“Be joyful even when you have considered all the facts.” —Wendell Berry Jennifer has recently been through a painful divorce and she’s not sleeping well. She’s having difficulties with her children, who blame her for the divorce. Her work life is rocky as well, and sometimes she’s unsure if she’s in the right career. What she thinks: Yes, life is rough right now, but every life has difficult times. Really, I am so grateful to be alive, for my children, for my home, my good health, all that I have.
Robert has lots of everything—a nice apartment in the city, a well-paying job, new car, nice clothes. But he didn’t get that last promotion at work. His last vacation was a disappointment, and no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t save money. What he thinks: I just don’t understand why things are going wrong. It just doesn’t seem fair when I work so hard. People don’t appreciate me and I deserve better this. Robert’s approach is about holding a grievance—about what’s missing or wrong. Jennifer’s is about being grateful for all you have.
Gratitude isn’t a new idea; most spiritual practices and philosophies emphasize gratitude and compassion for others. But in recent years gratitude has shifted from being an idea to a concrete tool that people can use to become happier and healthier. This practice focuses on appreciating what others have done for you and de-emphasizes being angry or blaming others for your problems. “When we develop a sense of appreciation for those around us and cultivate a sense of gratitude for life itself, we are relieved of the burden that comes with seeing ourselves as ‘victims,’” writes Greg Krech in Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection. Krech calls this state of appreciation “grace,” a term used in many religions. However, grace as a practice is not a belief as much as a shift in thinking. Or as Krech puts it: “It’s the difference between seeing life as an entitlement and seeing it as a gift.”
However it is practiced, gratitude isn’t a blindly optimistic approach in which the bad things in life are whitewashed or ignored. It’s more a matter of where we put our focus and attention. Yes, pain and injustice and cruelty exist in this world. But when we focus on the gifts of life, we gain a feeling of well-being. We often feel more energized to reach out and help others; we feel we have some power to positively affect our world. This again leads to a feeling of well-being…and gratitude. It’s a self-sustaining cycle! In her book Radical Gratitude, author and speaker Ellen Vaughn tells the story of a soldier in Vietnam, imprisoned as a POW for seven years. When he returned to the United States, he was startled at the small things people complained about. He decided then he would never stop being grateful for everything in his life, no matter how difficult. Of course, most of us don’t have such extreme experiences to help us count our blessings. In their book Seasons of Grace: The Life-Giving Practice of Gratitude, authors Alan Jones and John O’Neil write that practicing gratitude can be as simple as writing a thank you note, working in the garden, walking on the beach aware of nature’s gifts, telling someone you love what you appreciate about him/her. According to them, it’s even more than what you do, it’s the attitude with which you do it.
Consider the following exercise for putting gratitude into action in our relationships with people close to us, whether they be spouses, friends, children or business partners:
- Find 10 minutes to tell the person what specifically you appreciate about him/her.
- It may help to ask yourself a few questions in advance: What were some of the highlights—the fun times when you laughed—when you first met? What specific qualities do you admire about him/her? What efforts by this other person have helped your relationship make it through difficult times?
- Share the results with the person, requesting that he or she not make judgments or negate any of the appreciative comments.
This simple exercise helps you stop taking the important people in your life for granted and can effectively reawaken an awareness of the gifts of your relationship with that individual. Now try it on yourself!
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