Placebo Effect, within certain limits, is definitely real. If a doctor gives you a pill for something, there’s a pretty good chance it may help in some way even if the pill itself has no inherent chemical effect. The Placebo Effect is very strong where the results are under the influence of the body’s own pharmacopoeia of pain-relievers, relaxants, pleasure-inducers, mood raisers and so on, which makes sense when you recall this is about the power of belief. What’s more, the doctor’s manner is an important aspect, as shown by a Stanford University study entitled Harnessing the placebo effect: Exploring the influence of physician characteristics on placebo response. What this tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that the spin you put on a thing is important, and poetry is all about spin. Write about one of your gratitude-inducers in lofty, expansive terms, and you put a spin on it that amplifies its power for good. So, for example, you might write about a place you like to visit as if it has a kind of magical power, and then because of the spin you’ve put on it with your ode, it kind of does!
It’s very much a reframing exercise. I learnt about the power of this while scrapbooking, something I started doing with our children. But I soon found I was doing it just as much for me as for them! You select occasions to write about, choosing the most fun things. Then you select the most fund aspects of those occasions. And your write about them in a fun way, throwing in lots of exclamation marks! Add some fun drawings! Scraps of this and that as mementos! Before long you’ve got a whole book of the stuff, and as you read back through it you’re thinking: ‘my goodness, we have a great time, don’t we?!’ As such, a scrap-book basically is a gratitude journal, but a much more enjoyable one. You’ll get very funny looks from the family though if, as an adult, you start your own scrap book about things that didn’t even involve the children, places you went by yourself, and so on. So you have to do something more grown-up, something with a bit more gravitas, a less facetious tone and more sophisticated use of words…and a journal of odes is just the ticket! (he wrote, facetiously.)
A couple of disclaimers. 1) This is not about achieving accolades of literary greatness from others. You’re not looking for criticism, however ‘constructive’. It’s not about being the next poet laureate. It’s just about feeling good. 2) Although the Glory of Glad poses as an example of the self-help genre, it’s not really, and it’s not written by a guru. If someone was to suggest that sprucing up your kitchen with a new decorative scheme might give you a mood boost, and then shared a few tips on how you might go about that, you wouldn’t instantly bow at their feet and consider them a great sage. That’s no different to what I’m doing here. I’m suggesting you use the Ode to spruce of the decorative scheme of the landscape of narratives you tell yourself about your life. We inhabit that landscape just as much as we inhabit a kitchen. In fact, you could write an ode to your kitchen, come to think of it, if you felt so inclined.