Gratitude

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am exploring the concept of gratitude.

On the one hand, that makes a lot of sense, because that’s how I make my living – studying emotions. But to tell you the truth, I hadn’t ever really thought too much about gratitude. That’s not to say that I was never grateful or, heavens forbid, ungrateful, but gratitude – in and of itself – just wasn’t something that I ever thought a lot about.

Recently, however, gratitude has been popping out all over the place. I get emails about gratitude. I have coaches who talk endlessly about gratitude. And just the other day, I turned my iPod on shuffle and up popped a segment of some random Eben Pagan program that was talking about, you guessed it, gratitude. Heck, for the last six or so weeks, even before all of this prodding started, I had set up a mastermind with my friend, where we start of by saying something that we’re grateful for! And just lately, on the advice of all those coaches, I have started keeping a daily list of 10 things for which I am grateful.

So what is gratitude?

According to Dictionary.com, gratitude (pronouned grat-i-tood), “is the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful.”

Unfortunately, thankful refers to the feeling or expressing of gratitude, so things are beginning to get a bit circular, but I would imagine that you get the idea.

As is the same for most North Americans of European descent (or those that celebrate Thanksgiving in any meaningful way), I am more familiar with the term thankful – as in what are you most thankful for, as recited annually around the dinner table in front of friends and family. It is on those moments that we learn that we should be thankful for the good things in our lives. Very rarely do you hear anyone express their thanks for their problems, their miseries, their trials, their tribulations, or, last but certainly not least, their seeming failures.

Seriously, how many times (either as a child or as an adult) have you ever seen or heard someone actually give thanks for a divorce, a job loss, a tumor, or a death of a loved one? Especially in the moment in which it is happening? Despite all of the platitudes that we have also grown up with: “Every cloud has a silver lining…”, “whenever a door closes, a window opens…”, etc. And when we do hear it – usually decades after the fact – when someone actually says, “losing my job/getting cancer/losing my leg was the best thing that ever happened to me…” we generally have a hard time believing it. No matter how sincere they seem.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to have that kind of acceptance, that kind of gratitude in the moment?

Is that even possible?

I think it is possible, for some people. Indeed, there seems to be a upsurge of what some people are calling, “Radical Gratitude.”

I first saw this phrase in an email; it was one of those daily motivational things that seem to explode out of my inbox.

I’m paraphrasing here, but it said something like, “It’s easy to be grateful for the good things in your life, but not so easy to be grateful for the things that you don’t like. Pick one thing about your life (or your body) that you don’t like and find the gratitude. Find one thing about this that you absolutely love.”

That was it. No instruction. Just pick the one thing about yourself that you hate, and express gratitude for it.

You know, I tried standing in from the mirror and expressing gratitude for something – anything – that I didn’t like. I’m sure I came up with something, but I didn’t feel it. I would have laughed it off as some silly self-help thing, but the idea kept niggling. Eventually, I realized that I was grateful – really and truly – that I had a bad knee, because it reminds me (by locking up when I don’t) to tap into and take care of my physical body.

It was amazing how good it felt to stop hating my knee.

The very next day, I heard the Eben segment on gratitude. Being Eben, he put his discussion of gratitude in a much more elaborated framework:

1. Why – Why is gratitude important?
2. What – What is gratitude?
3. How – How do you experience gratitude?
4. What if? – What three steps can you do right now to start experiencing more gratitude in your life on a daily basis?

Simply put, gratitude is important because it has the ability to pull us out of almost any negative emotion state. If you can learn to find the gratitude in an authentic way, you can manage your emotional state, no matter now negative or overwhelming that state may me. In this regard, Eben (and other within the self-development genre, industry – whatever one chooses to call it) refers to gratitude as being the “crown jewel” of all other emotions.

What is gratitude? Well, as stated above, gratitude is the experience or expression of thankfulness; it is also a powerful emotion management/emotional regulation strategy. According to Eben, as well as many sociological accounts, gratitude is a tertiary or higher order emotion. In other words, it’s not one that is hard-wired into us via biology; it’s not something that simply occurs, such as fear, anger, disgust, happiness, and joy or is somehow linked to our evolutionary survival. Instead, gratitude is something that we learn – we learn to be grateful for certain things. Gratitude is constructed via the stories that we tell ourselves about the events that are happening to us, especially those events that result in basic emotions (fear, anger, disgust, happiness, or joy) or the secondary emotions (such as jealousy, anxiety, excitement, depression, envy, guilt, or shame).

So, how do you do it? First, you acknowledge that whatever is happening is happening or, if the event happened in the past, that whatever happened has happened. There’s absolutely no point trying to change reality. It is possible to change what happens in the future, but it’s pointless to try to change what’s happening right now or what’s happened in the past. It happened or it is happening. Accept it. Second, ask yourself: “What can I learn from what is happening right now or what has happened in the past? Third, taking that information into account, what can I do moving forward to improve my situation?

Now, Eben, being Eben, takes this to the logical extreme (that is, the death of a loved one) to illustrate that you don’t need to be happy that it happened in order to find gratitude. A loved one died. You realize that life is short and there are no guarantees other than your own death, whenever that may be. You start living your life on purpose so that you can accomplish as much as you can in the time that you are allowed. You’re not happy that your loved one died, but you are grateful that you had the insight regarding your own situation early enough to do something about it moving forward.

