Gratitude: a subject that has gained popularity, from Oprah’s lips, via her gratitude journals, to Cheryl Crow’s lyrics, It’s not getting what you want. It’s wanting what you have. Elizabeth Gilbert, the Dali Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have written profoundly on the subject. The premise of increasing happiness and contentment by actively practicing gratitude is a concept I have been trying to adopt myself. Like most in this country, I have much to be grateful for.
Not that it’s easy, this gratitude thing. It’s more than just a few daily moments of thinking, “Yeah, I’m grateful for my family, my new car, my dog, blah, blah, blah.” We can all do that. It’s easy. But if we move forward with our day as usual by mentally (or literally) cursing out the car in front of us for not plowing through the yellow light because we are late, if we look past a homeless person and only think, I’m glad that’s not me, or worse, That could never be me, if we think less of minorities, look at the poor or homeless as lazy or not deserving, then the practice of gratitude is meaningless. The true practice of gratitude is more than a few moments of acknowledging our blessings because merely counting blessings will not counter our many grievances or bring forth meaningful change.
Gratitude is an eye-opening experience. It has power. It is a virtue that leads to action and is the link to other virtues: hope, empathy, generosity, tolerance, kindness. It allows us to see our need for others.
So how does one go about this gratitude practice? What steps are necessary? I asked myself those very questions. I started where, I suppose, most people start, listing the people I’m grateful for: my parents, husband, children, grandchildren, friends; then moving on to the comforts: a warm house in winter, reliable transportation, a job. I am very fortunate, the things in the “comfort” category are quite long, and working in healthcare constantly reminds me of my gift of health.
Like all things in life that are important, learning gratitude was a process for me. And I’m a slow learner. After a few months I noticed that familiar feeling of unease was still present. What happened to the contentment I’d been seeking? I began to take a closer look at the things I was grateful for and realized most were superficial. I’d often drifted to negatives: I’m glad this didn’t happen or I’m grateful that I’m not like him or her. Although I started with good intentions, I’d taken a wrong turn and focused on things that do not build lasting happiness. I thought I was practicing gratitude, but I was mistaking gratitude with superiority and fear. I used gratitude as a barrier to protect myself, to keep me safe from my fears. I thought solely of myself, and what I might gain. And I found that when the main motivation is yourself, the practice of gratitude is doomed.
In this country, especially, real gratitude is discouraged. Maybe not actively, but surely our drive to do more, have more, achieve more hardly lines up with gratitude. Our obsession with perfection and having all the right things that scream success hinders our recognition of the meaningful aspects of life. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements telling us we need and deserve this or that: things that are meant to bring happiness and contentment. With the focus on things instead of each other we are often left thinking, “Is this all there is?”
Genuine gratitude is the antidote for this. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are here to serve and help one another. That is what brings forth true happiness: the doing for others, not the gaining for ourselves. The most important aspect of gratitude is that it helps us focus outside ourselves and on those around us. We can become less self-serving, and more connected.
After acknowledging my failure and confronting my own sense of entitlement, I’ve come to understand that real gratitude is a state of being. It is the ability to release fear and to find and focus on the positives in any situation. Gratitude is the pathway to deeper connections in all relationships; it is not something that can be held or possessed, but rather something to be lived.