The Wisdom in Gratitude
Thanksgiving – A Time for Reflection
I have always rather secretly envied the American celebration of Thanksgiving. A little like the chocolate box depiction of the perfect family at Christmas in my native country, I have similar evocations of the “Brady Bunch” gathered around the holiday table engrossed in a thank-fest. Although like the ideal ‘perfect family’ from my childhood I expect in reality the table tells a different story. Of course at this point it’s probably best to skip the part about the origins of Thanksgiving as a celebration of independence from the British. As a friend pointed out, Brexit may actually lead to a similar tradition in the rest of Europe with one very, very large turkey!
In my own culture of course we share a turkey and a table, but what seems to be missing is the formalised tradition of giving thanks not only for the food we share but also for all the many things we can be grateful for in our world today. This can be a particular challenge at this time with today’s extended families who may live abroad, step-families, and especially when you throw teenagers into the mix. But still I have this childlike yearning for a chance to really instill gratitude into our families’ traditions, which is why I was happy to do further research into the topic for our recent Passage Professionals Network (PPN).
Are We Better or Worse at Giving Thanks Today? Does it Matter Anyway?
The theme of our recent PPN gathering was “The Wisdom in Gratitude”. In the session we asked ourselves why we give thanks, whether we are better or worse at this than our ancestors, and the importance of gratitude in our private lives as well as our work as professionals with individuals and families.
The idea that gratitude is important in our social and spiritual relationships dates back to discussions in classical civilisation by Seneca (4BC – AD65) and his contemporaries. In fact the words comes from the Latin ‘Gratia’, which refers to the ‘beauty and kindness in giving and receiving’. Gratitude was considered a virtue at this time and very much referred to as a full circle of emotion not just in the expression but in the receiving too.
More recently we think of gratitude as a part of social etiquette required by our religion or culture. It is a key part of what is called the socialisation process, and is generally concerned with the responsibility of a child’s family and close community to ensure that they learn the importance of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Social Scientists believe that human infants are born without any culture and therefore must be transformed by their parents, teachers, and other adults into cultural and socially adept animals. This general process of acquiring culture is referred to as socialisation (Dennis O’Neil 2011). Gratitude was therefore instilled in young children in order for them to be accepted into their community. However over time this has become a rather one-sided process.
Parents today realise the importance of this process for their children but are often without an extended family, religious or even close community to help them in this. Gratitude it may seem has been diluted to the mouthing of appropriate words at the appropriate time without a deeper meaning of its virtue. This can seem especially true in our fast paced and instant gratification modern world.
However, the recent emergence of the field of Positive Psychology has renewed our interest in the practice of gratitude as a virtue or strength that is something that can be developed in our lives. In fact this field has many studies that have empirically proven a link between the practice of gratitude and an increased sense of happiness, well-being and optimism. It has also been associated with increased levels of empathy, self-control, energy and lower stress levels and better sleep patterns.
Similarly there are studies that have found that the introduction of an everyday practice of gratitude have significantly:
- Improved the lives of people who have experienced heart failure
(Mills, Redwine, & Chopra et.al, 2015)
- Enhanced the well-being in older adults
(Alison Killen and Ann Macaskill, 2015)
- Relieved stress in general
(Emmons & McCullough, 2003)
What is the Practice of Gratitude?
The practice of gratitude is considered to be a pro-social behavior. Pro-social behavior is a type of altruism, that is concerned with helping or giving to others without expectation of anything in return. Gratitude as a pro-social behavior is divided into 4 elements:
- Gratitude towards someone in general
- Gratitude towards something in general
- Gratitude for a particular act
- A ‘Grateful Person’
These elements roughly follow a continuum from a person who does not practice any form of gratitude in their life to a person who generally sees the opportunity for gratitude in everyday life i.e. a ‘Grateful Person’. The practice of gratitude can include the use of gratitude journals, the use of a tool like the ‘3 Good Things’ inventory, writing letters of gratitude and regular gratitude games or traditions used in families.
Gratitude Gives Perspective
Sarah Ban Breathnach, the philanthropist and bestselling author of “Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy” says:-
“While we cry ourselves to sleep, gratitude waits patiently to console and reassure us; there is a landscape larger than the one we can see.”
A very interesting side effect of a practice of gratitude is a renewed sense of perspective. A ‘Grateful Person’ will not only give gratitude for all the positive things in their lives but also the challenges or unexpected things that happen to them. In this practice they are opening themselves to the possibility of recognizing that the people or things we may not welcome into our lives may also be the people and things that help us grow and advance in our personal and professional lives.
Gratitude gives us the opportunity to open up our point if view. It also gives us chance to pause. To really practice gratitude we need to take the time out of our busy schedules to concentrate on the present moment. In this we develop a chance to focus on what we have now, rather than what we want in the future. At this time of year when consumerism seems to be going crazy, it is good to think that we can share something with our families and children that can help them appreciate what they already have to be thankful for. With renewed perspective we can learn to connect and re-connect to not only family and friends but to something bigger than ourselves, and our immediate community.
Dutch writer and theologian Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen quotes:-
“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint.”
Practical Suggestions for Developing a Practice of Gratitude
As I have already mentioned, psychologists have developed several tools in this area; some of these come from other scientific or spiritual communities. You can find many of these on the internet and I have included a few examples below.
I will describe a few of the most popular gratitude practices for individuals, families, teenagers and couples.
