The attitude of gratitude reminds us that we have reasons enough to be happy right now

“Happiness isn’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you got.”

– Garth Brooks

The basic fact of existence is a good place to start. Reminding ourselves of the miracle of life itself puts us in touch with a fundamental gratitude that is always available. Think about everything that had to come together in order for you to be born and to take part in the experience of this life on this planet. Think about your body and all the physiological functions that keep you alive. The magic of respiration and the respiratory system turning oxygen into life. Your digestive system transforming food into life giving energy. The ability to experience taste and enjoy a meal with someone you care about. The fact that you have access to food and clean water in the first place.

Gratitude is not so much about what the external circumstances are; it is about how we pay attention. It is about training our capacity to notice, experience and express gratefulness.

Appreciation, giving attention, acknowledging the presence of another life form and feeling the goodness there. That is gratitude. You can go beyond the mental concepts and have an attitude of gratitude that no longer requires you to continuously say ‘thank you'”.

– Eckard Tolle

Choosing happiness

What about injustice? Disease? Personal loss? War? It is easy to point out the things we cannot be grateful for. Gratitude is not about ignoring suffering or pretending that everything is perfect. It is not that we have to force ourselves to muster feelings of gratitude or say ‘thank you’ to everything. Rather, it is an invitation to pay conscious attention in ways that lead to happiness.

When we habitually focus on what is lacking, we never notice the “enoughness” and beauty of what is already here. We get stuck in striving, believing that certain conditions in the future will make us happy. We feel that once we get what we want, we will be happy and feel grateful. But as David Steindl-Rast, the catholic monk, points out;

Happiness does not cause gratefulness. Gratefulness causes happiness.

Research studies suggest that we have good reason to express our gratitude. When we do, our brain releases the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are correlated with positive emotions. This surge not only enhances our mood in the short term. Studies at UCLA have shown that it strengthens neural pathways that enable us to experience happiness and contentment. In other words, gratitude literally wires the brain for happiness.

No better time than right now

Sometimes it takes a real crisis for us to appreciate everything we usually take for granted. When we face loss or disruption, we are often “forced” to stop and re-evaluate what is truly important in our lives. This can trigger a desire to express our gratitude for what we have (or had).

Why wait until it is too late? How can you cultivate the attitude of gratitude right away?

“A healthy man wants a thousand things, a sick man only wants one”

– Confucius

Practicing gratitude

David Steindl-Rast explains how gratefulness occurs spontaneously when we get something that is freely given and valuable to us. This means that every moment can be the object of our gratitude – every moment is freely given and holds a potentially valuable opportunity. By cultivating a sense of gratitude for the opportunity in every given moment, we can increasingly live from a place of gratitude.

He encourages us to practice by using a simple, three step process:

🛑 1) Stop. This step is crucial (as pointed out in other mindfulness techniques such as SOAL). Unless we allow ourselves to stop, we continue running on autopilot. Taking a quick break allows us to come back to our senses and act more consciously. In order to integrate this into our lives, we need to find stop signs. Whenever you find yourself caught up in some reactive behavior, practice stopping. Don’t make it complicated. Simply allow yourself to stop what you are doing and take a few conscious breaths.

👀 2) Look . Open your eyes and heart to opportunities to be grateful. Once you have stopped, look around for reasons to be grateful. Bring your attention to things around you that you otherwise take for granted. Expand to include the people you love and the opportunities you have in your life… you will find that the list is endless!

Practice looking the situation you are caught up with and ask yourself “what can I be grateful for about this situation?”. If you are arguing with your partner, you might bring to mind something you like about him or her. If you are caught in habitual eating, consider the fact that you have access to food. What happens to your mood as you shift your attention in this way?

Sometimes the opportunity is more demanding and we may not be able to find gratitude for the situation at hand. This is an invitation to go beyond the circumstances and connect with a deeper gratitude for life itself.

🎉 3) Go. Take the opportunity that life offers! Say thank you. Express your gratitude. Savour the moment. Celebrate! The point is to go with life; to express your gratitude and creativity. Notice the effects – these experiences of gratitude will serve as rewards that help strengthen the habit. Over time, this response becomes more natural (as explained in the Frame Letting go).

Another way to strengthen the “gratitude response” is through journaling. Try keeping a notebook by the side of your bed. Each morning, pick it up and write a few things you are grateful for in your life. Once again, notice what it feels like just to acknowledge these things. You will end up with a long list that you can come back to whenever you need a reminder of all the reasons you have to be happy.

Compiled effects and studies on gratitude:

Reference to UCLA study:

David Steindl-Rast TED-talk:

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