One of the best ways to create a sense of happiness and to counteract the draining effects of our fast-paced, demanding lifestyle is to notice the good things that are present and to appreciate them. A great irony of 21st-century life is that while we are more connected electronically, we are less connected personally. And while we are supported by a huge array of timesaving devices, we don’t take time to stop, notice, and take pleasure in what is actually here. Basically we’ve created a cultural lifestyle that insulates us from many things. It often keeps us from recognizing, let alone enjoying, the flow of good things that pass through.
In some ways we take the good for granted and attend to difficulties. The problem is, we’ve become experts at noticing the bad stuff. This emphasis on problems is echoed in psychology, self-help books and personal growth websites, which mainly center on struggles. Very recently though, there’s been a subtle shift, an opening to the good stuff. It is coming from many arenas including psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and several social movements. What we are beginning to realize is that noticing and appreciating the things that are good enhances health and our sense of well-being. In doing this we are claiming, or reclaiming, the tendency we had as children to relish daily life.
After a long history in psychology of focusing on human frailties and pathologies, there was an awakening in the mid 1990s that spawned interest in human strengths and the characteristics that are associated with satisfaction and thriving rather than in dysfunctions. That brought scientific inquiry to happiness and other positive human experiences and it is a stunning expansion. For the first time, scientists in many disciplines are asking why some people act and feel good, instead of asking why some people act and feel unwell. Its roots extend back to the mid 20th Century in the works of humanists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, but in the last two decades the field has exploded, capturing the attention of scientists, the media and the public. Large inter-disciplinary research centers dedicated to what we may broadly call positive psychology have recently been established at many major universities. A recurrent finding in research is that it is possible to enhance our sense of happiness and feelings of connectedness, and to decrease stress and negative feelings, by noticing and appreciating what is good. Doing so is powerful and transformative. It’s also remarkably simple.
This guiding principle encourages you to live gratefully and to nurture gratefulness in your child.
Living gratefully means becoming aware of what is already present, of noticing how many things are good, and how rich we actually are. That richness is present in warm friendships and loving relationships; in the vast number of opportunities we have; in the vitality of our minds; in our talents; and in our material well-being. Gratefulness points away from envy, dissatisfaction, stress, inadequacy, scarcity, and craving more of everything, by shifting focus to the personal and material wealth that we already have. Living gratefully is living, as many others have noted, with great fullness.
While science has only recently begun to explore the benefits of living gratefully, gratefulness has long multi-cultural roots in philosophy and religion, so the current interest in gratitude yokes these two strands together.
Gratefulness is sometimes described as a “practice,” something we consciously and deliberately do and repeat regularly. And there are indeed a number of gratefulness practices, some described here and elsewhere in this website, but gratefulness is also an emotional response and a mindset that involves both appreciating and expressing gratitude.
“If you think it is happiness that makes you grateful, think again.
It is gratefulness that makes you happy.”
~ Brother David Steindl-Rast ~
The feeling of gratefulness takes place in the present – not in the past or the future. We may be grateful for what we have had and we may be grateful for blessings yet to come, but the experience of gratefulness can only occur in the here and now. At its best, it is a rich heart-filling sense of appreciation. Brother David Steindl-Rast observes that gratefulness doesn’t compare. Steindl-Rast is a monk and interfaith scholar who co-founded A Network for Grateful Living, an international web-based organization that offers education and guidance for grateful living as a transformative influence on both individuals and society. He comments that when we appreciate something as awe-inspiring or beautiful – say a sunset – we don’t think, ‘that’s beautiful, but not as beautiful as the one I saw last month.’ We notice the beauty that is present. Gratefulness, he notes, is like that too.
We recognize gratitude as a feeling of valuing or thankfulness. It is an emotion that motivates us to act with kindness and generosity towards ourselves and others. Psychologist Robert Emmons, the director of a major long-term research project on gratitude at the University of California (Davis), suggests there are two stages to gratitude. The first is acknowledging the goodness in our life and the second is recognizing that the sources of that goodness lie at least partly outside the self. Thus gratitude is thankfulness directed toward the giver: another person, nature, God, fate, an animal or something else. Emmons explains that while we can be proud of ourselves or angry with ourselves, we cannot be grateful to ourselves. Gratefulness then, is a rich internal feeling that comes from external factors.
Feeling and expressing gratitude strengthens social relationships and promotes thoughtful behavior. We treat family and friends better when we become more consciously aware of their wonderful qualities or of how much they mean to us. Emmons describes an “upward spiral” in which gratitude strengthens relationships, making us even more grateful.
