The attitude of gratitude

Any 12-steppers out there?  This is a popular phrase in the recovery community and is often introduced as a way to shift a discontent mood state.  In other words, it is a prompt to offer kindness or empathy to others to un-attach from the self-focused nature of our own minds.  We can initiate the opportunity to help or care for others, such as within mentorship, service-work, or simply by implementing a “random act of kindness.”  You’ve likely noticed how good it feels to give, especially when you can witness the impact your gesture has upon another person. 

Simply embodying the experience of gratitude can open our hearts in the same way.  We can extend gratitude toward our loved ones, which is often the easiest.  You may verbalize a feeling of thankfulness or simply notice how bringing this topic to mind resonates in your body.  Offering gratitude toward our circumstances can be a bit more difficult.  It is common for people to assume that extending gratitude  toward awful, horrific, or unthinkable circumstances means wiping away the impact of the misfortune.  It is actually quite the opposite.  We can practice accepting the idea of paradox: where there is dark, there is also light.  We can acknowledge the harmful and unhelpful while also flipping over the coin to examine what gifts or small glimmers of appreciation remain on the other side.  This practice truly acknowledges two seemingly polarized ideas with sincerity.  This is the practice we employ when extending gratitude toward our “enemies” or the ones that we believe do not deserve our thankfulness or grace.  While you may not be grateful for another person’s abuse, mistreatment, or cruelty toward yourself or others, are you gratitude for any element that has sprouted a learning lesson for you or the culture at large?  Or perhaps there was a helper involved or a final insight that came to your rescue, offering a flicker of light in an otherwise dark experience.  Sometimes we need distance (i.e. time) from a traumatic scenario to more clearly see the pain’s teachings. 

My favorite way to practice gratitude is by setting the intention to examine at least 3-5 things daily that you appreciate, but might otherwise overlook.  An important key is to be very specific.  Perhaps you witnessed a bird in your garden this afternoon, soaked in some sunshine during a walk, or appreciated how the fresh snowfall clings so tightly to the trees in your neighborhood.  You may be grateful for a grocery store clerk that takes the time to inquire about your day and offers a genuine smile, the ability to use the internet to quickly and efficiently find the name of that restaurant you’ve been wanting to try, or the warmth of your pet snuggling next to you on the couch.  We don’t receive the benefits of a gratitude practice by engaging in repetitive labels, such as noting being grateful for “family”, “friends”, or “health.”  Describe who exactly you are grateful for today and why or what aspect of your body you can appreciate. Visualize the object of your appreciation soaking in your thanks and extending back a sense of gratitude to YOU for noticing their value.  We often don’t think of gratitude as carrying a kind of reciprocal energy.  Just as when we are helping or caring for others, we benefit from the act of extending gratitude as much as the feeling it generates inside when that quality is naturally extended back.  Studies show that the brain can actually change quite quickly with a daily gratitude ritual. Many people can feel an expansiveness in their heart, a decrease in general tension, and a warmth or peace that spreads into the mind and facial muscles.  Furthermore, when practicing gratitude, the brain releases serotonin and dopamine.  These are our “feel good” chemicals.  Dopamine is specifically linked to our reward or “do it again” system, leading to more acts of gratitude and an increased attentiveness toward stimuli that evoke the experience of such. 

Poet, Anne Lamott, writes, “Gratitude, not understanding, is the secret to joy.”  It is refreshing to know we don’t need to necessarily exhibit empathy to all or a general understanding toward any of the “whys” in life to express a sense of thankfulness for what’s here.