As we express our gratitude, we must never forget
that the highest appreciation is not to utter words,
but to live by them.
John F. Kennedy
Gratitude is a gift that keeps on giving. To cultivate a grateful heart is to give our lives increasing grace and joy. When we express our gratitude toward others, we are offering them gifts of acknowledgment and encouragement. At times, gratitude comes naturally and spontaneously, bringing a greater sense of health, connectedness and joy. At other times, gratitude may feel like a chore or take considerable effort to practice. Yet it is the daily practice, no matter what kind of day we have, that becomes the gift that keeps on giving. It is the cultivation of the habit of gratitude that I want to reflect upon with you this month.
Definitions of “gratitude” generally include:
- an attitude or feeling of appreciation for what we currently have
- a warm or deep appreciation for our benefactors
- a general disposition to express gratefulness by giving thanks
To be grateful, we must first pay attention to the positive in our lives – not take it for granted or lose sight of it in our pursuit of something we feel we do not currently have. We must learn to pay attention to the fullness in the glass, not the emptiness. Every morning, I see a simple treasure I brought home from a meditation retreat years ago: a calligraphy message reminding me to “Smile, you are alive.” Of course, some days I do not pay attention to this message. The days that I do, a smile is born anew.
Gratitude is a relational practice, and serves to bring us into positive connection with others. Robert Emmons, author of several books on the science of gratitude, points out that, “Gratefulness is a knowing awareness that we are the recipients of goodness.” He highlights two aspects of gratitude that he describes as acknowledgment and recognition. First, we acknowledge that we are the recipients of goodness. Secondly, we recognize that the source of this goodness lies outside of ourselves. We must be willing to both acknowledge the positive in our lives, and to recognize that someone or something outside ourselves has intentionally provided us with the benefit or goodness we enjoy, often at some personal cost. This process makes more visible the web of interconnection in which we are all embedded.
Choosing a Gratitude Attitude
I think gratitude is best defined as an attitude or perspective on life. Gratitude is a choice, a way we choose to see and respond to whatever comes our way. Gratitude doesn’t depend upon circumstances, genetic wiring or something that we have no control over. When things go well, gratitude enables us to savor things going well. When things go poorly, gratitude enables us to remember the good that remains, to move through the difficult parts, and to recognize that they are temporary.
We foster an attitude of gratitude when we recognize and acknowledge that our opportunities are built upon the efforts and intentions of those who have gone before us: our parents, our teachers, activists who fought for the rights we enjoy, those who have defended our freedom and integrity. We act from an attitude of gratitude when we give thanks to and for those we are indebted to, and also when we pass along the gifts of our benefactors to others.
What gets in the way of gratitude?
- A sense of entitlement can block the recognition that other people contribute significantly to the good things that happen to us.
- Becoming so focused on what we are striving for can keep us from noticing what we already have.
- Increasing material comfort can lead to higher expectations of material need, greater entitlement, and more striving after material success. It goes with the territory, and this cycle can make it more difficult to spend the time to acknowledge where things come from and the people to whom one is indebted.
What gets in the way of gratitude for you?
How do we teach ourselves, and our children, to be more grateful – to truly experience more gratitude? There are tried and true, concrete methods that have been powerful through the generations:
- The etiquette of saying thank you is an ever-present reminder of our gratitude. Though it may have become rote, it can also be an awakening tool.
- Writing thank you notes to relatives and teachers, specifically naming our appreciation of what they have given us.
- Expressing thanks before eating a meal, with or without a religious tradition, is a powerful tool for pausing to reflect on all we are grateful for. More specifically, being mindful of all those who have contributed to our meal – including growing, harvesting, distributing, buying and preparing the food – is a wonderful reminder of our interdependence.
- Ceremonies that are focused on showing appreciation for those whose efforts have supported and furthered a cause, organization, or group of people.
In the recent research on gratitude, people have been asked to keep gratitude journals on a regular, daily basis (see the Action on Purpose Challenge below). The people in comparison groups were asked to chronicle their daily hassles or to reflect on ways they were better off than others. Findings indicate that adults who keep gratitude journals “exercise more regularly, report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future.” Emmons, in Thanks!) I have utilized gratitude journals with many of my clients with great results. I find that setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude helps people recognize the gifts associated with mundane or ordinary events, as well as more momentous ones. This helps us savor the good that we see and provides the potential to interweave and thread together a sustainable life theme of gratefulness.
What enhances the practice of gratitude is to be very specific about what we are grateful for and to whom we are indebted. We can increase the power and levity of our practice by writing this down, and by giving our thanks out loud. As we cultivate our gratitude practice, more and more of our actions and responses will spring from a grateful heart.
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.
~ Action On Purpose Challenge ~
Keeping a Gratitude Journal
- Get a notebook or journal for just this purpose.
- Select a regular time each day for this practice. It need only be a few minutes. Try making this a part of your getting-ready-for-bed routine, or perhaps just before your evening meal.
- Write down five things that inspired gratitude in you during the past day.
- Take a few moments to reflect on each item as a gift. Be specific about who gave the gift, and what effort it took.
- Find opportunities each day to express your gratitude out loud.
- Keep up this daily practice for at least a month, and then evaluate.