Gratitude is Not Just a Nice Attitude

About fifteen years ago I was driving solo along the highways of New Mexico with some books on tape to keep me company. The most memorable of these was Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, a self-help classic by Susan Jeffers. Among other good recommendations, Jeffers suggested that I take time every night to write down 50 things for which I was grateful.

“Did she say 50?!” I exclaimed, rewinding the cassette. Yup, she said 50. Because it’s not really about the list.

In order to create a 50-item gratitude list each night, you have to spend your days looking for things to write down. Today my items will include: the surprise of a monarch butterfly in my garden, finding Ben and Jerry’s on sale at Whole Foods, the shy smile of a toddler in the checkout line, my favorite Joni Mitchell song on the radio and that email from a soul friend full of just the right words. That’s 5 down, 45 to go. And so I’ll mentally note more to appreciate as the day goes on.

Sometimes the things that make my list reflect what did not happen that day, like a near miss on the expressway, the car repair that wasn’t needed after all, or the fact that my air conditioner worked on a 98-degree day when residents elsewhere were suffering a blackout and losing their cool. When I turn on the tap water, I’m grateful that I don’t live in a town plagued by drought. When my wheelchair-bound neighbor calls me for help with small tasks, I’m reminded to appreciate my legs. And because Thich Nhat Hanh once said something like “Be grateful for the non-toothache,” I try to remember to give thanks when a pain or illness has disappeared. It’s easy to be miserable when I’m suffering and forgetful when I’m well.

What Jeffers is up to with this list thing is getting us to flip our internal scripts from a running monologue of criticism and complaining (and their close friends “poor me” and “life sucks”) to one of appreciation and even wonder for the what we have and what is given to us. Research shows that gratitude boosts mental and physical health, and I find that it assuages loneliness, too. When I feel as if life is serving me up a bounty of blessings, I feel “companioned” by a benevolent force.

“So often what blocks people from their greater potential is that they don’t appreciate what they have so far,” says spiritual teacher Carolyn Myss. I think that’s because a focus on lack is akin to wearing super dark shades all the time. We won’t even recognize our good if we’re clouded with negativity, and we sure won’t be motivated to strive for better. Think about a closed fist versus an upturned palm – which is more likely to receive?

Author and astrologer Rob Brezsny takes the concept a little further in his book Pronoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. Brezsny explains that pronoia is the antidote for paranoia and “a mode of training your senses and intellect so you’re able to perceive the fact that life always gives you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it.”

Sometimes it takes me awhile to see that life is giving me what I need when it’s not giving me what I want. That’s when I have to flip into “Well, it could’ve been worse,” or “I guess there’s something I’m meant to learn here.” Believe me, I don’t go from angry to accepting in 60 seconds, but I do find that life is just gentler when I reach for things to appreciate in difficult times.

“Gratitude is a real practice in my mind, as valid as yoga or Zen meditation or Sufi dancing,” says Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, adding that it begins with a sense of surprise for all that is given, rather than an air of entitlement. “It’s not joy that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us joyful,” he says.

Speaking of joy, I invite you to spend ten minutes watching Loius Schwartzberg and his gorgeous film about the power of gratitude. Then, in the words of German theologian Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

Thank you. I’m grateful for your readership.

13 thoughts on “Gratitude is Not Just a Nice Attitude

  1. “I do find that life is just gentler when I reach for things to appreciate in difficult times.” — Kim, this is just the thought that I need right now. What I’m hoping will be my last cross-country move is coming up in 3 weeks, and I find myself wishing for life to be gentler. And here you are reminding me how. Thanks so much!

  2. Well said, Kim! I am grateful every day for fans and a/c and running water, not to mention food in my belly. Good perspective to remember. Thanks.

  3. Kim,

    This is just what I needed to hear this morning!
    Your blog will be on my list of 50 today.
    Thank you! Thank you!
    –Jessica

  4. Great post, Kim. I love the phrase “companioned by benevolent forces.” Yes, yes, and yes! Today, I’m grateful for you. 49 to go.

  5. Thank you Kim! I love the synchronicity! This week we were talking about how Gratitude alone can help you remember your connection to Divinity and be part of your Spiritual practice. The quote of Meister Eckhart was the example I used as well. And you’re right, all we need is take off those shades off our eyes and be willing to see the beauty that surrounds us now. Thank you again for the beautiful reminder.

  6. Hello lovely Kim! Oh, how I miss you. I eat up your words like the delectable treats they are. Thank you for inspiring a well of gratitude…and for providing the blueprints to build bigger, stronger wells, too. Sending much love, reflecting your warmth….

  7. So I happened to have a bad day. Then tonight, had a little tiff with “you know who.” I sat in my porch rocking chair to chill and thoughts of two friends who are having really hard times popped in my head. Came upstairs to email them and READ this! Full circle — life is okay. Love ya!

  8. Dear Kim
    Thank you. This is a beautiful message. Non of us are exempt from a need to be continually reminded that gratitude lifts us out of our deepest self pity and forgetfulness. Me too. Quoting a friend’s poem…”hand reaching into darkness for blossoms of gratitude.” really spoke to me. Your thoughts are welcome and truly graced!

  9. “It’s not joy that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us joyful…”
    “When I feel as if life is serving me up a bounty of blessings, I feel companioned by benevolent forces….”
    “So often what blocks people from their greater potential is that they don’t appreciate what they have so far,” Think about a closed fist versus an upturned palm – which is more likely to receive?”
    Thanks Kim, for another jewel with so many profound, simple, and compelling insights! Thank you for you! (Hey, I really dig the comments section of your blog. You know some cool people, Sensei!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *