PRACTICING THE GRATITUDE PRINCIPLE
There are several words that arise repeatedly when discussing gratitude, all of which reflect states that are related to it. While gratitude is both a feeling and an attitude, thankfulness is the demonstrative expression of it, whether extended to ourselves or others. We can express thanks in words—spoken or written—or in deeds, by extending time, resources, or gifts to support people in unexpected ways or to help those in need.
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Appreciation is the recognition of that which makes us feel grateful, and can also be expressed internally or externally. The word Appreciation is a fascinating little word because it has four distinct meanings that all happen to relate to and support one another.
To appreciate can mean:
To be fully conscious of
To hold in high regard
To be grateful for
In order for what you appreciate, to appreciate you have to (1) open your eyes and become aware of it; (2) hold it in high regard; and (3) be deeply grateful for the joy it brings you. When you do that, it appreciates. When you don’t, it depreciates.
When you appreciate relationships, they grow deeper.
When you don’t, they grow weaker.
When you appreciate someone’s talent and contributions, they flourish.
When you don’t, they languish.
When you appreciate the love in your life, it grows.
When you don’t, it fades.
I think we all know this to be true and yet we often have difficulty remaining conscious of all that we have to be grateful for. It’s often only in times of crisis or when something we love is about to leave us that we truly take note of how precious it is to us.
A beautiful take on this comes from Helen Keller’s essay entitled “Three Days to See,” which she was inspired to write after asking a friend about what she saw during a walk in the woods and her friend replied, “nothing of note.”
I wondered how it was possible to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing of note. I who cannot see find hundreds of things: the delicate symmetry of a leaf, the smooth skin of a silver birch, the rough, shaggy bark of a pine… use your eyes as if tomorrow you will have been stricken blind.
Gratitude often ignites acts of generosity; we are moved to offer ourselves to others without expecting anything in return. People refer to generous acts that are freely given as “royal generosity.” These are just a few of the qualities related to gratitude. The expression of gratitude creates an opening that invites many other positive states and experiences into our lives. Gratefulness is the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as gift. The Latin root of the word gratitude is grata or gratia—a given gift—and from this same root we get our word grace, which means a gift freely given that is unearned. Gratitude is a feeling that spontaneously emerges from within. However, it is not simply an emotional response; it is also a choice we make. We can choose to be grateful, or we can choose to be ungrateful—to take our gifts and blessings for granted. As a choice, gratitude is an attitude or disposition.
As writer Alexis de Tocqueville once described it, gratitude is “a habit of the heart.” Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, reminds us that “gratefulness is the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as gift.” M. J. Ryan’s classic book, Attitudes of Gratitude supports the idea that gratitude is a stance we voluntarily take, and one we can adopt through the difficult seasons of life as well as the good ones.
The daily practice of gratitude keeps the heart open regardless of what comes our way. There are four portals—or entryways—to the experience of gratitude. Recognizing these portals at the time when they appear in our lives is key to developing the capacity to cultivate gratitude. Blessings are the primary, cross-cultural portal through which we experience gratitude.
Gratefulness is the inner gesture of giving
meaning to our life by receiving life as a gift.
Learnings, mercies, and protections are three other portals attributed to fostering gratitude in various worldwide cultures. Virtues are qualities that support the inherent goodness that resides within each human being. Gratitude is both a social and theological virtue. The Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur’an all cite gratitude as central among virtues. Centuries ago, the philosopher Cicero argued that gratitude is the parent of all virtues, a virtue that begets other virtues.
The cultivation of gratitude develops character, the embodiment of desired virtues. The advice to cultivate character by expanding one’s capacity for gratitude is time-honored wisdom. The art of maintaining a grateful disposition engenders other virtues such as generosity, humility, compassion, wisdom, joy, integrity, and trust. This disposition of mindfulness, of being aware of and thankful for our blessings, helps cultivate our virtues and significantly diminishes, or can even eradicate, any obstacles to the gratitude we may face.
