In the Foundations of Well-being program, I am working on the pillar of “gratitude”.
Gratitude comes from the Latin word gratis meaning pleasing or praising. When we are grateful we are pleased because something good has happened and we praise the source of the goodness. Robert Emmons, a prominent positive psychologist at UC Davis, explains that psychologically being grateful means two things. What happened and to what do we attribute the goodness? First we affirm the goodness and then that we are being given a gift that we cannot provide ourselves.
Gratitude makes us aware that we are part of a larger world that we depend upon and it challenges us to accept interdependency. The natural world, the gift of life and the technologies that we use everyday. Gratitude is a unique emotion, it’s not about the self. Unlike other emotions where you can feel angry, guilty, prideful or disappointed toward the self, you cannot possibly feel grateful to the self. We can buy ourselves a gift but it does not make us feel grateful toward the self. You are receiving goodness, a gift, kindness you cannot give that to yourself. So it is really about the other person who is doing something for us.
Gratitude does make people happier, it creates a sense of joy, purpose and passion but there are also the interpersonal benefits of generosity and compassion. Studies show that grateful people are more giving, more for-giving and more outwardly focused. So you have the internal benefits and also the external inter-personal benefits. Gratitude is not kept inside, but expressed through action to have an impact on the world.
According to Dr Emmons, we can construct gratitude no matter your circumstances. In his research, he has encountered people in terrible circumstances who can still be grateful. How can we practice gratitude when we are in difficult circumstances? The principle of thankfulness is not minimizing or denying suffering but to be with the pain. There is an aspect of defiance in gratitude – no matter the circumstance, I am going to be grateful. It is an attitude, not a feeling, to find things to be grateful for or to see opportunities within a difficult situation. Perhaps this is an opportunity for growth. I can learn something from this. I can be grateful to the people who are helping me get through this. Gratitude is not just for people who are fortunate. Gratitude is cultivated by purposely paying attention to things that you appreciate.
We can also reflect on how life would be without certain gifts – our senses: hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, pleasure. The smiles, kindness and love around us, flowers, sunlight, paperclips, refrigerators, flush toilets, civil society, the internet and iPhones.
Science has uncovered numerous benefits of gratitude. These include: a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, better sleep, decreased stress, a greater sense of fulfillment, connection with others, all enabling us to become more resilient.
Gratitude only becomes complete in action. So what actions can we take? Researchers found a gratitude journal is an effective method – identifying five things from the week that you can be grateful for. Research has pinpointed that once a week is the optimal frequency to journal. We need to engage in that deeper processing of how that positive event, or person, or action, has affected us.
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a
Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather
large amount of Gratitude.” -A A Milne