Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Neuroscience of Thanks

The UK's Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, is probably our favorite presenter on BBC Radio's "Thought for the Day" (Sorry, Giles Fraser, you would be a close second). Today Lord Sacks landed a theory squarely in the sweet spot between faith and science: He offered a plausible explanation for why expressing gratitude is good for you.

Thankfulness is one of the pillars of positive psychology and the happiness movement. Keeping a gratitude journal, in which you list a few things that you appreciate in each day, for example, has been shown by scientific studies of children and adults to improve positive outlook. Being thankful helps bolster happiness, a positive work and classroom environment, and assuages depression.

Expressing appreciation has also been a pillar of religions over the eons. Think of the psalms attributed to David, for example, or the classical hymns of thanksgiving (too often typecast and just used at Harvest or Thanksgiving Services). My Dear Husband points out that "Eucharist" comes from the Greek word for "thanks."

Sacks' insight about why gratitude makes your outlook more sunny was inspired by BBC TV's recent Horizon Show on the subject, "The Truth About Personality."  On the show, reporter Michael Moseley, a self-confessed pessimist, follows instruction from leading psychologists on ways to "worry less and become more of an optimist." The two techniques they lead Moseley through over two months are Mindfulness meditation and cognitive bias modification.

It was primarily the latter practice that was involved in Sacks' theory. Cognitive bias modification (CBM) starts with the premise that some people's brains are predisposed to pay inordinate attention to the negative. They inevitably see the glass as half empty--they worry excessively about potential hazards and pitfalls. They read negative, ominous messages into the innocuous. A storm cloud follows them around (like cartoonist Al Capp's jinx, Joe Btfsplk, shown here --->)

CBM subtly changes this negative-bias brain-setting through computer games that increase sensitivity to positive signals. The games might entail picking out a positive image, such as one smiling face in a field of frowns, for example. (You can try it here: Although there's not yet vast data to support CBM,  some evidence suggests it may be helpful in treating alcoholism, paindepression, recurrence of depression, and social anxiety, for example.

Sacks proposes that expressing gratitude works in the same way. It re-tunes our brains to focus on the good things in everyday life, increasing the odds that we'll notice positives more and negatives less.

This feeds my growing suspicion that where spiritual practices are beneficial to people's lives, there's some very good psychology involved, ancient magic and religious practice notwithstanding.

Sacks was impressed by statistics showing optimists live, on average, 7 years longer than pessimists. The fact that techniques like Mindfulness and cognitive bias modification can nudge people towards a sunnier disposition show this is not genetically determined from birth--at least not completely in all people. And, connecting the dots, or in this case the population studies with the disposition modification experiments, buying longevity through such practices seems a reasonable conjecture. It's certainly a testable hypothesis

But it hasn't been directly tested yet, much less scientifically proven. So if its really more years in life you're after, the evidence is much stronger for quitting smoking, avoiding obesity, eating healthily, and exercising daily.  What the studies say more strongly is Mindfulness, and other practices that raise optimism can at least put more life in your years, or at least happier life in your years -- "Stress less; celebrate more," as Sacks said. "Be surprised by joy."

 So, go on then, make your day: If you're a person of faith, count your blessings and thank God. If you're not religious,  just hone your gratitude attitude -- stop and smell the roses; tell someone you appreciate their hard work; start a gratitude journal; send a thank-you note or pay a visit to someone who positively influenced your life.

I end with a pictorial gratitude-journal entry (Father and son photo is courtesy of Lisa Morris-Moxham; Miracle Babe photo is courtesy of Char and Pete Herb; Sam 'n Jamie Jumpin' Jam and Camelia photos are by C. Kozlowski; Painting is Maxfield Parrish's, The Lantern Bearers, from FB "I Require Art" postings; other photographs by C. Kozlowski; Starry night photo from FB by unknown artist):

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Two Sisters, Two Countries, Two Rural Churches

I started this blog entry with the story of my growing despair for my rural English church. But today my sister Fran sent me a wonderful response, describing why her rural American church, set in Thomas Jefferson's rolling foothills of Virginia, is increasingly feeling like a home for her. So I've amended this blog entry to include Fran's love letter, creating a more hopeful tale of two country churches.

