Three cheers for the November 21st Washington Post book review by Mitch Horowitz, for bringing attention to our culture’s current fascination with gratitude. While indeed questionable whether this contemporary phenomenon is worthy of being dubbed a “movement,” gratitude is certainly one of the latest yellow brick roads in our individual preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness. We believe that gratefulness can offer a greater path…
Gratitude as sought and seen through a hedonic lens – which is how most of the current trend articulates the benefits – will inevitably struggle with struggle, and suffer under the weight of suffering.
Look at T-shirts, tchotchkes, and book titles right now and it is easy to conclude that gratitude is trending, but the reach and relevance of the positive psychology effects of the gratitude wave are surely self-limiting as soon as people experience and encounter difficulty or pain. Gratitude as sought and seen through a hedonic lens – which is how most of the current trend articulates the benefits – will inevitably struggle with struggle, and suffer under the weight of suffering. It leans towards the transactional, acquisitional, and conditional. The aperture of feel good, self-satisfying gratitude is simply too small to be sustained, and does not allow for the inevitable, messy truths of life to enter the picture. This will seriously – and rightly – constrain any ability for “buoyant” gratitude to take hold across the vast landscape of our lives and culture.
It can be relatively easy to hold an “attitude of gratitude” when we have what we need, get what we want, and inventory happy occurrences in our journals at the end of a day. It is quite another proposition to still feel grateful when life brings us and others circumstances none of us would willingly choose. We are assured all kinds of moments in life. The challenge is—and always has been—to be grateful especially when life does not deliver on hopes, expectations, and most especially on fairness.
Noticing the gifts already in our lives, taking fewer of our privileges for granted, …seeing opportunities in challenges, and embracing the great fullness of life are some of the domains of the moment-to-moment practice of gratefulness.
For the sake of exactly the kinds of shortcomings that Horowitz addresses in his article, we draw a set of distinctions between a momentary experience of gratitude and gratefulness—the state of being grateful. These nuanced differences can allow us to orient to life through a wider, more inclusive lens and still maintain a fundamental experience of gratefulness when the proverbial fan gets hit with less savory things. While gratitude may serve us well when the weather is good, the meal is great, the company enthralling, and the body does what we want it to do, gratefulness helps us remember to be grateful for the ability to simply breathe (it won’t always be so), to feel anything and everything (better than the alternative), and to be alive in this very moment (not everyone who expected to be here today still is).
Noticing the gifts already in our lives, taking fewer of our privileges for granted, actively appreciating what we value, acknowledging impermanence, seeing opportunities in challenges, and embracing the great fullness of life are some of the domains of the moment-to-moment practice of gratefulness. In these ways, gratefulness sets itself apart as eudaemonic and more qualified as a social movement precisely because—recognizing the fact of our interconnection and inextricability—its locus of consideration extends to our shared vulnerability, well-being, and the greater good. In a state of being grateful, we are awakened to greater empathy, generosity, and concern for the well-being of all.
Positive thinking says the glass is half-full. Dour thinking says it is half-empty. Gratitude helps us to better enjoy whatever is in the glass. But gratefulness can help us focus more intently on the radical fact of having a glass at all, making the most of the glass we have, and on ensuring that those around us have a glass as well.
Three cheers for the limits of gratitude—they may point us to a more meaningfully grateful way of being, and cheering.
If you have been touched by the transformative power of gratefulness, and see the promise of grateful living as a way of bring healing to our lives and world, we invite you to make a gift to help support our work.
With warm thanks for your support!
A version of this piece was originally submitted to the Washington Post as a Letter to the Editor on November 23rd, but was not printed. Kristi Nelson is the Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living. To read more about her visit this page.
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Your distinction between gratitude and gratefulness is nuanced and so very true. I am so grateful I found this website this year. Such a treasure! Thank you!
Thank you so much Marty. I am delighted and moved to offer nuanced distinctions in ways that resonate for you. It is so important, it seems to me, to offer more finely-tuned ways of approaching something as important and multi-faceted as gratitude. Keep coming back!
Embracing gratitude is not always easy. How can we feel grateful when we’re sad, or when it seems as though our life is falling apart around us? Both you and Mr. Horowitz make excellent points in your articles. In such difficult times, we are tempted to ask “Why?” Unfortunately, there is often no answer to this question. Perhaps a better question to ask ourselves might be “Now what?”
