BBC Radio 4:Professor Tina Beattie 29/08/17

Good morning. Last week, I changed my online profile picture, and somebody asked me how I could look so happy in such terrible times. I must confess I chose that photo because it was flattering, not because I looked happy. This morning’s news of catastrophic floods and worsening tension with North Korean missiles launched over Japan feels grim.

This weekend though, I found myself reflecting on what it means to be happy, as I read newspaper interviews with people who have lived to be over a hundred. They’ve all had different lives, but they have one thing in common: an attitude of thankfulness and interest in the world. Joan was born in 1916. She spoke about practising gratitude until it became a habit. She said, ‘When I go to bed, I look back on my day and think, what was the nicest thing that’s happened to me today?’

There’s growing scientific evidence that gratitude has positive health benefits, but as Joan suggests, being thankful has to be practised in order for it to become a habit. This means learning to live in the here and now. It means taking out the earphones, switching off the mobile, and rediscovering the wonder of being alive. G.K. Chesterton wrote that ‘The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.’

To cultivate a sense of wonder and a habit of gratitude is for me to reject the consumerist message that the more we have, the happier we’ll be. It may be a cliché, but I find wisdom in the saying that ‘happiness is not having what you want but wanting what you have.’

Whether or not we profess any religious belief, perhaps gratitude is the truest form of prayer. Pope Francis takes from his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi a joy in living which sees all creatures giving praise to God simply by being themselves. That suggests that of all God’s creatures, only we humans can choose not to pray.

For those of us who do pray, it can seem like presenting a shopping list to the Almighty, but I think the deepest prayer is an expression of being fully alive. In George Herbert’s enigmatic poem, Prayer, he suggests how pervasive and elusive it is. Prayer is ‘The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage’. It is, says Herbert, ‘Heaven in ordinary’.

Those men and women who have lived such long lives have experienced war and bereavement, grief and struggle, but they’ve learned to see heaven in ordinary. That’s something anybody can do simply by being thankful for the gift of life.