My earliest memory of gratitude actually has nothing to do with gratitude. I was in third grade, and I saw that my classmate had drawn (really, scribbled) a picture of her and a dog and had written next to it, “I am greatful for my dog Samson.” My initial thought was, “it’s spelled grateful, not greatful, you dumbie.” I may or may not have been a bookworm and total snob. My second thought was, “who would be thankful for a dog? Dogs are gross.” I grew up in a firmly Asian immigrant household where dogs were considered street animals that would bite you at any given moment and infect you with rabies. We did not go near dogs, let alone kiss them on the mouth, as I had observed some of my more unhygienic friends do.
Gratitude Makes You a Better Human
Fast forward 20 years later, and gratitude has become the new buzz word. Self-help books, women’s magazines, and even corporate America have latched onto gratitude as the new panacea. And with good reason. Various studies show that expressing gratefulness (not greatfulness) makes us both healthier and happier. In fact, people who are grateful on a regular basis are more optimistic, have more energy, earn more money, have better sleep, exercise more regularly, and are physically healthier. Basically, if you start practicing gratitude regularly, you can stop reading this blog because you’ll already be healthier and happier! But don’t stop reading, k, thanks.
So, if gratitude can literally make you a better person, friend, lover, employee, family member, and citizen, why aren’t more people practicing gratitude? Well, for one, sometimes it’s just easy to be a Negative Nancy. It’s so much easier to complain about your stressful day at work instead of finding the silver lining and appreciating what didn’t go wrong at work. It’s so much easier to gripe when you’re stuck in a traffic jam than it is to enjoy the extra time you’ve been gifted to listen to your favorite podcast or album. And,, in our nonstop world where our lives are dictated by business hours and packaged into 140 characters, most of us forget to slow down and savor the present. We’re too intent on fixing the past and molding the future that we don’t pause to just enjoy the moment and give thanks for being alive.
Gratitude From a 90-Year Old Monk
I started actively practicing gratitude sometime last year after I listened to a life-changing TED Talk on gratefulness from an adorable, 90-year old Benedictine monk named David Steindl-Rast. His talk is incredibly inspiring. I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times, and it has changed the way I perceive the world and my life.
In case you’re too lazy to listen to all 14 and a half minutes of his talk, here are a few of his key points on gratitude that resonated with me:
- It is not happiness that makes you grateful. Rather, it is gratefulness that makes you happy.
- Gratefulness can spontaneously arise in your heart whenever two conditions are met: (1) something valuable is (2) freely given to you (it is a gift, as opposed to something that is bought or earned).
- You can experience gratefulness all the time, as opposed to just occasionally, if you become aware that every moment is a given moment, a gift, an opportunity.
- There is an easy method to live gratefully and to be grateful in every moment: Stop, Look, Go.
- Stop: stop and get quiet.
- Look: when you stop, open your eyes, ears, and heart to enjoy the richness of the moment.
- Go: do whatever life offers to you in that present moment.
My Experience with Practicing Gratitude
Nowadays, I try to appreciate the little things that previously would have escaped my attention, like the miracle of walking into a subway station just as my train arrives to whisk me away, or seeing a tiny flower on a dreary winter day. Basically, I am a better person now, and I like to be able to gloat about that.
Sometimes, I even wake up in the morning with a smile on my face. And one morning a few weeks ago, my alarm clock went off in this tropical, reggaeton, Rihanna-circa-2005 song, and I ended up dancing myself awake. I’m not even sure what dancing oneself awake entails, but I know that I started shimmying my shoulders and gyrating my hips while I simultaneously elevated my body out of bed. This kind of ecstatic behavior would have never happened in my pre-gratitude days.
Practicing gratitude has made me feel happier in so many concrete ways. For one, I want things less. Most days, I am very satisfied with everything that I have, tangible and intangible, and do not wish for more. Except when it comes to kitchenware. I always want more of that. I am also more connected with nature now, and I find myself regularly in awe of our planet’s beauty, whether it’s enjoying a brilliant sunset or watching Cosmos with my friend Neil de Grasse Tyson. When I’m having a bad day or dealing with a difficult situation, I try–though not always successfully–to find a silver lining and be grateful for it. For instance, the other day, I was having a crappy day at work, but then I reminded myself that I’m lucky to even have a job and to work in an office with supportive colleagues. Or, when one of my various aging body parts is hurting, I try to remember that at least I can still walk, breathe, and smile.
Keeping a Gratitude Journal
In order to become the best person alive, I decided to further pursue my gratitude practice this week by keeping a gratitude journal. Each evening before bed, I wrote down three things for which I was grateful on that day. What did I write about, you ask? Big things from my family and my health to small things like a nice walk in the sunshine or a delicious piece of pie for dessert.
In addition to writing down three specific things for which I was grateful, I also wrote down why those particular things happened or how they came about. Writing down why something good happened enabled me to see patterns and trends in my life. What I noticed was that good things often happen because people make an effort to be kind, thoughtful, generous, open-minded, or productive. For instance, one night I wrote, “I am grateful that I had the chance to have dinner with an old friend who I haven’t seen in a long time.” The why part was, “We were able to have dinner because we both made an effort to reach out and to re-cultivate our friendship, despite our busy schedules.” Lesson learned? Relationships require work.
Unsurprisingly, keeping a gratitude journal made me cognizant of my privilege and the things I often take for granted. Like my parents. I recently had lunch with a friend who lost a parent, and that night I journaled about how lucky I was to still have my parents in my life. That, in turn, made me think of all the sacrifices my parents have made for me over the last 28 years, and how lucky I am to have such generous and loving parents. There may have been some waterworks, just FYI.
Also, one night this week–after a rather typical experience on the NYC subway, complete with a strange man trying to sell me Essie nail polish and, upon my refusal, asking me out on a date instead–I journaled about how grateful I was to be able to walk to work everyday and that I didn’t have to rely on a car or even public transportation to get to work. Another evening, after buying some beautiful fruit at Whole Foods, I was grateful for the fact that I have access to healthy, albeit overpriced, food.
I decided to journal before bed because I was already journaling about my worries and to-dos as part of my sleep practice, and it ended up helping me go to bed feeling peaceful and happy. Another great time to write in your gratitude journal is first thing in the morning so you set the right tone for your day. Or, try journaling when you’re at work and feeling miserable. It won’t change the fact that your boss is a wanker, but it might make you feel a tiny bit better.
Interested in trying out this gratitude practice? Drop me a line! I would love to hear from you.
Next week I’ll be talking about love and relationships. My diehard fans are probably like “What??? I thought she was going to blog about the same topic for a whole month.” Well, that was the original concept for this blog, but then it got a little boring, so I decided to shift to a new topic every week. Diehard fans, thank you for still reading.
With lots of thanks,