Blessings are those experiences we hold as “the good” in our lives. The language of blessing is invocation, a calling forth. To bless is to sanctify; to recognize the presence of grace; to confer well-being or prosperity upon others; to endow; or invoke divine favor upon others or ourselves. Giving gratitude for our blessings is a way to recognize and honor them. John O’Donohue writes in his book To Bless the Space Between Us, “The word blessing evokes a sense of warmth and protection; it suggests that no life is alone or unreachable. Each life is clothed in raiment of spirit that secretly links it to everything else. Though suffering and chaos befall us, they can never quench that inner light of providence.” Blessings are gifts that open doors to healing, connection, meaning, and transformation. Essentially, the world itself cannot exist without blessings.
Whenever we are learning, we are growing. Often, what we are learning challenges us to stretch, to reexamine, and to rise to a new standard of excellence or skill level. We do not develop without learning. Our curiosity motivates exploration, risk, and facing the new or unfamiliar—all challenges that lead to learning. The meaning of the word “challenge,” from a cross-cultural point of view, is an invitation to grow or extend beyond what is presently knowable or familiar. It is interesting to note that in hindsight, we often refer to our challenges or learnings as blessings in disguise or wake-up calls. We are continually learning about ourselves, each other, our immediate environments, our communities, and the world. “What did I learn today?” is a profound question. It is from our learnings that we are able to bring forward and understand what is meaningful for us. The poet and novelist Marge Piercy sums up the crucible of learning this way: “Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding is the third.” Our learnings and the understandings we derive from them form a universal portal that engenders gratitude for all the ways we learn, including initiation rituals or rites of passage that occur worldwide.
To be merciful is to have a disposition of kindness and compassion that bestows unexpected forgiveness or clemency. Mercy alleviates distress through acts of charity or benevolence. Merciful acts generate thankfulness, both in those who have initiated the acts and those who have benefited from them. Mercy and forgiveness are closely tied; forgiveness is an act of generosity and compassion that fosters mercy. When we extend acts of kindness and compassion to ourselves and others, we cultivate mercy and open more easily to our own forgiveness work––forgiving ourselves for the harm we have caused and forgiving those who have harmed us.
Making amends and extending a genuine apology foster the experience of atonement, “at-onement.” Anyone who has ever received the gift of forgiveness knows that it is one of the greatest gifts they can receive, and their gratitude emerges spontaneously.
Inherent in all humans is the instinct to protect ourselves and others, especially those we love—to keep ourselves and others safe from harm, injury, or attack. Every culture has practices, prayers, rituals, and invocations for protection. Housewarmings are blessing and protection rituals, as are ribbon-cutting ceremonies: in cutting the ribbon before walking into a new workplace, we ask for blessings and protections to cut away the old and open to the new. Worldwide, parents bless their children to keep them safe, and remain vigilant in their efforts to keep them from harm. Feeling protected always engenders gratitude, and this is not limited to those who protect us in the seen world such as our elders, or others who may choose to watch out for us. We also call on the help of ancestors, the Mystery, and spiritual figures such as saints and angels for protection. These universal portals of blessings, learnings, mercies, and protections offer the human spirit the gift of awareness, the ability to recognize all those things that can inspire gratitude amid the paradox of life’s happiness and suffering.
As Robert Emmons reminds us in his book, Thanks!, whether we are happy or suffering, “Gratitude is the way the heart remembers––remembers kindnesses, cherished interactions with others, compassionate actions of strangers, surprise gifts, and everyday blessings. By remembering we honor and acknowledge the many ways in which who and what we are has been shaped by others, both living and dead.” We can understand the magnitude of gratitude’s power when we consider how the intention of thankfulness corresponds with the deepest human realities of connection, creativity, healing, and wholesomeness.
There are four common obstacles to a stance of gratitude. The chief assailants of gratitude are envy, greed, pride, and narcissism. Envy comes from the Latin word invidia (looking with malice or coveting what someone else has). Envy and jealousy are qualities that are fed by comparison. The more we compare ourselves to others, or desire what they have, the less satisfied we become with what we currently have; envy creates the perception of lack. As a result, envy also feeds greed—the temptation to hoard as a means of overcompensating for our perceived lack. Envy and greed are upheld by the hubris and arrogance of pride, which Evagrius Ponticus described as “a tumor of the soul when it ripens and ruptures, it creates a disgusting mess.”
