Being grateful is a choice we can make, in good times and especially in bad times. But it is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful.
So you may have heard, if you read Part 1 (the previous post), that choosing to be grateful is one of the most powerful ways to boost your happiness. That’s why I am really dwelling on it here. Before we dive in and learn more in Part 2, here’s a Burns Family March Break gratitude anecdote for you.
I wrote this in my on-line gratitude journal a few days ago:
I am sitting here in my parents–in laws’ house in Florida feeling very grateful for the beautiful, fun-filled day we had as a family. We were all feeling especially grateful for that today since for the last 48 hours, each of us in turn was flattened by an ugly GI bug that was intense and mercifully short in duration. We haven’t had such an intense experience with a bug before in our family. Anyway, so the fact that we all got out on bicycles and rode around and saw dolphins and pelicans and other wonders today was worth being grateful for. The contrast was stark.
The experience of all being sick like that on holiday one after the other made us really feel grateful for the remaining time we had there – we went out and made the most of the opportunities we had, with even more relish than previously. No taking our good health and the beautiful environment for granted! We chose to be grateful and not dwell on the disappointment of missing two days of holiday. The gratitude made us feel good and boosted our energy – more on that below. (And shhh…the fact that I was too sick to go out but not too sick to read meant that, for a whole day I got to lie around reading a novel between naps. I can’t remember the last time I did that! I tore through The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. I was grateful to my husband for having recovered enough to take the also recovered two of three children out!)
Anyway, as I said in Part 1, there is now a “science of gratitude”, a part of the science of positive psychology. These areas of science are showing us that many of us have our success/happiness formula reversed. We don’t find happiness by being “successful”. We become successful in a way that is deeply meaningful to us as individuals through being happy first. And gratitude is one of the most powerful tools we can use to become happier. (See more on happiness here.)
Being grateful is a choice we can make, in good times and especially in bad times. Here’s what Robert Emmons, the world’s expert on gratitude says in this article, How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times:
But it is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. We don’t have total control over our emotions. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy. Feelings follow from the way we look at the world, thoughts we have about the way things are, the way things should be, and the distance between these two points.
But being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives. When disaster strikes, gratitude provides a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. Yes, this perspective is hard to achieve—but my research says it is worth the effort.
Gratitude shows up in a number of different ways: it can be a positive emotion, a neutralizer of negative emotions, a character strength and a source of energy. In Part 1, we looked at gratitude as a positive emotion (if you haven’t read Part 1, I recommend you do go back and read it too, for the full story on gratitude). Let’s now look at the other aspects of gratitude and then I will give you some ideas as to how to make gratitude more a part of your life.
Gratitude can be a neutralizer of negative emotions – it is hard to feel grateful and also greedy, envious or vicious. It’s also hard to feel “foreboding joy” as defined by Brené Brown in Daring Greatly. Brené Brown writes of her own experience with that feeling of noticing joy welling up inside her but then quickly stomping it out for fear that something bad would happen. Her research taught her that gratitude is an antidote to this. If you experience this foreboding joy, try infusing yourself with gratitude in that moment and see what happens. Gratitude could be your antidote here. Brené Brown gives the example of watching one of her babies sleep and beginning to feel joyful but then immediately being terrified that something awful would happen to her child if she allowed that joy to really take hold of her. It is in this moment she suggests that you actively reach for a grateful thought about the situation. You choose to be grateful. This idea really resonated with the women at the Gratitude lunch I did with Scala Network for Women in January.
Gratitude is a “character strength”, again something we can cultivate and actively use. Using this strength connects us to the larger universe and provides meaning. Research shows it is one of five strengths that are most strongly associated with happiness and well-being (the other four are hope/optimism, love, curiosity and vitality). For more on character strengths and a free assessment, click here. If you have children, you may have come across this book about character strengths by Paul Tough: How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. Character strengths workshops are now being offered in schools, such as this one here coming up, by Louisa Jewell, which is sure to be very valuable.
Gratitude boosts your energy, not only your emotional energy as we have already talked about (re: positive emotions), but also your human spirit energy. You feel connected to something larger than yourself. This source of energy tends to be a very underused, but powerful source of energy for all of us – here’s a blog post about that.
So, now I hope you have a better idea of what gratitude is exactly and why it’s important. The next question you may have is: how can I get more of this in my life? Science is showing that there is no “one size fits all” gratitude solution. You need to figure out what gratitude practices work best for you, through experimentation.
Here are some ideas for you, from my reading and also from discussing this with various people lately:
- keep a gratitude journal – writing every day, or once a week, or even intermittently has been shown to boost well being – see this excellent and comprehensive Robert Emmons article for more – See also my PS below about an on-line journal option for you!
- notice “endings” through your day and find gratitude in them (from p. 210 in Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity). For example, when you have just had lunch with a friend, you can stop for a moment and find some gratitude in that experience…maybe she was such a good listener today and you really appreciated that and that makes you feel grateful for the friendship and aware that you need to continue make room in your life for relationships like that. Maybe those feelings spur you to write a quick email to her saying “thanks for being a good listener today”, which further boosts your good feelings and energizes you as you move on to your next activity.
- practice the “what went well, and why, today” exercise which has been shown to increase happiness (this is a popular “course” in my on-line journal offering – see here for more or go to the PS below)
- keep a gratitude jar in your house and fill it with little notes of gratitude that you can read when needing a boost – from Brené Brown
- keep a gratitude list in your wallet or on your phone and look at it habitually
- write thank you notes regularly
- read Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. A number of women I have talked to recently cited this book as a great inspiration for a regular gratitude practice. I appreciated the reminder: this book was a life-line for me as a new mother
- use appreciative words, such as “I really appreciated it when you went and washed the car today. That was thoughtful of you!”
- say grace
- pay your benefit forward to someone else – for example, if someone does something nice for you, know that one way of being grateful is to do something nice for someone else.
- and there are many other excellent suggestions from Robert Emmons in this article, Ten Ways to Be More Grateful
So, given all this, I hope you have new-found appreciation for gratitude and some actions you can try to cultivate gratitude in your life, to become happier than you were before, and thus be on the road to more success that is meaningful to you.
What’s already working for you, gratitude-wise?
What is something new that you would like to try?
I would love to hear your gratitude stories and any comments or questions you may have.
PS About the on-line journal…. You may know that I believe so strongly in the power of journaling for making change, that I have licensed online journaling software for my clients, other interested people and me to use. I offer this to you for free (since I pay a flat fee) and it is a secure place for you to journal just for yourself, totally privately, or on occasion you may wish to share your journal with others, including me as the coach. As a member, you are entitled to three free journal reviews per calendar year. There are two free courses you will have access to, including the “What Went Well and, Why, Today” course which is a gratitude-based journaling exercise. Just show up – no worrying about whether you are making a good entry, whether your grammar is correct, or whether you have something particularly brilliant to say. Just show up and see what comes out that day. You may surprise yourself, as has often happened with my clients and with me. You can learn more and sign up here. It is my gift to you.