This week was my birthday, and I have been asking myself, “What does gratitude mean? And how can we develop the ability to feel it deeper and more often?” First of all, I am very grateful to be having another birthday….instead of the alternative. So maybe we can start there.
Gratitude means we are acknowledging that things could be worse, and we feel very grateful that they are not. Yes, I turned 59 years old this week, and it is difficult to believe that the big 60 is just a year away. When did that happen? If you are younger than this, you may be thinking, wow, that is old, and if you are older than this you are probably thinking that is very young. Whatever our perspective on age may be, another birthday means, quite simply, that we are still alive, and that is something to be very grateful for!
Gratitude means different things at different stages in our lives. When we are children we may be grateful to not get caught with our hand in the cookie jar. When we are older we may be grateful if our doctor still lets us eat cookies. Sometimes adolescents have a hard time appreciating the cookies because they assume that cookies are their right, and they will always be there. When my son came home after living on his own, he kept looking at the refrigerator and freezer with deep gratitude and called them “magic” because there was food in them.
Gratitude often requires a sense of humor. The other day a friend told me she had left the house in a big hurry and neglected to put her skirt on over her slip. She had gotten all the way to the beauty salon where she was scheduled for a pedicure before she realized this. She was laughing and said she was just grateful she had discovered it before she had come to work. Oftentimes when mistakes are made, laughing at them can help ease the pain and cause us to feel grateful that the mistake was not any worse!
Gratitude can sneak up on us, but we have to catch it. A long drive home from the office may show us a gorgeous sunset, a walk down the block may surprise us with the smell of lilacs, or we may have the privilege of overhearing children giggling while at play. All of our senses are programmed to experience gratitude if we will stop and notice. I mentioned sight and smell and sound. What about taste and touch? What is your favorite food? Can just thinking about it cause you to feel gratitude? What about the touch of a loved one? We cannot plan such times, but we can capture them, enjoy them, and feel grateful for them.
Gratitude often requires stopping what we are doing in order to feel it. Because it is a feeling, we need to clear the brain long enough to feel the feeling. A few deep breaths help. As we just mentioned, all the senses can help us feel gratitude if we will let them. Maybe dinner can wait a moment in order to stare at the miracle of a newborn baby or look deeply into a child’s eyes. Perhaps while taking out the trash we can stop a moment to feel the sun on our skin and the breeze in our hair. Maybe while watching television we can reach over and hold someone’s hand, or better yet, hold someone and feel grateful for them.
Gratitude only comes when it is invited. It will never force its way into our lives. There are a lot of walls trying to keep it out. It is only when those come down, through the exercise of our own will, that it enters with its refreshing and renewing presence. And it really is refreshing and renewing. Whatever the negative emotion we may be struggling with, feeling gratitude simply helps us feel better. So invite gratitude and welcome it in.
Gratitude often means that we have suffered. Gratitude and suffering can be deeply paired. It is hard to feel grateful for suffering, but it is often suffering that makes us grateful. However, it can be hard to hear somebody else tell us during those times that we “should” be grateful. Gratitude is certainly not a “should” thing anyway. It has absolutely nothing to do with guilt, and if we are already suffering, we certainly do not need to have guilt added to the pile. However, again, if invited, it can be comforting.
Gratitude helps put things in perspective. I really don’t like the “silver lining” phrase, but it is sort of true. Yes, the car may be totaled, but we are not, and besides we needed a new car anyway. The house may have burnt down, but we were not home, and the insurance will help us move. We may have lost our job, but it was a dead end job, and now there are other avenues to explore. We thought this relationship was the one to last forever, and it only lasted two months, but we are grateful we discovered things earlier rather than later. And on it goes, day after day after day.
Gratitude can be a treasure hunt. Whatever difficulty may have come to visit, we can usually find something to feel grateful for if we dig around and search a bit. A treasure hunt can be a game. Maybe we can make it a game, searching for the gratitude treasure. It really is a treasure because….
Gratitude has the power to change everything. It has the power to change us.
What things have you felt grateful for lately? Have there been times when gratitude has helped you through a difficult situation? Are there any “gratitude practices” you have incorporated into your life that help you feel grateful? If you think about sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound, what are some things that come to mind that cause you to feel grateful? Perhaps if we share gratitude with each other, we can more easily find the treasure.