Gratitude is such a rich and multifaceted subject. Scientists and academic researchers have spent a lot of money searching for answers as to the benefits of practicing gratitude. The subject of gratitude has enough material for multiple dissertations and plenty of research studies. But what is gratitude and why is it important for emotional, mental, and psychological wellbeing?
Gratitude is hard to define because it crosses over so many aspects of our lives. Is gratitude a feeling, a sense, an ethic or virtue, or is gratitude a personality trait? First let's start with a definition so we have a level playing field. I’ve chosen to use the definition from a scientific study in Psychiatry Journal titled simply, “Gratitude and Well Being.” The researchers define gratitude as “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation” (1). This definition was chosen above countless others because it does not mention gratitude as a direct result of an exchange with another person or because we have received a physical item. Rather gratitude is deeply personal and that is what makes it so dynamic.
Gratitude can be gentle such as a small swell in the heart or it arrives en masse filling the crevices of our chests. A few weeks ago we were fortunate enough to be gifted expensive tickets to Atlanta Symphony. Music moves my soul as if one of the direct paths to my heart is through my ears. As I listened, I wondered if those who were drawn to play and sing choral music had a deep spiritual connection to the Divine. How could someone without a connection to the deep mysteries of life create such evocative soundscapes?
Part way through the performance I was filled with deep emotion and tears gently tumbled across my cheeks. How I asked myself, was I sitting here in the presence of such beauty? The literal answer is because we were gifted tickets and we actually went. But I was asking from a longitudinal perspective. How could I at the age of 11, go from living in a tent in a campground, to sitting in the presence of orchestral beauty? During my childhood, I had never heard of Beethoven so could not even imagine that which I did not know existed.
At that time I never thought that my family was homeless but education give you a different perspective and I am not sure what else to call not having anywhere else to go, no home with four external walls and a tin roof, other than homeless. Where the kitchen was set up outside the larger tent my mother created sparse feasts on a small gas stove (oxymoronic I know but she is genius or performed miracles). Lots of families in Australia camp over the summer holidays but there was no home to which we would return. Two tents were the extent of "home" and when my mother and step-father found a house to rent, we had no truck arriving loaded with physical belongings.
Sitting in the great hall of the symphony I was humbled and my body flooded with liquid warmth, my heart was open. Clearly, my life had changed for the better, not by some miracle but through following the spiralic road of life. Gratitude has played a key role in my changing fortunes though I admit to finding the conscious practice of gratitude very difficult while in the deep recesses of an underworld journey. However, gratitude always played an important role in pulling me back to my center. Gratitude is my pole star.
No wonder that gratitude remains one of the core tenets of the world’s spiritual and religious traditions. Yet, we do not need to be religious or spiritual to feel or practice gratitude. In essence, the conscious practicing of gratitude keeps our egos in check. There is no way to be egotistical and really feel gratitude at the same time these drivers are literally counter to each other. Different from genuine humility, gratitude expands and connects from a heart-centered space. Gratitude fosters more than goodwill, it also means we are paying attention to others and our surroundings, to both the people and synchronicities.
A collaborative research project from professors in both the United Kingdom and the United States analyzed multiple studies on gratitude and discovered that there are 8 key ways in which people express or determine gratitude (2). The example I gave above-fulfilled gratitude based on awe, but it also satisfied other criteria such as: “life is short”, “positive social comparisons,” and “focusing on what the person has.” Gratitude can also be felt when we appreciate the people we have in our lives and for our basic needs being met.
Every day for 21 days, task yourself with writing down three things you are grateful for today. Chose a time that works best for you, either morning or evening and think about what you are grateful for. When you have thoughtabout each of those three things, then feel gratitude.You might be surprised that you can't access the feeling because it is buried beneath another emotion such as grief. If that's the case, then allow yourself to feel the grief first and make a note to stay with this one thing until you the feeling of gratitude fills your heart. Stay with the item, person, situation, dog, or nature until you can feel your heart open.
Notice how doing this daily practice fosters feelings of well-being, patience, and perhaps even happiness! If you like, email me about how this practice worked for you.
Citations: also known as Extra Reading for the Curious
1 Sansone, Randy A, and Lori A Sansone. “Gratitude and well being: the benefits of appreciation.” Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)) vol. 7,11 (2010): 18-22.
2 Wood, Alex. M., Froh, Jeffery. J., & Geraghty, Adam. W.A. “Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration.” Clinical Psychological Review xxx (2010) doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005