The Transformative Power of Gratitude
Simple practices can reconnect us with the flow of life.
By Kim Ridley
My life was humming along last year when the universe delivered back-to-back wake-up calls. First, I lost my job when the magazine I edited went belly-up. A month later, my father landed in the intensive care unit. It felt as though life were peeling my layers, like a tree being stripped of bark.
Not knowing what else to do, I drove down to my parents' house. Their vulnerability terrified me. I visited my father at the hospital every day, trying to hold back tears as I stood awkwardly by his bed and stroked his thick white hair. At home, I cooked, answered the phone, and washed the dishes. One afternoon, I held my mother's hand as she wept. Its warmth and softness, its aliveness, astonished me. And that's when the most unexpected thought welled up from some fresh chink in my heart: I am so blessed to be here right now.
Suddenly, I felt lucky to have the time to be with my parents, to witness them, which I wouldn't have been able to do if I hadn't lost my job. Now, I had all the time there was.
I felt even more grateful for this gift of time when my father returned home. Grateful for the smallest things: poring over seed catalogues together, watching sitcoms with him, listening to his breathing while he slept in his recliner. Grateful for the cold wind on my face as I cross the supermarket parking lot on an errand for my parents. Grateful for my brother's love and care, for my mother's humanity, for the moon climbing the maple trees outside my old bedroom window.
Looking back, I never would have chosen the crises of my father's illness and losing work I loved. But my parents' vulnerability—and my own—frighten me less these days. Gratitude opened the gates of tenderness—right in the midst of fear and uncertainty.
Since then, I've started making a conscious effort to practice gratitude in some small way every day. When I do, I feel much more connected with the flow of life, instead of isolated and alone in my own struggles and fears.
Gratitude can be a powerfully transformative practice. Psychologists Robert Emmons of U.C. Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami have found that practicing gratitude can actually improve our emotional and physical well-being. Their ongoing Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness has found that people who keep weekly gratitude journals had fewer physical symptoms, exercised more, had a better outlook on life and were more likely to reach their goals. People with neuromuscular disease who practiced daily gratitude "had more high-energy positive moods," felt more connected to others, and felt more positive about life in comparison to a control group.
"Practicing gratitude helps people extract the most out of life," Emmons says. "People can also experience an overall shift to a more benevolent view of the world. I think it's kind of a spiritual shift for some people because it makes them more aware of life as a gift."
To help strengthen my own "gratitude muscle," I asked Emmons and several inspiring practitioners to share their suggestions. Here are daily practices anyone can try.
1. See the giver behind the gift. "We ask people to focus every day on a particular person who provided them with a benefit," Emmons says. That's really what gratitude is. It's not just something you're happy about." It could be anyone from the spouse who made you a perfect cup of coffee this morning to the person who bagged your groceries.
2. Ask yourself three questions every day. A powerful way to cultivate gratitude is to focus on what is really happening in our lives, rather than falling into the traps of complaining and drama, says Gregg Krech, author of "Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self Reflection," and co-founder of the ToDo Institute in Monkton, Vermont. The basic practice of Naikan, which translates to "inside-looking," consists of asking oneself three questions every day: "What have I received today? What have I given? What trouble have I caused?" While Naikan doesn't deny the difficult parts of our lives, it puts things into perspective, says Krech, who asks himself these three questions every evening.
"When I list everything I received and then everything I gave each day, what I have in the giving column is always so much shorter than what's in the receiving column," he says. "As we become aware that we've received so much more than we've given, not only does that cultivate gratitude, it also cultivates often a sense of wanting to give something back to the world."
3. Practice even when you don't feel like it. "One of the mistakes people often make in our culture is thinking you have to feel grateful to practice gratitude," says psychologist Miriam Greenspan, author of Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair. "You can practice anytime—when you feel sorrow, great anxiety over a parent's imminent death, if you have a disabled child. Whatever one can muster at these points as a prayer of gratitude—okay, I'm still breathing, or I have friends who care about me—tips the experience from being immersed unmindfully in one's suffering to moving into the present moment with a more holistic perspective. We see that there is suffering, but there is also this gratitude, and we can hold them together."
4. Make thank-you your mantra. Every moment offers an opportunity for thanks, says Nancy Hathaway, senior dharma teacher at the Kwan Um Zen School and a family mindfulness consultant in Blue Hill, Maine. She uses "thank-you" as a mantra to return to the present moment. "On the first day of spring, I was raking the gravel off the grass. It was hard, and I was starting to complain to myself," Hathaway says. "When I caught myself thinking, I switched over to 'thank you.' I remembered I really wanted to rake, and I wanted springtime. Gratitude practice for me is about letting go of thinking and welcoming in the present moment."
5. Create a simple family ritual. "In our family, every evening when we have dinner, we say our thank you's," says Greenspan. "It's not a formal prayer of any kind, but just what we're grateful for in the moment, and that's all. It brings us back, it's a touchstone to the miracles of life that we may have been overlooking."
6. Bow to life. "I do three bows in the morning," Hathaway says. "The first bow is to my self as part of the universe. The second bow is to my family, children, and friends to acknowledge and appreciate them. The third is bowing to the universal life force and what is. Doing this helps me let go of controlling, and instead open to the flow of life."
Kim Ridley writes about people creating positive social change for Ode magazine and other publications. She is the former editor of Hope magazine, which for nine years reported on people making a positive difference. She is co-editor of 'Signs of Hope: In Praise of Ordinary Heroes.'