For a person of faith, a question we might consider is “Where is God in this?” A person who does not embrace a faith tradition might be more comfortable asking “Where is the good in this?” Difficult as these questions might be, we are challenged to look for the good in all situations.
It’s interesting to note that, in the Chinese language, the word “crisis” as we understand it requires two symbols. Each of these symbols, however, has a stand-alone meaning: not surprisingly, one means “danger”, the other means “opportunity.” Isn’t that a great way of looking at difficult times in our own life? It’s so common for us to focus on the “danger,” and to be unaware of the potential “opportunity” even the most difficult situation might offer us.
Very insightful and helpful reflection, Kevin. Most interesting about the 2 symbols for the word crisis in the Chinese language. Thank-you for sharing!
Peace and blessings, Sheila
I find that remembering the good and finding the good strengthens my ability to be more grateful especially when I am experiencing hard times.
I’m grateful for read your article! Amazing, lovely refletion. It’s a Christmas gift…. during all new year, all life.
And I’m able to understand the words, I mean, the essential meaning.
I’m so grateful I have learned to be grateful in each day of my life! Day by day, different experiences and many opportunities to be attention and to be grateful for.
I’m grateful for all Gratefulness Team.
With fraternal love, Cintia.
Thanks Kristi, since I visited this site, I changed. Knowing my mood when my body does not respond as I would, I can not but thank you and the staff because now I can accept my weakness, be patient, live and smile, and even laugh at the circumstances that happen. I am not systematic in my gratitude practices, my best practice is the daily visit to gatefulness.org, reading, meditating and sometimes writing, praying with other friends here.
Thank you, and – this Advent and the month of Christmas are a sacred moment for me – my best wishes to you and to the other dear people of the staff.
Anna – But you ARE very systematic in your gratitude practices! You visit our site each day for inspiration and connection, and you strengthen your gratefulness muscles with everything to which you open your heart and receive. Also in what you give. This is deep practice – one which we humbly hope to support in everything we do, and for which we are so glad to have you a part. Thank you. And many heartfelt blessings to you in this sacred time. From all of us. Kristi
Thank you so much, Kristi, for this and all you do to encourage grateful living in the world. For a little while, I have been doing a practice that you suggested in a recent essay. First thing in the morning, before getting out of bed, thinking of five things I’m grateful for — things I’ve done nothing to bring about. Things like:
Wow, I’m still here.
I am breathing…. the fullness I feel when drawing cold air into my lungs.
I can hear… sounds that connect me to life… wind in the spruce tree outside, rain on the tin roof…
I can move… rotate my ankles like I’m conducting an orchestra under the covers with my feet, sometimes this makes me giggle.
I can see… the soothing darkness, familiar contours, sometimes silvery moonlight.
This practice has been of great help in understanding the difference between gratitude and gratefulness and in navigating challenging times. A deep bow to you dear Kristi and all of the Gratefulness Team.
Grateful Sea – You understand so well. When we can awaken and arise into the day with a grateful feeling already in our heart and eyes, and already on our lips…without anything having “happened” yet…this is to be filled with gratefulness. There is so much for which to be grateful when we do not take things for granted, it can be a bit overwhelming, but in a way that is poignant and powerful and precious. Thank you and many heartfelt holiday blessings to you from all of us. Kristi
Dear Kristi, as with all your writings, this is so beautiful, uplifting and inspiring! Being grateful has been so transformative for me. In reading this, I am grateful for the precious gift of eyesight to read the words and that I am able to comprehend and understand the words! Everything is a miracle! I am so grateful I have learned to be grateful! I am grateful for you, Kristi, all the Gratefulness Team and this sight! Thank-you!!!! Bless you. Peace and love, Sheila ? ?
Sheila – You are such a grateful liver! You quietly notice all that is “given” in your life, you treasure and learn from what arrives into your awareness, you are deeply grateful for your blessings and acknowledge them, and you share your heart and gifts freely and generously. You savor life, and we savor you. Thank you from all of us for being a source of love and light. With holiday blessings from our hearts. Kristi
Thank-you, Kristi for your touching response! Holiday blessings to you, all the Gratefulness Team and everyone at ANGL.?
Peace and love, Sheila??