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Changing Type A Behavior: Happy Memories, A Smile, and a Prayer of Thanksgiving

December 31, 2013

Sometimes, it’s necessary just to state the obvious: thinking about pleasant things helps us feel pleasant; thinking about peaceful things helps us feel peaceful; and thinking about stressful things can make us feel stressful. And all these endless variety of thoughts have a way of shaping not only our feelings, but also our actions, sometimes directly such as when we decide to eat this or look at that and at other times indirectly such as when our actions are clothed in gentleness and calmness or roughness and agitation. Underlying the Type A behavioral pattern are Type-A thoughts about limited time, about goals that have to be met, and about others getting in our way that can make us impulsive and short-fused.

In the last post, I wrote about the potential problems and opportunities presented by self-criticizing thoughts.  In this post, I would like to focus on the beneficial impact of positive thoughts such as recalling a moment of happiness and contentment. In their work, Reducing Type A Behavior, authors Bracke and Thoresen note that the deliberate cultivation of happy memories can help calm the anxiety, restlessness, and intensity that accompany so much of Type A behavior. They even advise thinking of three happy events, such as a pleasant day with friends in a park, the birth of a child, or a family gathering, and simultaneously smiling to oneself. Both the thoughts and the act of smiling in turn shape one’s disposition.

The recollection of happy memories or good times immediately leads to gratitude.  Gratitude warms the heart, slows the mind, and reduces unwanted behavior patterns.  The holy fathers recognized the invaluable spiritual benefit derived from giving thanks.  Saint John Chrysostom wrote, “Behold another consolation, a medicine that heals grief, distress, and everything painful.  And what is this? Prayer. Thanksgiving in all things.  And so He wills that our prayers should not simply be requests, but thanksgiving to God for what we have.  For how should one ask for future things who is not thankful for the past?” (Homily 15 on Philippians 4:4-7)  In another homily, Saint John Chrysostom exhorts the faithful to be mindful of the great spiritual value of thanksgiving, “Let us give thanks to God continually. For, it is outrageous that when we enjoy His blessings to us in deed every single day, we do not acknowledge the favor with so much as a word; and this, when the acknowledgment confers great benefit on us. He does not need anything of ours, but we stand in need of all things from Him.  In point of fact, thanksgiving adds nothing to Him, but it brings us closer to Him. For if, when we recall the benefactions of men, we are the more warmed by affection for them; much more, when we continually bring to mind the benefits of the Master towards us, shall we be more earnest with regard to His commandments.  For this cause Paul also said, Be thankful.  For the best preservative of any benefaction is the remembrance of the benefaction, and a continual thanksgiving for it”(Homily 25 on St. Matthew, 3, PG 57.331).

The difference between the cognitive technique and the patristic counsel is that we do not stop with the pleasant feeling, leading to calmer actions, but we moreover draw near unto God and God draws near unto us. Saint John Chrysostom moreover advises not just thinking gratefully about happy times, but also speaking about them to God. In a sense, the thoughts become flesh by becoming words. It’s more than being calmer, less anxious, and less exacting. It’s about being blessed and becoming a blessing.  The fathers would suggest in addition to thinking about our own happy moments, to think further about blessed moments in scripture—such as the joy of the people hearing the sermon on the Mount, the gratitude of those who were healed, and the rejoicing among those who saw dead raised—and allowing that joy, that gratitude, and that rejoicing to become our own. Saint John Chrysostom, again, writes that when someone’s heart is warmed with the remembrance of the Saints, that person is given the wherewithal “to dissolve the stubbornness of wrath and to soften what is harsh and callous.” In place of remembrance of wrongs (or in the case of Type A behavior, the remembrance others’ mistakes), one need only remember our gentle Savior and a change will follow in thought, word, and deed. The Saint beautifully describes the change that can take place: “If any one has become cold, let him dissolve the frost. For the remembrance of injuries is truly frost and ice. But let us invoke the Sun of Righteousness, let us entreat Him to send His beams upon us, and there will no longer be thick ice, but water to drink. If the fire of the Sun of Righteousness has touched our souls, it will leave nothing frozen, nothing hard, nothing burning, nothing unfruitful. It will bring out all things ripe, all things sweet, all things abounding with much pleasure. If we love one another, that beam also will come” (Homily 4 on 1 Thessalonians).

So yes, let us recall happy memories with a soft smile on our face, but let’s immediately follow that recollection with gratitude to God who allowed us to have that foretaste of the unending happiness to come. Let’s turn that memory into a prayer and let’s express our gratitude not only with our thoughts, but also with our words. Let’s recall the joys of the glad tidings of salvation woven throughout the Scriptures and give thanks for them, turning that thanksgiving into prayer as well. Such an activity has the power to ward off bad thoughts and to soften harsh Type A responses, while filling the heart with warmth and light that has as its source a newly found closeness to God who sustains us, loves us, and gives us so very much.

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