Living gratefully enhances our social relationships for a variety of reasons. Among these, grateful people are positive people and others are naturally drawn to them. Conscious gratefulness fills the mind with good, kind and generous thoughts, which influence how we act. Moreover, these feelings seem to contradict and decrease feelings of jealousy, anger, hated, selfishness and the like. Thus, feelings of gratefulness actually seem to reduce negative emotions.
“It is impossible to feel grateful and depressed in the same moment.”
~ Naomi Williams, contemporary American writer ~
Gratitude also counteracts complacency. When our lives are going well, we quickly come to take our good situation for granted and even slip into a longing for more. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, whose work centers on the science of human happiness, suggests that this taking for granted reaction is a form of human adaptation known as hedonic adaptation, which is the ability to readily adjust to new circumstances. It enables people to adapt to and cope with stressful situations. But Lyubomirsky suggests it may also be one of the major obstacles to feeling ongoing happiness. She, and other researchers, find that gratitude counteracts this effect.
Gratitude comes in different forms or depths. There is thankfulness towards others, including toward God or fate or some greater power, for kindnesses received. We often feel thankful for a door held open or tomatoes brought from a friend’s garden or the parking space that suddenly appears in a jammed lot. There is a deeper kind of gratefulness we may feel when touched by a stunning sight or a moving piece of music or a great favor received. There are some awe-filled feelings of vast gratefulness that have a seemingly miraculous aspect to them. These are all genuine feelings of gratefulness that come from the heart and can be, as Stendl-Rast suggests, savored. This is quite different from formulaic thank you notes, politeness rituals, or thanking someone because you feel indebted or hope you will receive something back.
Gratitude is more than a feeling of appreciation. Throughout history and across all human cultures, gratefulness has given rise to action, to acknowledge or returning a favor for kind. Experiencing and practicing gratefulness promotes skillful social action at many levels. Gratitude infuses interpersonal relations among family and friends with greater thoughtfulness, cooperation and recognition of the value of one another. In a broader social arena, gratitude stimulates generosity, compassion, and desire to find “win-win” solutions to challenges.
Living Gratefully then has many valuable and powerful effects. Among them are an increased satisfaction with life, greater and more enduring happiness, a decrease in negative feelings, stronger and richer interpersonal relationships, and better, more responsible and supportive social connections in the broader world.
One further benefit for children
Parents and educators often speak of nurturing children’s self-esteem. We want children to have a healthy sense of self-confidence and self worth. One way to bring this about is by helping children (and adults) to be aware of their gifts, their accomplishments, their connections, and the tangible and intangible things that they have. In contrast, focusing on failure, struggles, disappointments, perceived injustices or things lacking or yet to be accomplished, diminishes a sense of self-worth. When a child is shown how to attend to what is present and good, gratitude enhances feelings of self-worth. When children are aware and grateful for what they have and who they are, the tendency to compare themselves to others or to envy what others seem to have or to have done decreases.
There are many practices that support Living Gratefully. One very simple practice cultivates gratefulness and has repeatedly been shown to have a measurable influence on subjective feelings of well-being. It is simply taking a few minutes each the day, or at the end of each day, to stop and ask yourself, what are you grateful for right now? Try to notice about 5 things. They may be quite simple (the breeze blowing through the window on a hot night), quite concrete (playing a really good tennis match, finding the roads surprisingly open during rush hour) or quite intangible (a warm feeling of connection to a friend). Then, write these down. The writing part is important. If you would like to know more about the value of this kind of writing, and some of the science of gratitude, you may enjoy reading Robert Emmons (2007) thoughtful “how to” book on gratitude written for general audiences.
You can adapt this writing practice for your child by sharing comments about things you are each grateful for. You can write these down for a young child in a special little journal, or on pieces of paper kept in a treasure box or in some other way. You may want to make it part of your child’s bedtime ritual or may prefer it at dinnertime or some other moments you share together. Your older child may enjoy choosing a special blank book and creating a gratitude journal or creating a journal on computer.
If you are interested in finding out about other practices of gratefulness or of ways to expand gratefulness in your home, you may want to explore a remarkable website that offers a wealth of resources to support living gratefully: www.gratefulness.org. You will also find suggestions in the Meditation/Practices segment of Insights For Parents.
Emmons, Robert. Thanks! How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007. ISBN 13:978-0-618-62019-7
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A Scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: The Penguin Press, 2008. (ISBN 978-1-59420-148-6)