As we come to Thanksgiving this week I want to pass on some edited selections from a lengthy article about gratitude I have had for a couple of years. I would like to give credit for these challenging observations, but I have no record of the source. I encourage you to take the time to read and savor what follows as you think about the discipline of gratitude this year. This is a longer post than usual; for a quicker read just note the parts in bold.
Gratitude is often trotted out around Thanksgiving as a seasonal interest, and then put away for another year.
While basic gratitude is passively evoked by external events, the spiritual discipline of gratitude is intentionally chosen, deliberately trained, and exercised in all circumstances. It is not dependent on changing conditions, but on mindset.
The spiritual discipline of gratitude is practiced not just because it feels good, but because it’s the right thing to do — not just for one’s own good, but for the good of one’s family, community, and society. The discipline of gratitude is in fact not a feeling at all, but a moral virtue.
The practice of gratitude results in a number of very practical, tangible benefits to body and mind. Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically vetted than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being.
Becoming more grateful does not involve a denial of the reality of life’s hard edges and sharp sorrows. Rather, while gratitude recognizes the dark corners of existence which readily attract our attention, it also notices all the Beauty, Joy, Goodness, and Truth that is typically overlooked. In this, gratitude in fact opens one’s eyes to a more expansive view of reality.
It’s like putting on a pair of long-needed glasses for the first time: “Oh, wow, here’s what I’ve been missing.” Through the lens of gratitude, you come to better recognize the good, to see the many gifts, benefits, and mercies that are present in your life that might otherwise remain hidden and ignored.
Gratitude is arguably the foundation of good character, or as Cicero puts it, gratitude is the “parent” of all the other virtues. Conversely, ingratitude is the root of all vice; St. Ignatius called ingratitude the “most abominable of sins” as it is “the cause, the beginning and origin of all sins and misfortunes.”
The presence of gratitude counteracts the negative vices — envy, resentment, and greed — that its absence begets. When you are grateful for what you have, you spend less time comparing yourself to others, and less time making poor, fruitless decisions based on those comparisons.
Recognizing that the good in one’s life comes at least partially from outside the self develops a vital sense of humility, as well as the motivation to reciprocate these gifts and return goodness for goodness by practicing the positive virtues.
Gratitude turns our gaze outward instead of inward, helping us recognize realities outside ourselves. We recognize that we are not completely self-sufficient and independent and instead exist in a web of interconnected relationships. We recognize the help (human and divine) that’s gotten us to where we are today, and the help we continue to rely on to sustain our lives. In this, gratitude allows us to appreciate and affirm the worth and value of the people, structures, and supernatural powers around us rather than taking them for granted.
Unsurprisingly then, research has found that gratitude has a huge effect on improving relationships. Studies show that grateful people experience greater feelings of connection and closeness with others and with God, and are more compassionate, forgiving, generous, and supportive than the ungrateful.
As already stated, when you realize what you’ve been given, you’re motivated to give back: the more you recognize what others have done for you, the more you want to do for them; the more you appreciate the world, the more you want to make it better. But the virtuous effect of gratitude ripples out further still.
Research shows that when you thank someone for what they’ve done for you, they not only are more likely to help you again, they are more likely to help other people, period. Cultivating and then expressing gratitude thus starts a web of virtue; it spreads goodness like a very positive contagion that can literally transform families, workplaces, communities, and the world at large.
Given the very real benefits and positive effects of practicing gratitude both generally and as a spiritual discipline, why do we so often struggle to develop and express this virtue? There are obstacles to getting in a gratitude-driven mindset.
One obstacle to greater gratitude is simple busyness and distraction. We may feel a sense of thankfulness for someone or something, but it quickly evaporates as our phone pings, our kid cries, or another thought simply intrudes on the moment.
Another obstacle to gratitude is an ingrained penchant for noticing the negative over the positive.
A third obstacle is envy. It’s hard to be happy with what you have, when it seems like other people have better things. Envy destroys gratitude, and it’s harder than ever to avoid when everyone can show off the highlight reel of their lives on social media.
While these obstacles can be significant stumbling blocks to the discipline of gratitude, if this virtue is predicated on humility, then the very biggest barrier to its practice should be obvious: pride.
Such pride is rooted in the inability to admit dependency on anything or anyone. The truth is, we all rely on others to meet our physical and emotional needs. Humans are interdependent; sometimes we give and sometimes we receive.
Of the different “flavors” the pride that blocks gratitude takes, a sense of entitlement is undeniably the most significant. This sense of entitlement says: “Whatever I’ve got, I’ve earned. I deserve this. I had it coming.”
While we assuredly should take a healthy satisfaction in the things we have largely earned on our own, we should also recognize that the very possibility of achieving those things at all was foundationally premised on a whole lot of factors outside ourselves and our control.
So much of what we have was placed in our laps by sheer dint of happening to be born in a certain time and place. So much of what we have is due to simple luck and serendipity. We didn’t, couldn’t, do anything to deserve it.
Certainly, one is under no obligation to say thank you for acts and services that fall below what would normally be expected. But even when an expectation is fulfilled in a basic in a basic, average way – even when it does not go above and beyond, we ought to still feel gratitude for the act, and in fact, experience it as a gift.
Once you start practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude, you come to see that while you can expect things of people with whom you enter into a relationship or exchange, you’re never wholly entitled to the material and emotional goods they produce. Once you realize life doesn’t owe you anything, everything in it becomes a gift.
That there are many obstacles pitted against practicing gratitude is the bad news. The good news, fortunately, is that despite these barriers, anyone can intentionally cultivate gratitude as a spiritual discipline. By regularly training your gratitude “muscle” you can make gratitude a matter of steady discipline rather than fluctuating mood and changing circumstances.
While becoming more grateful takes significant intentional effort at first, over time it will become easier; what begins as consciously chosen behavior will eventually become an ingrained attitude — your default response to the world.
Gratitude ultimately depends not on circumstances you can’t control, but on the perspective and attitude you decide to take; you can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how to respond. Outwardly acknowledging the gifts we receive checks our pride, humbles our souls, and forges a link that will expand beyond ourselves to become an ever-widening chain of service and virtue.
Even though those two words are so easy to say, most people don’t express them often enough. We get in that mode where we don’t feel like we should be grateful for people just doing what’s expected of them – just doing their job. We forget that life doesn’t ultimately owe us anything, that nothing is guaranteed, that we’re not wholly entitled to the good things we get. We forget that everything is a gift. But it is.
So say thank you to everyone, for just about everything. Not just when someone went above and beyond, but when someone simply did what they were “supposed” to – heaven knows that even when something “should” happen a certain way it often doesn’t! Be grateful to anyone who holds up even the basic end of the bargain, who doesn’t follow the path of least resistance.
If it isn’t already, start making a simple “thank you” a frequent, fundamental part of your daily language. Thank your wife, cashier, doctor, pharmacist, car mechanic, mailman, waiter — everyone who makes an effort on your behalf.
Let’s trot gratitude out again this Thanksgiving, but let’s not then put away for another year.
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and I thank you for reading.
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