“Gratitude is a defiance of sorts, the defiance of kindness in the face of anger, of connection in the face of division and of hope in the face of fear. Gratefulness does not acquiesce to evil – it resists evil. That resistance is not that of force or direct confrontation. Gratitude undoes evil by tunneling under its foundations of anger, resentment and greed. Thus, gratitude strengthens our character and moral resolve, giving each of us the possibility of living peaceably and justly.” Diana Butler Bass, Grateful
Before you go to sleep at night you often have thoughts about your day. How many of those thoughts are about what went wrong, what irritated you, or the thing you wish you had not said? Our brains are wired to pay attention to the negative. So, we always feel like we have to be on alert. We put up our defenses. Our brains have become Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good. We need to rewire our brains to learn to savor the good.
When I started a daily gratitude practice with a friend in 2019, it was really hard to come up with three things I was grateful for. Even after doing the practice for a couple of months, I really struggled to come up with ideas of what I was grateful for. I kept thinking what I was grateful for wasn’t good enough. It had to be something more.
It is hard to get started to feel grateful, because we take so many things for granted. Gratitude is like a muscle we need to build up, just like mindfulness. First, we have to be mindful enough to see what we can be grateful for. And then we have to take the time to savor it and just really appreciate it.
“Gratitude is like a flashlight. It lights up what is already there. You don’t necessarily have anything more or different, but suddenly you can actually see what is. And because you can see, you no longer take it for granted.” Attitudes of Gratitude, M. J. Ryan
We often think gratitude is dependent on something out there. But gratitude welcomes what we are given. It doesn’t know any stories about how it should have been. It is not dependent on what you have. Gratitude takes us by surprise. It arrives out of nowhere. After having a headache for a couple of weeks, I was really grateful to have a non-headache. When I am out walking and bother to take a look as the sun shining through the trees, I am grateful for the beauty that I often ignore.
If I go to a Thanksgiving dinner and have this picture in my mind of how wonderful it is going to be with everyone getting along and feeling connected to everyone, I might not have gratitude for the actual experience. I have all these ideas of how it should be that are not being met. If I can let go of those and say I am going to be grateful for whatever happens, any connection, any pleasant thing; then I can feel gratitude.
Gratitude is really dependent on your heart. You can even find gratitude for the sorrows in your life, the hand you have been dealt. Sometimes it is through the hardest things that your heart learns its most important lesson. Some people in the poorest countries in the world are grateful for what they have. They don’t know what they don’t have. They are not missing it.
Take a moment to look at what’s satisfied you in the past week. What really makes you feel nourished? It could be big things, or it could be little things. You can savor the little things just as much as you can savor the big things like winning the lottery.
What gets in the way of gratitude?
It is usually resentment and bitterness that comes from life not being how we want it to be. When the world doesn’t fit our stories, we become contracted and we can’t see the positive things that we could be grateful for. The negative sticks in our mind like velcro, so that we just keep focusing on the bad things that happen. When we think about what happened during the day, what sticks out in our mind is the thing we said that we wish we hadn’t, or how someone insulted or disrespected us. We can’t feel grateful when we are feeling negative.
Sometimes we just really don’t feel grateful. Pretending to feel grateful when you don’t is inauthentic. It will just make you feel like a bad person because you should feel grateful, but you don’t. Trying doesn’t work, it often backfires. All you can do is to accept what is. When you are trying, you are tensing up, holding on to your idea of what should be: “I should be grateful.” To feel grateful, we have to let go of our expectations and our stories of how things should be. When we are lost in expectations and stories, we can be “Knee deep in a river and drowning of thirst.” We have all this good in our lives and we don’t even see it.
How do we cultivate gratitude?
Begin by cultivating mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us regulate our emotions, steady our attention and helps us to let go. So, we can see the things that are happening that are good for us. Things we have overlooked in the past. We can be present for our own body, being mindful of the fact that I can see, walk, hear, taste and smell. We often take that for granted. We can be present for the person in front of us and be grateful for them even if they are not perfect. We can be present for the life we have been given and notice every moment. Too many of us live our lives in the past or in the future. We miss out on being alive in the present moment. When we are present for life, we see a lot more that we can be grateful for.
“Instead of saying time to dress rehearse disaster, they say time to practice gratitude.” Brene Brown
There are five steps to making gratitude your attitude.
- NOTICE what you are feeling whether you feel gratitude or not. Being aware of your feelings increases mindfulness which fertilizes the soil of gratitude. Notice if the sky is blue, notice the leaves on the trees. When you are noticing it may not be all pleasant.
- ALLOW what you are feeling at the moment. Don’t try to make yourself feel what you think you should feel. Understand that occasional complaints and negativity is normal. Don’t tell yourself you should feel grateful. Just say, this is where I am at right now. This is where I am at, and this is where I have to start from.
- NURTURE yourself. Thank yourself for being aware of your current feelings. It is probably a step above where you were in the past when those feelings were under the radar and ruling your life. You can thank yourself for taking the time to pay attention to your feelings and know what they are so you can move forward and process the feelings you need to process. Then talk to yourself as you would talk to a best friend. “Wow, that is really hard. Maybe next time you could try this.” Instead letting your inner critic beat you up.
- ACT in ways that lift your mood, a better mood makes gratitude possible. Play your favorite music, dance, call someone and tell them how much you appreciate them, do a good deed, do mouth yoga (smile). We can’t feel grateful when we are feeling very negative. So, we may have to push ourselves to take some action that will lift our mood.
- THINK about all the things in your life you can be grateful for from your non-toothache to a beautiful sunset to spending time with those you love.
It might seem paradoxical to think about things you’re grateful for when you are in a negative or stressful situation. Remember, people who practice gratitude: have an improved ability to cope, are more likely to take active steps, look for the silver lining, are more likely to reach out for support, regulate negative emotions more skillfully, and manage impatient urges. In other words, those times when gratitude doesn’t come as naturally to us might be exactly when we need it most.
Research shows the impact gratitude can have on our lives. In one study, the gratitude group may have been better at reframing when viewing the negative pictures. Showing that practicing gratitude may provide you with the skills to reframe negative so your problems are not looked upon as so negative.
Another research study shows that gratitude may help us to delay gratification. Participants who had written about gratitude were more likely to pick the larger rewards that they had to wait longer for than the participants in the happy or neutral groups. Gratitude seems to help us manage our impatient urges.
That is why we need to practice gratitude, being aware and amazed by life, nature, and love every day. If we have not developed an attitude of gratitude, it is not going to be there when we most need it to lift us out of a negative mood. We can all become more grateful human beings.
“Gratitude is an emotion that reflects our deep appreciation for what we value, what brings meaning to our lives, and what makes us feel connected to ourselves and others. While gratitude is an emotion, if we want to experience its full power, we must also make it a practice.” Brene Brown