I’m trying to cultivate gratitude. And I’ve discovered it’s a bigger task than I’d initially thought, especially with so many complications all around.
What’s so difficult about it?
Being grateful sounds so easy, but the more I think about all the minutes in each day that I’m not mindfully feeling that way, the more difficult it seems. It’s like growing a plant. Just add sunlight and water, right? That might be enough for a plant to survive, but it’s not necessarily enough for it to thrive.
When I planted my first culinary herb garden thirty-plus years ago, I devoured as much information as I could about herbs. Similarly, I’ve spent the past few months reading up on gratitude. According to psychology professor Robert A. Emmons, gratitude is “a deep, complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in human happiness.” Marcus Tulles Cicero, that old Roman philosopher, allegedly said gratitude isn’t only the greatest of virtues–it’s the parent of all virtues.
Hmm. Does that mean that gratitude gives birth to all other virtues, meaning that all other virtues wouldn’t even exist without gratitude? Or that gratitude guides the other virtues along the way? If feeling gratitude is anything like the parenting experience, there’s nothing easy about it.
Just last month, in the midst of Holiday Frenzy, I attended a gratitude workshop. I know, right? Who would think we’d need to be taught gratitude? Author Elizabeth Berg might. In her novel Open House, about a woman who finds a way to bounce back into life after a divorce, she wrote that “gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries.” How true her words sound.
But wait! You might be thinking. I’ve just sent out my holiday thank you notes. I’m totally grateful.
Appreciation is not the same thing as gratitude. Those thank you notes Mom taught us to write? They were expressions of appreciation. Gratitude is what we feel on the inside.
What does gratitude feel like?
Just as cilantro can taste differently to different people, the feeling of gratitude is unique. I asked my Facebook and Twitter friends what they thought. One said it feels like a happy heart. Another said it feels like a hug.
Elizabeth Roberts and Elisa Amidon, editors of the inspirational book Earth Prayers: 365 Prayers, Poems, and Invocations from Around the World, wrote that gratitude is about belonging to one another. “When we say thank you we really are saying we belong together.” So maybe gratitude feels like holding hands.
For me, gratitude is akin to joy, even when the day is dark. It’s a Snoopy dance even when I’m in pain. January is notably a tough month for many, with a post-holiday letdown and crummy weather. This year, many are feeling especially down with the changes in Washington DC. I believe you can experience gratitude even when your world’s turned upside down, in the same way you can still hear a gentle acoustic guitar melody or snuggle up beneath a fleece blanket or savor the blended flavors of melted butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Someone once said that gratitude is the art of painting adversity into a lovely picture. I wonder if you can also turn this the other way around: gratitude is the art of finding something lovely in an otherwise dark and gloomy picture.
To a degree, it’s a matter of tweaking perspective. Most of us think dandelions are annoying weeds, but they’re also vitamin-rich herbs that are a good source of minerals and have been known to help stimulate digestion, cure warts, and relieve PMS. In A Tour Round My Garden, French writer and gardener Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr pointed out a similarly interesting perspective on roses. He said, “some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”
Writing as death approached, the very awesome neurologist Oliver Sacks suggested that gratitude felt like peace:
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Okay, okay. But why is gratitude so important?
Chili taste better with cayenne pepper; lasagne tastes better with oregano. But are those herbs and spices really necessary? Scientific studies have proven that herbs and spices are good for us. Chili peppers can boost metabolism, ginger soothes the GI tract. Turmeric minimizes inflammation. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme? They inspire classic songs. Oh, and they also might inhibit breast cancer cell growth, soothe sore throats, enhance mental clarity, and mitigate respiratory ailments.
Like herbs, gratitude is good for us on multiple levels. Emotionally, studies have associated it with greater happiness, fewer negative emotions, and stronger relationships. It can also foster better physical wellness, including cardiac health. So if you’re a health nut, you should definitely be on the gratitude diet.
I’m not sure if herbs and spices make the entire world a better place, but Fulbright scholar Georgia Travers wrote that gratitude, by working as an infinite feedback loop, creates and returns positive energy upon which “our society depends.” Little Women author Louisa May Alcott wrote that “gratitude can conquer pride,” which sounds like a really good thing. And the Beastie Boys sang (?) that gratitude is “what’s gonna set you free.”
So, how exactly do you cultivate gratitude?
A long time ago, as an undergraduate, I prepared a How-to-Grow-a-Plant speech. On my way up to the podium, I tripped and dropped my visual aid. The pot shattered. The soil scattered. The classroom laughed, the poor plant did not. It looked very sad, indeed. So I did the only thing I could think to do. I ad libbed my way through a How-Not-to-Grow-a-Plant speech. There are days when I think it’d be a lot easier to just drop the gratitude and work on how-not-to-be-grateful. It would be so much easier. But that’s not who I want to be.
