…we don’t have to wait around for the things we want to happen to feel grateful. We can simply find things to be grateful about no matter what happens, or how far afield we may be from what we desire.
I used to think of gratitude as a spontaneous response to good things happening. In recent years, however, I have come to understand that gratitude is much more than an automatic byproduct of positive experience. Gratitude can actually be our emotional and intellectual baseline, if that’s what we choose.
What I mean is, we don’t have to wait around for the things we want to happen to feel grateful. We can simply find things to be grateful about no matter what happens, or how far afield we may be from what we desire. From this vantage point, everything we experience gives us something to appreciate, no matter how difficult or seemingly inconsequential it might be.
I saw this modeled recently by a workshop leader who enacted smashing his thumb with a hammer. After shouting bloody murder, he said, “Boy am I glad that doesn’t happen very often.” And then, “Wow, check out all of that sensation in my thumb! I’m so glad I have nerves to tell me that I have injured myself.”
It is uncommon to interpret an unfortunate event with gratitude. But this leader demonstrated that it is always an option. When we find ways to appreciate a difficult experience—or at least use it to appreciate how great our life was before and after it happened—we set ourselves up to feel empowered. After we experience our feelings, we get to decide how the events that happen to us affect us.
A few weeks in, when I knew conclusively that my body would keep going no matter how sad I was, I focused on that: being alive.
My first memory of choosing gratitude over, say, revenge was in college. I had broken up with my first love, and the emotional pain was so intense that I feared it would kill me. A few weeks in, when I knew conclusively that my body would keep going no matter how sad I was, I focused on that: being alive. If I had survived this heartbreak, I could expect to survive the losses of future loves to come. This was good news! When I shifted my gaze from pain to gratitude, I stumbled into discovery.
And of course, this loss helped me trust that I could weather the disappointments of my literary life as well. Over the years, I have come to appreciate each publication that rejected my work for the opportunity to work harder, write better, and find a truer fit for my work. And I have deeply appreciated the teachers, editors, colleagues, and writing group friends who have given me uncomfortable feedback that has challenged me to grow.
In every so-called mistake, failure, and disappointment, I have been further refined. There has been so much to appreciate.
Of course, every day of our lives, endless things also go right. Choosing gratitude doesn’t just help us transcend our bad fortune. It also helps us integrate our good fortune. Gratitude is just as important—and just as easy to overlook—when things are going well as when they’re not.
When we show up for the difficult conversation; when we make the generous choice; when we stay with the hard stuff until it becomes a bit gentler…these are all opportunities to appreciate ourselves.
When we acknowledge ourselves for our persistence, it can make a significant difference in our endurance and our mood. When we show up for the difficult conversation; when we make the generous choice; when we stay with the hard stuff until it becomes a bit gentler; when we risk failing to try something that matters; when we make a mistake and learn from it; these are all opportunities to appreciate ourselves.
When we notice and acknowledge how capable and courageous we are, we anchor this in our being. We start to learn that we can count on ourselves. Whether or not we ultimately achieve the result we want, we have numerous successes to refer to that can help us more deeply receive our epic wins or more effectively redirect our efforts to try again.
A writer friend told me that when his first book came out, he sent out a wave of thank-you letters and emails to all the people who had influenced his thinking and writing. Then he launched into all of the mandatory marketing and press outreach. He explained that framing the whole experience in gratitude reduced his anxiety about whether the book would sell and changed his approach completely.
Gratitude anchored him in the field of influence from which his book was called into existence, and it kept his focus on the service his book was offering. This quickly put his book in the hands of a global community seeking his wisdom.
When we focus on problems, we generate dissatisfaction and resentment. When we invest in fears, we can destabilize ourselves. But when gratitude is the ground on which we stand, we can be satisfied with life exactly as it is and relax into the unknown, while becoming more receptive to all that we desire.