and how a gratitude practice can bring more joy to your life.
The definition of gratitude is the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
Benedictine monk, Br. David Steindl-Rast, suggests that two qualities belong in our basic definition of gratitude. The first is appreciation: You recognize that something is valuable to you, which has nothing to do with its monetary worth. The second quality Br. David mentions is that gratitude is gratis: freely given to you.
Robert Emmons, perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, also argues that gratitude has two key components: “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.”
In her book, Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life, Angeles Arrien writes: “Gratitude is essentially the recognition of the unearned increments of value in one’s experience.” She goes on to say: “Gratitude is a feeling that spontaneously emerges from within. However, it is not simply an emotional response; it is also a choice we make. We can choose to be grateful, or we can choose to be ungrateful—to take our gifts and blessings for granted. As a choice, gratitude is an attitude or disposition.”
I love Brene Brown and have read most of her books. In one of them- Braving the Wilderness, she talks about our struggle with the balance between pain and joy. She says:
What does my practice look like?
Years ago when I read Braving the Wilderness, I had an aha moment. I realized that I was able to get through the pain and trauma in my life by having an active gratitude practice. I hadn’t actually put a label on it, or realized that was what helped me get through the darkness. It has stuck with me ever since.
I do spend a lot of time talking about my gratitude practice. What is this you ask? My gratitude practice is actually not about a formal time in my day when I think about what I’m grateful for, and I don’t even have a gratitude journal (which I do plan to start with Zephyr). For me, it’s a practice I incorporate into my daily activities. It’s part of my mindfulness practice. They go hand in hand.
How does this work for me?
Throughout my day, I stop and notice things.
- When I am going out to my car, I stop and notice my surroundings and think to myself “how gorgeous are these trees right now? I am so lucky to witness the changing seasons.”
- While I am teaching a bunch of crazy, silly preschoolers, I stop for a moment, look at them and think “how adorable are these kiddos right now? OMG, I have the best job ever.”
- When I am at tuffgirl, and it’s HARD, but I’m lifting kettlebells over my head, while I sweat and think “ugh, I can’t do this,” I simultaneously think “how lucky am I that I can spend an hour of my day doing this for my body and soul, AND that my body CAN do these incredible hard things.” I also think about how strong I am getting. It’s how I get through the HARD things.
- When my hair is out of control and crazy and I’m attempting to tame it, I think “ugh, my hair, I wish it wasn’t so frizzy, fuzzy and out of control. Then I think about how lucky am I to have it. I consciously stopped dyeing it and embraced the gray. It’s weird, yes, but it’s mine and makes me ME.
- In my most frustrating moments of dealing with Zephyr and homework, I stop and recognize that this is parenting. This is what it’s about. All the challenges and milestones and joy. I’m still frustrated, but I can recognize that I too am super lucky that I have a sweet, smart, incredible kid AND a partner on the same page as me. Yes, he will frustrate us, but that’s part of it. It doesn’t change it, it changes how I’m responding to him in a moment of frustration. Then I take a deep breath and continue to work through this challenge (and it’s a frequent one).
- When I go to others homes, I get house envy (I won’t lie- I may be a bit obsessed!). I think about how much I want to own my own house and dream about what it may look like. My brain goes there, and at times can spiral. My mindfulness practice allows me to pull it back, notice it and then realize I have a place to live, a bed to sleep in, in a great neighborhood, with low rent we can afford and maybe one day I’ll own a house. I’ve realized that I can be thankful at the same time I’m a bit envious with the want monster looming.
My gratitude practice helps me to acknowledge my wants, hopes, dreams, wishes, while ALSO acknowledging how fortunate I am in what I do have. We can have both feelings. That is what my practice looks like. It was a mindset change. If we are always wishing for the other, without realizing what we have, then we can’t be truly happy. I can imagine and wish for the other while REALLY being appreciative for what I have.
11 years ago, I suffered a trauma, a huge loss (my son Silas died in childbirth) that took me to a really sad, depressing place for a few years. It was a hard place to be for this always glass half full, super optimistic, idealistic person. I couldn’t imagine that this horror could have happened to me and I had to sit in this dark place for a long time. Yes, finally getting pregnant (after 3 rounds of IVF) and having Zephyr fulfilled my hopes and dreams for a child- but it was a really challenging path to get there. I came out on the other side of this, being able to sit in the darkness while also being able to recognize the light.
It is possible to hold both sadness for one thing, while feeling joyful for another. I believe this is the crux of a gratitude practice. It is this state of mind that arises when you affirm a good thing in your life that is external, and when you can notice and relish in the little pleasures. You have this power to choose to be grateful, anytime you want.
I am an empathetic, feeling everything deeply, kind of person. I see the trauma that others experience around me and I cannot handle it. I want to make it better, I want to change the injustices, the inhumanity and horrors of the world. It’s so hard to deal with the awfulness happening around me which sometimes makes me feel guilty for my joy when others are not experiencing it. I battle with that. But thanks to Brene Brown, I’ve slowly realized that 1) I am allowed to feel joy and 2) how important it is that my joy allows me to bring my work to my local community.
I feel like I can have a bit of control in doing that and that helps with the feeling of helplessness from all the pain and suffering out there in the world.
3 Simple Ways YOU can practice GRATITUDE
1. Acknowledge the little things that may be out of the ordinary in your day.
Think about something very specific and detailed that happened like “the woman at the front desk at the doctor complimented my hair,” or “there was no rushing this morning and everyone got off to work and school on time!”
2. Start off with some real concrete gratitude practices.
Start a gratitude journal, create a gratitude jar, having everyone say what they are grateful for before you eat dinner, or some of these COOL awesome ideas here.
Research by UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, shows that simply keeping a gratitude journal—regularly writing brief reflections on moments for which we’re thankful—can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.
3. Include others in your practice.
Tell people how you feel about them! Write a letter, send an email, tell them over coffee how much you appreciate their friendship.
If you have a gratitude practice, I’d love to hear about it!