In many spiritual traditions, it is thought that pride is the worst sin of all because it contains the seed of all other sins. This unhealthy form of pride contains an overpowering need for self-importance and vanity that holds oneself above all else—the law, any person, any faith. Pride, in turn, feeds the state of narcissism, the self-absorption of unsolved ambition and repressed anger that breeds a sense of entitlement and specialness. All of these states serve as incubators for ingratitude. It is important to be aware of them and acknowledge them when they arise, but we need not fear that they carry the power to sabotage our gratitude practice.
We each have the ability to shift our awareness to one of “grateful seeing”—noticing first what is working in our lives before dwelling on what we lack or desire but have not yet attained, or on our challenges or burdens. When we look first to the blessings, learnings, mercies, and protections that remain ever-present in our lives no matter what our difficulties, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain a state of ingratitude. Thoreau reminds us that “goodness is the only investment that never fails.” Gratitude, the parent of all virtues, is the most fertile ground for growing in virtue. It is our intention of leading a good life, combined with the generation of new perspectives and thoughts, that eradicates the excesses or temptations of avarice, greed, envy, and anger.
Martin Seligman, who has established the field of positive psychology, emphasizes that when we can approach life from the perspective of seeing what is working, without denying our current challenges or burdens, we can cultivate more positive thinking and thankfulness in our lives. Positive and realistic thoughts, plus looking at what is working in our lives, are reminders of how blessed we really are. Gratitude awakens another way of being in the world, one that nurtures the heart and helps to create a life of meaning and purpose. The old barriers no longer confine us and the old fears no longer constrict or claim us. Gratitude opens us to freedom, a sense of generosity, and connection to the wider world.
The human spirit is always reaching for the reclamation of its own well-being. The practice of gratitude provides healing and enhances our inherent nature. The journey that lies before us holds unlimited possibilities filled with blessings, learnings, mercies, and protections waiting for our discovery. May this journey is marked by unexpected gifts and insights, and an ever-expanding awareness and renewed connections to the very best in ourselves, in others, and in life itself. What we appreciate, appreciates.
So how do we open our eyes and ensure we take note of all that we have to be grateful for? Here are five simple practices that you can do to celebrate and grow the things that you’re grateful for in life.
- Write down 3 things you’re grateful for every day.
Be specific: generic references to “family” or “work” don’t have as much power as a short, detailed description of what specifically you appreciate.
Make it heartfelt: don’t just write it, feel it. Take a moment to hold the person or the experience in your heart and feel the goodness of it.
Make it a ritual: like brushing your teeth, it should be something you integrate into a daily ritual.
- Create a Photo Collection of things you appreciate.
Several years ago, Roy Spence got fed up with all the negativity in the world. So naturally, he decided to walk across America and photograph something positive—something good, beautiful, extraordinary—every mile of his journey. The result was a beautiful collection of people, places, animals, objects, vistas, you name it, that serves as a reminder of the beauty all around us if you choose to look for it. You don’t have to walk across America to do this exercise. Just keep your eyes open and snap a picture of something or someone that brings you joy and file it away in a Gratitude album that you can refer to when you need a boost of happiness.
- Write a Gratitude Letter to 10 people you deeply appreciate.
Think about the 10 persons who mean the world to you and write them a letter expressing your heartfelt appreciation for what they’ve meant to you over your lifetime. Be as specific as you can about what they’ve done that you appreciate. If possible, deliver it in person. Consider doing this on a monthly basis. Or send three thank-you notes per day. Make a focused habit.
- Practice Appreciations in the workplace.
John Mackey and Walter Robb, co-CEOs of Whole Foods Market, have cultivated a culture of appreciation at Whole Foods. They have a practice of closing every significant meeting with a round of Appreciations wherein people take turns sharing one thing they appreciate about someone else in the room. It’s easy to imagine how this simple act increases the level of motivation and pride in the individual and camaraderie and goodwill among Team Members.
By taking the time to appreciate the goodness in your life, you’re destined to create more of it.
- Take moments of stillness and silence to remember those who’ve past on, and their invisible blessings to you and those they touched, here’s a poem by Stephen Spender to deepen this reflection:
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
was that their lips still touched with fire,
should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
the desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious, is never to forget
the essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
with noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
see how these names are fêted by the waving grass
and by the streamers of white cloud
and whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun
and left the vivid air signed with their honor.
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