There is nothing for which I am more thankful than my capacity to be grateful. This may seem a blatant effort to wriggle out of having to name one “thing” I appreciate most, and it is. But honestly, in my experience, the capacity for gratefulness truly dwarfs all specific reasons to be thankful.

The vast majority of us have reasons to be grateful galore. Just imagine: we have pairs of eyes, legs, ears, lungs and hands! If this isn’t enough, we have a pumping heart and a mind-blowing brain; a blanket of skin, brilliant organs, and a host of finely-tuned senses — never idle.

Having an infinite number of reasons for gratitude does not insure that we will actually feel or be grateful.

No matter what, our bodies are miraculous — and so is the natural world. If we are really lucky, we also have people who care about us, a roof over our heads, access to water and food enough not to be hungry. It would land us in a veritable avalanche of awe if we took stock of how many reasons there are for gratitude in every moment. But even having an infinite number of reasons for gratitude does not insure that we will actually feel or be grateful.

Kristi Nelson and a friend during her treatment for lymphoma.

Trust me, I know. Twenty-two years ago I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. For many of us who “cheated” death by surviving life-threatening conditions at a young age, life itself became the gift for which we swore we would feel eternally thankful. And it was true, in the beginning. The first few years of remission put the blessings of my life in very sharp relief. I was on “super soak;” every experience was saturating and I was a sponge. I told people I was living “acutely.” Not sure how much more time was mine, I was awe-struck by most every moment, everyone and everything.

But, absent a well-developed capacity, anything wonderful can become conditional and transitory. For me, all those amazing reasons to feel blessed eventually joined the realms of the taken for granted, and what it took me to feel gratitude got more elaborate over time. With each passing year I built up a kind of gratitude tolerance; what used to be enough got left in the dust in the pursuit of more. I got busy and more “normal,” joining my peers in chronically chasing goals and the fulfillment they promised. I martyred myself to work, complained heartily about traffic, body-fat and colds, ruthlessly compared myself to others, suffered with stress and got burnt out. Having cheated death, I began “cheating” life.

It is understandable. In our culture we learn to “belong” through myriad conversations about what is missing from our lives and what we need more of, in order to feel the well-being we crave — sleep, ease and love leading the way. We certainly, intermittently feel grateful when conditions are agreeable and our needs have been met — something good happens, our gratitude arises. But gratitude can recede just as quickly as it comes; the present collects dust, friends disappoint, traffic lights turn red and the sun goes behind a cloud. Then, we crave, await, and/or orchestrate the next reason to feel good, and therefore grateful. In this sense, our lives become an incessant quest. We know this more commonly in our contemporary lexicon as “the pursuit of happiness.”

Fixing my awareness on what is available and possible in each moment, what is sufficient and sacred — this reconnects me to a fidelity to life that is restorative.

By contrast, these days I am learning the ways that we can access a deeper, more reliable reservoir of happiness through cultivating gratefulness as a foundational way of experiencing life — through living gratefully. As Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.” Having occupied both sides of this koan, I know it to be true; I am far happier when I notice more of what I already have…than when I have more, and neglect to notice.

Grateful living is a daily practice — just as mindfulness and compassion are practices — strengthened by learning to focus our awareness on the “great fullness” of the moment, as it is. We can intentionally direct our attention toward what is already offered, what is working, what is enough. We can invite a sense of wonder, and choose to see opportunities at hand. Even in the most challenging of times, there is the opportunity to learn, to love, to breathe. Fixing my awareness on what is available and possible in each moment, what is sufficient and sacred — this reconnects me to a fidelity to life that is restorative. It also moves me to make a difference with what I have available to me. This is the capacity for gratefulness for which I am so thankful.

I do not want to waste my time wanting, and waiting for, reasons for gratitude. The gift of my life is at hand, and it wants me to be fully alive, and wildly grateful, now. And again now. Unconditionally. Because one day, as poet Jane Kenyon said, ” …one day I know it will be otherwise.”

Stories of Grateful Living
Kristi Nelson

Kristi Nelson

About the author

Kristi Nelson is our Ambassador for Grateful Living and the author of Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted. She served as Executive Director at Grateful Living from 2014 - 2022. Her life’s work in the non-profit sector has focused on leading, inspiring, and strengthening organizations committed to progressive social and spiritual change. Being a long-time stage IV cancer survivor moves her every day to support others in living and loving with great fullness of heart.