The Gratitude Factor: Enhancing Your Life through Grateful Living

Shelton, Charles M.
Hidden Spring, USA, 2010
ISBN 978-1-058768-063-2
166 pages

“This is a ‘must read’! You really must get hold of a copy!” This was the one-line, e-mailed review of this book which came from a Jesuit in America. It would be difficult to find a more concise and enthusiastic recommendation for a book written by a Jesuit Professor of Psychology! The difficulty was that, having obtained a copy, it then took a considerable amount of time to read The Gratitude Factor, for all that its pages are comparatively few.

That comment is not intended to be negative. In fact The Gratitude Factor is so well written and thought provoking that it is not something that can be read within one or two sessions. I found that I repeatedly opened its pages and, after a very short time, realised that I was sitting with the book open on my lap and my thoughts miles away in pursuit of the thoughts generated by the paragraphs I had just finished. No problem, I thought. I’ll have plenty of time when I go on Retreat. Hah! Shelton’s questions within the varied sections provoked exactly the sort of self-examination intended on a Retreat and for which the ‘holiday with the Lord’ provides.

The Gratitude Factor describes itself as a ‘groundbreaking guide to gratitude that helps readers to reflect on the role of gratitude in their lives and to cultivate this virtue for their own benefit’. It continues, adding that it will ‘benefit individual readers as well as serve as a resource for spiritual direction workshops, spiritual formation courses or ministry formation programs’. Indeed, merely leafing through its pages reveals a selection of valuable charts, diagrams and writing space for personal reflections so that each chapter is also an opportunity for deliberation and discernment.  

The book’s opening pages are extremely positive. Shelton creates the impression of being someone who is both happy and grateful. Some of his sources of gratitude arise directly from his being a Jesuit priest and others, as a result of his insights earned through practising psychology and through deep and meaningful relationships.

Shelton spends the first chapter describing why gratitude is so important to human existence, beginning with the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers and the celebration of Thanksgiving, through its value in building community, fighting negativity, relieving stress, limiting selfishness etc. The Gratitude Factor is aimed at an American readership and hence its first chapter, to non-Americans, might appear somewhat excessive in extolling virtues which, by the way, are not exclusive to the United States. The rest of the book, however, is independent of nationality and has a universally applicable message. It is beautifully researched, easy to read and a valuable asset, not only to those involved with counselling and spiritual direction, but also for personal reflection.

The subtitle of the book is ‘Enhancing Your Life through Grateful Living’. It is sad that, in today’s world, it is sometimes necessary to highlight reasons why we should be grateful. Shelton leads the reader through an examen intended to start the ball rolling, highlighting the occasions and places which have impacted positively on life and the people whose presence at one time or another have also been a blessing.

Shelton’s chapter Exploring Gratitude is an interesting examination of obstacles to being grateful: feelings of entitlement, victimhood, rugged individualism etc. Just as he describes nine obstacles, so also he suggests nine strategies which can stimulate feelings of thankfulness and appreciation. He cites some appropriate and easy-to-understand examples when individuals experienced gratitude for one reason or another and encourages the reader to think of parallel occasions in his or her own life and to write them down in the spaces provided throughout the book.

From exploring obstacles to gratitude and then strategies for its experience, The Gratitude Factor continues by looking at ways in which gratitude is not only recognised: it is also helped to grow. Shelton uses a range of case histories to illustrate ways in which various individuals moved forwards, perhaps from negativity, towards a bright, beautiful and grateful new life. Perhaps a pivotal sentence in this blossoming concerns identity, which Shelton describes as ‘the receptacle of gratitude’, which we increasingly acquire as we address the question ‘Who am I? In other words, as identity and self-discovery are both dynamic entities, so also, gratitude is in a continual and related condition of waxing and waning according to our openness and willingness to embrace the positive even in the midst of negativity. Humility, a sensitive conscience and a capacity for redemption might not be today’s most popular qualities, but they are intrinsic to our personal development and our happiness.

Shelton is nothing if not realistic. There is a quasi-gratitude which masquerades as the real thing but, is, as someone remarked, “the smile which plays on the lips but never reaches the eyes”. “Quasi-gratitude depends on situations and intentions that usually point neither strongly toward nor strongly away from the good...” Basically, it is manipulative, self-serving and shallow. On the other hand, “Harmful gratitude lacks a moral sense because it is associated in some way with harmful intent...” It is hurtful, deviant or downright malignant in nature. By looking at the imitation as well as the genuine, The Gratitude Factor provides a useful contrast between the impoverished and the enriched so that the reader is able to clearly distinguish between the two forms of gratitude.

Human beings learn from each other. We all have our role models in life. If we are to learn gratitude, we have no better example than Jesus, whom Shelton describes as ‘God’s gratitude’. As Christians, we can make gratitude our way of life through our good deeds, but also through the right use of our memories, perceptions, openness, suffering and, always, through our willingness to be empty vessels, waiting to be filled with God’s grace. Each of us is ‘an example of God’s handiwork’ – and if that is not a cause for gratitude, what is?

The Gratitude Factor is an excellent book. Shelton’s language throughout is honest, uncomplicated, practical and sincere. He might be a grateful person, but he is not patronising in his ability to write about a quality which some people might feel to be sadly lacking in their lives. It is valuable for personal reflection both in private and, perhaps, in conjunction with spiritual direction or counselling. His experience as a counsellor and as a university professor is evident in the writing, but, more importantly, Shelton the priest permeates this book. As he says, “As we discover and celebrate our goodness as Jesus’ brothers and sisters, we are more able to gift others with this goodness.  Gift, goodness, celebration, gratitude: these lie at the heart of what it means to live the Christian life – following and becoming him.