The gratitude journal is as its name suggests a daily record of your thoughts and feelings about the people, things and particular circumstances of your life you are grateful for. You can just use a normal diary or alternatively there are now specific gratitude journals you can buy or templates you can download from the internet. Younger children can be encouraged to draw pictures and (pre-teens) teens or adults may also be interested in online apps that offer a similar idea e.g. The Gratitude Garden or the 365 Gratitude Journal app.
The 3 Good Things inventory
The ‘3 Good Things’ inventory developed by Martin Seligman (the founder of Positive Psychology) and his colleagues as a way of focusing participants in their studies on the good things in their life. It is now universally used as gratitude practice tool. It consists of a simple questionnaire that can be downloaded at the sites listed below. It can also be used as a template for gratitude journals.
Take Note. Give Thanks.
The ‘21 Day Challenge’ was created by an organisation called Tiny Prints. The idea of this community is to help people to develop a daily habit of gratitude. Their website includes a 21-day calendar with prompts to help you take note of the brighter side of life. For a little extra inspiration they also feature blogs to see how these writers, artists, photographers and parents have met the challenge.
The gratitude jar is a simple but profound way to focus your family in the practice of gratitude everyday. The idea is to take a simple glass jar and encourage everyone to add a note of something they are grateful for everyday. There are plenty of pictures and ideas about them that you can download from the internet. Some families or individuals set up a new jar yearly and have a ritual of opening it up and reading all the messages on New Years Eve.
Writing a gratitude letter can be a powerful process. When I was a child it was considered an important act after every birthday or Christmas to write ‘thank you’ letters, a tradition often over looked today. But beyond this, taking the time to write to someone who you are grateful too with details of what exactly you are grateful for and why, helps not only the person writing the letter but also the receiver (very much in the manner of the original meaning of gratitude). It can be even more powerful if the letter is handwritten and hand-delivered.
If you are faced with a frustrating situation like being stuck in traffic with hungry kids or coping with a disappointment at home or school, you may want to lift your spirits with a gratitude game such as: ‘It Could be Worse’. The aim of this game is to be as silly and outrageous as possible in alternatives to the situation you are in. Inversely this can help us all remember in gratitude that things are often not as bad as they seem.
An alternative to is to use the phrase ‘First World Problem’ and to remind yourself and you children that often what we complain about would be a blessing to a person in a third world country. Make it interesting by having a discussion about all the things in their day that would be different i.e. school/no school. The trick is to keep it light and humorous at the same time as encouraging your children and yourself to change your perspective from complaint to thankfulness.
A Word about Teenagers
Teenagers may or may not want to engage in any of these gratitude practices. This may be because it is their job in the adolescent years to become more independent, and open acts of gratitude might make them feel more tied to parents, teachers and other adults. It is important to them that it does not feel like a chore or another school assignment. In the good moments of communication you might want to talk to them adult-to-adult about the idea of a Growth Mindset; this the ability to change the way we think about the world, learn from our mistakes and make better choices in the future. Gratitude plays a part in this by focusing on what they have learned from difficult or unexpected situations in the past. If X had not happened then I would not have done, met, or have Y.
You can also talk about the positive effects of Pro-social Behaviour not only in helping people out in their community or improving their CV, but in the increased feelings of well-being, energy, confidence and connectedness. If your teenager resists the idea or makes snide remarks, try to relax. If you are authentic and consistent in your gratitude practice, then your teen will find their own way. You may even suggest that they come up with a new family tradition but most importantly don’t forget the humour!
The inspirational and spiritual author Joan D. Chittester writes:-
“Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.”
A Word about Couples
Sometimes when couples have been together a long time, especially when they have the responsibility of children to care for, they may forget to give gratitude to their partner. Over time this can feel like ‘being taken for granted’ and lead to an underlying malaise in the relationship. Couples may still appreciate their partners but do not feel they have the time, energy or even the need to express it overtly. At this point it might be worth making an inventory of your partners Thoughtful Actions over a period of time. Basically each person has a sheet where they note everything that their partner did for them, the family, or someone else and how it made them feel. At the end of a specified time (usually a week) they then share what they have noted and discuss it. It can be really positive feedback to know that your partner appreciates what you are doing not only for them but other people.
Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov, a leading 20th-century teacher of Western Esotericism in Europe quotes:-
“The day I acquired the habit of consciously pronouncing the words “thank you”, I felt I had gained possession of a magic wand capable of transforming everything.”
Reasons to be Grateful
So does gratitude matter today? I would say yes it most definitely does matter, and with growing evidence that the practice of gratitude can bring about positive and long-lasting changes in our lives, maybe it matters even more today in these troubled times. So I’m off now to print out my new advent calendar for the season from Action for Happiness.
Click the link to access the “Kindness Calendar” for December 2017.
The Power of Gratitude…
It turns a frog into a prince.
It turns a meal into a feast.
It turns strangers into siblings.
It brings peace in devastation.
It provides guidance when lost.
It turns arguments in truces.
It turns music into therapy.
It brings you to your knees and inspires unsung prayers.
And then it summons up the courage inside of you to go out and change the world…
Learn more about the transformative effects of practicing profound gratitude by visiting: The Gratitude Jar
Further Information: Useful Links
Action for Happiness (UK): This site has lots of videos and articles around sharing gratitude and happiness and how to do it. It is an initiative supported by the Dalai Lama.
The Greater Good Science Center – Science-based Practices for a Meaningful Life: The UC Berkeley University’s Greater Good Science Centre collects the best research-based methods for a happier, more meaningful life – and puts them at your fingertips in a format that’s easy to navigate and digest.
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Article by: Lynn Frank who is a coordinator for Passage.
Last updated: Friday 8th December, 2017