Gratitude: Hard to Feel at Times, But Worth the Effort for Good Reason
As part of my meditation teacher training, I am periodically required to give a talk on different facets of one’s inner experience. This month’s talk was on gratitude. After a busy week of work, I did not start out feeling particularly grateful that I had to wake up at 4:00 am to write the talk in advance of my 5:30 am presentation. Nevertheless, having finished the talk just in time, presented it, and even included some calculated risks (playing a folk music song extolling the virtues of gratitude, which was received with mixed reviews, I must say), I can report with certainty that I was grateful for the challenge and opportunity. Here’s what I learned.
From the time we were little, we were asked to thank others when they gave us a gift or extended a nice gesture. We learned to thank automatically and as a social rule. But how many times do we extend thanks for the little good things that happen to us daily? Do we really know how to be grateful?
We have all heard or read many definitions of gratitude but experiencing gratitude at its core requires a conscious effort. How many times do we say 'thank you' without taking a moment to actually feel thankful?
What is gratitude, exactly?
Gratitude is a conscious, positive emotion one can express when feeling thankful for something, whether tangible or intangible.
Gratitude is also a choice. The irony of how ungrateful I was when I started writing that talk—about being grateful—was not lost on me. But in the end, ungratefulness is as much a choice as gratefulness.
Author Alphonse Karr states it this way: We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.
In a world where we are culturally conditioned to believe that it’s all about striving, gratitude can be a balm to our souls. This anonymous quote says it all: Gratitude turns what we have into enough.
When we stop our yearning to consider what we are grateful for, we make things easier. It takes a lot more energy to long for something, never mind the angst that so often accompanies that longing—the continual disappointment that the longed-for thing is not here—than it does to appreciate what we already have. Once we have established our gratitude practice, and thereby reoriented ourselves to the things and people we are grateful for, it’s like having night-vision gratitude goggles. The practice makes the good stuff pop up from the background with more clarity, more easily.
What are the benefits of gratitude?
A regular gratitude practice literally rewires our brains, reorienting us toward that suite of what are called “prosocial” emotions such as compassion and empathy, making them more accessible. [These emotions are called “pro-social” as they form the social glue that holds us more in community with others.]. These emotions not only feel good for us, but when we act upon them—as in sharing our gratitude, compassion, or empathy—they have positive effects on others. A win-win!
People who practice gratitude have more brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the area associated with learning and decision-making. This brain activity persisted a month later, suggesting that gratitude has long-lasting effects, making our thinking clearer and decisions more on-point.
Gratitude counters the impacts of depression, boosts our optimism, and can actually improve our health.
Gratitude can make us feel good. It can also be transformative.
In the book, 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life, author John Kralik was down and out: his small law firm was failing; he was struggling through a painful second divorce; he was 40 pounds overweight; his girlfriend had just broken up with him; and overall, his biggest aspirations—including hopes of upholding idealistic legal principles and of becoming a judge--seemed to have slipped beyond his reach.
Then, during a walk in the hills on New Year's Day, John was struck by the belief that his life might become at least tolerable if, instead of focusing on what he didn't have, he could find some way to be grateful for what he had.
Inspired by a simple thank-you note, John imagined that he might find a way to feel grateful by writing thank-you notes. To keep himself going, he set himself a goal--come what may--of writing 365 thank-you notes in the coming year.
He began to handwrite thank you’s—for gifts or kindnesses he'd received from loved ones and coworkers, from past business associates and current foes, from college friends and doctors and store clerks and handymen and neighbors, and anyone, really, who'd done him a good turn, however large or small.
Immediately after he'd sent his very first notes, significant and surprising benefits began to come John's way--from financial gain to true friendship, from weight loss to inner peace. While John wrote his notes, the economy collapsed, the bank across the street from his office failed, but in being consistently grateful, John's whole life turned around.
What Gets In The Way of Gratitude? What Makes it Harder to Cultivate?
In my experience, gratitude is not always easy to come by.
When I am tired or pessimistic—just when a bit of gratitude might be the ticket—I am less likely to see the world through grateful eyes. I see this, too, in the world, as we all cope with what I call “long covid without covid,” that sense of just...being...tired, that lots of people, including me, just that much harder to see the good in things.
Other obstacles to gratitude include our tendency to compare ourselves—often negatively—to others as well as our tendency to, well, judge everything—again, often negatively.
In addition, our feelings are often based on the belief that there is only a limited amount of goodness to go around and, therefore, when something good happens to another, there is less left for us, and therefore how can we feel grateful? Although this argument has no rational foundation, it is surprisingly persistent.
How can we invite more gratitude into our lives?
It is important to remember that we cannot make ourselves feel grateful. Try that with your children and see where it gets you. We can, however, set the intention to be more open to gratitude and to cultivate it through repeated and patient practice. Here’s how:
Take in the good in your own life. Start with small things such as your beautiful teacup or the view outside your window, and expand to big things such as your health or your friends and family. As the poet, Mark Nepo says: The key to knowing gratitude is being easily pleased.
Keep a gratitude journal. Writing down what we notice about ourselves or in our lives builds our gratitude "muscle."
Or, as John Kralik did, write thank you notes to those in your life you are grateful for and why you think so. This takes the practice from personal to interpersonal and can amplify gratitude’s effects.
If finding your way to gratitude is grinding you down, I can help!
Don't forget to ping me with any questions about making performance more frictionless. I'd love to have a crack!!
I am sharing some pre-publication snippets of my forthcoming book When Grit Is Not Enough onLinkedIn. November 15, 2022, is publication day!! If you are interested in pre-ordering, or receiving a sample chapter, drop me an email!
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