What about you? Maybe you’ve already mastered the art. Maybe gratitude flourishes in your life. If so, congratulations! If not, consider joining me on this endeavor to grow more of it in the world. Here’s my personal gratitude plan. Maybe some of it will work for you.
Be grateful to the people in your life. Just as an herb requires good soil for its roots, expressing appreciation on a regular basis might promote better gratitude overall. Marcel Proust said the people who “make us happy are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” So make a point to say thank you every day to the people who make you happy. Tell a server in a restaurant how much you appreciate his efficient service. Tell your sister how much you appreciate all the photos she posts. Thank someone for reminding you about your BRF. Or not.
Write thank you notes, in real handwriting, on real paper or note cards. No email or text thank you’s! Check out Herman Hesse’s note to Thomas Mann here. And brush up on how to write a thank-you note here. (I know this contradicts an earlier newsletter in which I encouraged using less paper to save the planet. But in the interest of humanity’s well being, I believe the occasional, sincere thank-you note is warranted.)
Arrange a gratitude visit. The father of positive psychology Margin Seligman expands on the thank you note by suggesting you deliver your note in person and read it aloud to the recipient. I can only imagine how powerful that could be. IOW, bring Kleenex. (Again, mindfulness about the carbon imprint of delivering a thank-you note might be in order. A bike ride across town would be better than a plane trip to a far away place.)
Be grateful for good things and experiences. Ralph Waldo Emerson said all things contribute to our advancement and therefore we should include all things in our gratitude. Thomas Merton wrote that true gratitude takes nothing for granted and is constantly awakening to new wonder. Thich Nyat Hanh believed that we’re engaged in a miracle every day: “ a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
Make gratitude your word of the year. Hey, it’s a lot easier than a list of resolutions, right?
Keep a gratitude journal. Document not only what happened today about which you’re thankful but also make a note about what you anticipate might trigger gratitude tomorrow.
Take the gratitude challenge! See how long it takes to list 100 things and experiences you’re grateful for. Include not only the momentous but also the momentary, from the birth of a new baby to that new show on Netflix to the hummingbird that briefly flits outside your window.
Focus on the moment. A hiker in Bhutan found herself shivering at an 11,500’ camp next to a monastery. Her local guide, dressed only in a traditional knee-length robe, seemed completely comfortable. When she asked him why he wasn’t cold, this was how he replied. “Rather than focusing on what I don’t have, I focus on what I do—I am lucky to have a fire, I am lucky to have this job, I am lucky to have a tent, and I am lucky to have your company.”
Make prayer or meditation a daily practice. Or a nightly practice; Maya Angelou advised to “let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer.” In my view, this doesn’t necessarily mean kneeling in a church or temple to worship the Creator or sitting in lotus position and chanting Om. I think the point is to find a place to empty your mind and generate positive energy. It could be a jog in the woods, a morning spent working in your herb garden, a nap in the sun. It’s about finding a place, both physically and emotionally, like the one Wendell Berry described in his poem, The Peace of Wild Things: “a place to rest in the grace of the world, and be free.” A place where gratitude can find its voice.
Read. You knew this was coming. Whether you prefer poetry, essays, or full-length books, there’s no dearth of information on how to grow gratitude in your personal garden.
Poems to consider:
Awakening, Harriet Kofalk
For Allen Ginsberg, Dorothea Grossman
Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons, Diane Wakoski
Three Gratitudes, Carrie Newcomer
One essay I recommend:
Art and Empathy: Acts of Gratitude in the Face of Violence, Georgia Travers
A few of the 8,881 gratitude books available on Amazon:
thxthxthx: Thank Goodness for Everything, Leah Dieterich
Attitudes of Gratitude, M.J. Ryan
Count Your Blessings: The Healing Power of Gratitude and Love, Dr. John F De Martini
The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, Margaret Visser
Gratitude, Oliver Sacks
Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude, Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons
On Gratitude: Sheryl Crow, Jeff Bridges, Alicia Keys, Daryl Hall, Ray Bradbury, Anna Kendrick, B.B. King, Elmore Leonard, Deepak Chopra, and 42 More Celebrities Share What They’re Most Thankful For , Todd Aaron Jensen
Words of Gratitude for Mind, Body, and Soul, Robert A. Emmons and Joanna V. Hill
Wow, THANK YOU for reading all the way through! I hope you’ve found some of this information as inspiring as I have. My wish for you is that gratitude takes over your life the way mint has been known to take over my garden.
I recognize that gratitude can be as individual as one’s culinary or gardening preferences. Would you share your gratitude tips and practices with me?