Can this Rural Parish be Saved?

Basically, if you rub two Anglicans together, you can't start a fire, but you could well ignite at least three new religions.  As an official national Church, the CofE is officially obliged to be expansive and accepting of a wide range of flavors of faith -- at least broadly, globally, theoretically. A National Church needs to be a Big Tent, I was told. This should mean there's a spiritual home for everyone. But from the local real-world perspective, it's not working, not here, not now. My local church, like the Church in many benefices in England is dying, person by person, parish by parish, dwindling congregation by dwindling congregation.

I claim this is only the personal, somewhat quirky, view of an expat American -- and one who was enamoured of her former (United Methodist) church. Adding to the quirkiness of my background is that I migrated from a populous community to a tiny rural village in England. In suburban Maryland there were numerous churches of several denominations to choose from within a mile of my home; if I drove a few miles, I could have my choice of dozens of different churches. But now there's just one CoE church within a mile of my UK home. If I'm willing to drive a few miles, I have my choice of: Roman Catholic, URC, Methodist, Society of Friends, or an independent chapel, St Cleer's.

My village church is ancient and lovely. But the clergy (a vicar and a curate, with several retired priests and some lay readers brought in to take services) serve seven churches (not to mention one non-church venue, The Angel) within the benefice, and, largely don't have time to get to know or respond to each congregation individually. By and large, we all get the same clergy, almost all with a narrow (conservative evangelical) view of Christian faith, the same sermons, the same style of worship. I've seen no evidence that any of them are progressive or keen to dig deeply into meanings of faith today. No signs of ongoing growth through personal reading and study, or innovation in their approach to discussing, encouraging, or cultivating mature faith in others. The curate is the one exception. She actually does seem to be interested in exploring the heart of faith in new ways. Parishioners are supposed to be passive, brainless bumps on the pew; like it or lump it. Meanwhile, the church continues its inexorable decline.

Where I lived in America,  I picked a church where I thought my young son would find friends. It proved to be a great choice--growing, diverse, varied, challenging, thoughtful, serving lots of different people in different ways. But here... I don't feel at home in church, and I'm not the only one. One church in the benefice has already closed. Will ours be next? It's extremely hard to get people interested in what our local leader, the church warden, sees as the critical issue: doing the many jobs that must be handled by lay volunteers just to keep the doors open.

What's the problem? In my opinion, it's that no one finds what they want in a church like this. Yes, Anglicans are a diverse and cranky lot. But here, here especially, it's hopeless: Drive-by preaching -- which is pretty much the extent of clerical involvement in our village church -- does little to support, much less encourage life and new growth in a church that would be relevant to people's lives today. The status quo barely keeps a service on the schedule and a few coins dropping into the plate on three Sunday mornings a month.

For the elderly who grew up attending a traditional CofE service every Sunday, this might at least be emotionally satisfying. They, possibly, are among the people who have an inner rosetta stone that translates the ancient vocabulary of church liturgy into emotional operators that stabilize and calm their interior landcapes. I don't in any way discount these people or their needs.

But sadly, the more elderly elders have served their years as church warden or organist or PCC members. Now they are tired and want others to serve them -- and in the same way the church did over the past century... the same hymns, the same short sermon (content doesn't actually seem to matter much to anyone but me), communion (every Sunday if possible for some, but once a year would be enough for others)... They're quick to say how nice it would be to have more young people involved in the church (i.e. to do the work and keep things going exactly as they have been), but they don't seem to have a clue what this would actually entail, much less the interest or energy to find out.

I've used the Rob Bell line before in describing my feelings about such a church: for me, the clergy bring no THERE there. They might feed the emotional needs of the elderly and others who cherish the old traditions. But I'm lacking their Rosetta stone. The worship, and especially the preaching, does not help me to grow in faith -- and could actually cause people to go backwards in Christian faith sometimes, in my opinion.

I get the feeling the Readers and priests who preach at our church would be astonished to know that a good number of people in the congregation are at least as advanced in faith as they are. Many of us have actually studied the Bible. We've read it through and discussed it. Members of our parish have been military, artistic, intellectual, and community leaders. Our children are molecular biologists and rocket scientists. Some of our numbers have a soulful depth of emotional understanding that far surpasses that of low E.Q. clergy who have led pampered middle class lives sheltered from poverty, deep personal sacrifice, or ravaging losses that would test the faith of Job and everyone else reflective and honest enough to admit it. Thanks to books and the internet, some of the readers among us are quite up-to-date on contemporary theology and other subjects that we dare to hope would be making an appearance in churches today.We may be from a country parish -- but we're not bumpkins!

Why do I continue to put up with meaningless (for me) worship services and unenlightening sermons? At this point it's this: to keep community -- it's how I show my love for the people in my village who like that sort of thing. And because I have seen what a church can be; and, perhaps idiotically and romantically, still have some tiny trace of hope and vision for what it could be.

But as things stand,  I feel that vision won't be realized here, not in my lifetime, not in rural CofE churches, not with the sort of priests the church is turning out and hiring these days. It might be different in the cities, where a concentrated population can support more diversity in churches and people can shop around until they find a corner of the Big Tent that suits them... Here in rural England my little benefice is in its death throes.

Fran's Love Letter: A Rural Church that Works  

Hi Cec. I wish you could come and visit my small country church. It’s plain and simple (but with wonderful acoustics!)--not the grand church that yours is. It's old by our yard stick --but very modern by yours.

Like your church, it’s the center of a community that is spread over some considerable countryside. On an average Sunday we get maybe 30 butts in seats (as we in the transit business would say) and it’s not unusual for 10 or 12 of them to be singing in the choir. On Christmas Eve or Easter there are over 50 people worshiping at the church.

Ours too is largely an older congregation: only two young ladies in school who come with their Mom maybe once a month and get to light the candles when they are there, and one young man who comes with his parents maybe once every two months. But when they are there, there's always a children’s message. They come up and sit on the front steps with the pastor who talks with them about some part of the sermon or the readings that makes it meaningful for them.

Pastor Jane is making a big difference in the church, enriching the lives and the faith of the congregation, and getting those who have in the past come for community to now come to learn and to think new thoughts. She organizes Sunday morning classes that are interesting and challenge the participants; and the women’s group that she started provides a wonderful mix of theology and sisterhood.

While we get the official Presbyterian scriptures to read each week and do what we're supposed to do as a Presbyterian church in good standing, I'm sure that our church would generally be viewed as having a liberal point of view. But there are some who I'm sure are rock solid republicans and there are some who will exclaim a loud "amen" upon occasion, which always startles the rest of the congregation. There are also several people who have some church standing -- they help the pastor with communion and wear some sort of shawl that makes then look official.

Supporting our community and other communities in need is an important part of the church. The church has been home to and has supported a pre-school. It has particularly served low income families in our part of the county for years--continuing a tradition in education that started when the church was formed in the early 1800's and included educating slaves before the civil war. Each month the church contributes a carload of food for the local food pantry. And there are frequent mission trips that members of the congregation participate in -- to Haiti, Central America and SW Virginia, as well as one workday every couple of months with Habitat for Humanity in Charlottesville.

This year's church directory lists 39 families or singles, including the summer intern and our wonderful Jewish pianist! Some folks end up doing more of the work than others. It’s not easy to recruit people to bring flowers, set up communion, be a lay leader or usher on Sunday, to organize the monthly potluck dinner, to send notes to visitors or those in need, to say nothing of the upkeep and maintenance of 200+ year old  building and its surroundings. The call for help on clean-up days gets answered by a few, but somehow it gets done.

I think what really makes our church go is the combination of the spiritual enrichment AND the community, and the freedom to do those things in our own way. There are a few new people who are coming to our church, slowly but surely, when they hear about it or just trip over it driving up Route 29. Some of us are good friends outside of church, but the entire congregation truly cares about each other and they demonstrate that caring in a variety of ways. There is a menu of spiritual offerings that the church offers to those who want to partake in them but nobody is counting who does and who doesn't.

I guess we are just lucky that we don't have to carry the weight of the CofE on our back, and that Pastor Jane was willing to accept the challenge of a small country church that needed some gentle direction and nurturing. Someday I hope you'll come with me -- I sit in the 4th pew from the back on the left center section. There's room for you and your Dear Husband in the pew too.

Love you Cec.