The Science and Varieties of Gratitude

“I’ve tried gratitude,” a coaching client recently told me. “And it didn’t work. Nothing changed in my life.”
I was reminded of the way I learned to pray to God as a child. We would have denied it had anyone challenged it as such, but from where I am now, yes, we were always trying to make bargains with our God. It was a kind of petitionary prayer in which we sought either 1) our salvation in exchange for our human love and loyalty, 2) the forgiveness of our frail humanity (sins) in exchange for our renewed loyalty, 3) or some other kind of, “Please God, if you’ll just… I’ll….”
Likewise, my client was attempting to change her life by practicing what gratitude researcher and Psychologist Robert Emmons might call ‘a warm and fuzzy’ approach. She had not yet committed herself to a lifestyle of gratitude, to the intellectually demanding and heart opening receiving of gratitude, come what may. To receive gratitude into one’s life in this way is not, from my perspective, not so much  ‘giving’ gratitude as it is a courageous willingness to perceive life from a spirit of ‘thankfulness’, no matter what.
Below is an excerpt from a recent article on research out of UC Davis: Why gratitude isn’t for wimps.
“We always find the same thing,” he says. “People who keep gratitude journals improve their quality of life.”
Emmons says his 10 strategies can help anyone cultivate a more grateful approach to life. But he warns that the exercises are not for the “intellectually lethargic.” And he stresses that gratitude is incompatible with feelings of victimhood or entitlement, or with the inability to recognize one’s shortcomings or to admit one is not self-sufficient.
“Far from being a warm, fuzzy sentiment, gratitude is morally and intellectually demanding,” he says. “It requires contemplation, reflection, and discipline. It can be hard and painful work.”
Here are Emmons’ evidence-based prescriptions for becoming more grateful:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. Write down and record what you are grateful for, and then when you need to reaffirm your good lot in life, look back on the journal.
  • Remember the bad. If you do not remind yourself of what it was like to be sick, unemployed, or heartbroken, you will be less likely to appreciate health, your job, or your relationship.
  • Ask yourself three questions every evening. Fill in the blanks with the name of a person (or persons) in your life. What have I received from ___? What have I given to ___? What troubles and difficulty have I caused ___?
  • Learn prayers of gratitude. One Emmons suggests in his book from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky. I join my hands in thanks; for the many wonders of life; for having 24 brand-new hours before me.
  • Appreciate your senses. One approach: Practice breathing exercises.
  • Use visual reminders. For example, Emmons has a refrigerator magnet in his home bearing this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery … today is a gift.”
  • Make a vow to practice gratitude. “Swearing a vow to perform a behavior actually does increase the likelihood that the action will be executed,” the psychologist notes.
  • Watch your language: It influences how you think about the world.
  • Go through the motions. Research shows that emotions can follow behavior.
  • Be creative. Look for new situations and opportunities in which to feel grateful, especially when things are not going well.

And my coaching client? Yes, she is changing her life. She inspires me with the persistence and courage she brings to a desperate situation. She is learning, as am I, to let a radical spirit of gratitude into our lives. We are learning that gratitude is a transformational form of love and that intentionally inviting and letting it in, however we are able… is to let in the gift of life, come what may.
This is the radical “Yes!” Life invites us into.
Where does gratitude come easy to you in life? Go there.
Where in life do you have to reach to find gratitude? Go there too, and dig deep.

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