Finally, look for challenging things in your life which you had been wishing hadn’t happened (or wasn’t currently happening) and find the gratitude.

I must admit that I wasn’t actively following through on this. However, I was thinking about it a lot and I was keeping my gratitude list. You know, the one I mentioned before that had to include 5 body-centric things? Well, things were slipping on there that I have been railing against lately – my core, which might be bigger than I’d like but nonetheless keeps me upright; my bum knee, which keeps me mindful; my autoimmune system that is working really hard (one could say too hard) to keep all of the things that are not me from becoming me….. I’m sure you’re getting the idea. And I was feeling the gratitude, but I was having to reach for it. It felt authentic, but it didn’t feel easy.

This morning, however, after I finished a 45 minute yoga session (which was much easier than it had been the last three times I’d done it) and I just sat there on the floor in awe of how much more balance I have in my life, how much more I enjoy the exercise I do, how much more balance I have in my body, and (yes, I am shallow) how nice my shoulders looked in the reflection of the window pane against the dark New England morning. And then I asked myself, How did I get here? What happened to that stressed out woman who was always in the office by 8:00, usually after having completed a grueling 1 to 2 hour cardio workout, who was stiff, and tended to have difficulty walking in the morning because of her super tight hamstrings? What happened to that woman who used to breathe shallowly, if at all? What happened to that woman who gulped her food down in a hurry without ever tasting it? What happened to that woman who would have thought you had lost your mind if you’d told her she wouldn’t set foot in a gym in over a year, never miss it, and spend hours on end dancing in her living room or on a yoga mat? What happened to her? Not that I miss her or anything, because, you know what, she was pretty uptight and really not that much fun to be around. More to the point, she didn’t love herself, which made it pretty hard for anyone else to love her either.

What happened? Because whatever it was, in that moment, I was truly grateful.

And then I remembered.

My thyroid happened. Or, rather, my thyroid stopped happening.

Did that mean that I was grateful for my hypothyroidism? That there was something that had happened as a result of that malfunction that had actually changed my life for the better? I certainly wasn’t happy that it had happened, but was I grateful for the changes that occurred as a result? And even more important, would I have changed myself if the hypothyroidism hadn’t occurred?

I took out a pen and paper and wrote the following sentence: I am grateful for my hypothyroidism, because it’s changed the way that I relate to my mind, my body, and the world.

I sat with that. It felt true. I breathed into it. It still felt true. I sit here at my desk and read it again and I know in my heart of hearts, it is true.

I’ve found the gratitude (or perhaps I should say, the gratitude found me). Regardless, I am grateful and with that, I am at peace, perhaps for the first time since I realized that sleeping on the couch for five days in a row, crying jags, delusions, and depression weren’t my typical summertime MO.

I am grateful for the life I have now; therefore, I am grateful for the things that got me here.

Perhaps Eben is right; gratitude is the crown jewel of emotions (and one hell of a strategy). Now if I could only move my lag time to real-time.

My ten things:
1. My hypothyroidism
2. My job
3. My ability to communicate with others
4. Waking up in a warm bed next to a man who loves me and who is loved by me.
5. My thumb
6. My liver
7. My pancreas
8. My tongue
9. That I grew up as an overweight child
10. My ample behind (which cushioned me this morning when I fell on the ice).

What are you grateful for?

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2 comments so far

  1. Jenn Gorga on

    Hi Kathryn, I’ve been living in a state of gratitude for so many things lately and the one thing I’ve realized is this. Gratitude grows out of suffering and pain, something we don’t wish for, but something that has the great power to open us to the gifts all around us. Regarding our womanly bodies that change daily, i wanted to share a poem I wrote not long ago, when I finally stopped to be grateful for this aging, but wonderful body I live in. Here it is:

    SHE

    her hands travel the length of her body
    in the half light after her bath
    and with unfaltering compassion she
    brightens the light to see

    the proud neck giving way with humility
    to a loving line formed
    by a head bowed
    breasts softened by the
    heart opening love of a child –
    she welcomes the softness, the inward turning
    a heart place where anguish and miracles
    make her shine with brokenness and joy

    she examines the belly that
    reflects sun – desire – hunger
    untold moments swollen to exploding life –
    a resting place for gut wrenching fear –
    she regards the womanly places
    where another soul joins hers,
    another spirit is enveloped deep within herself

    her gaze drops to legs that walk countless miles
    carry honesty where pain wants to be
    legs less than smooth, less than gilded
    true in their devotion to run with sweet flowing need
    toward the passion she may someday earn –
    she sighs at the worn sturdy feet
    solid on the ground
    smiles knowing they will carry her places unknown
    places she will gasp – tremble – dance

    a tremor runs through her as
    eyes rise to meet herself – she glows
    with this new secret of her own magnificence
    knowing she will never again be afraid
    to turn on the light

    she thinks this must be what it feels like to be alive
    and she smiles and smiles at the mystery of it all

    Peace, Jenn (can’t wait to see you at rieki 2)

  2. KJ on

    What a beautiful poem; and such an important reminder. Thank you so much for sharing.

    See you soon!


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