Cultivating Gratitude

“Truly grateful people don’t make lists of things to be grateful for any more than happy people make lists of things to be happy about.” says Hank Deveraux in the epilogue to Richard  Russo‘s hilarious and poignant novel, Straight Man.  And there’s a certain superficial, if cynical, appeal to his reasoning. People often make gratitude lists when they feel down, hoping that making the list will cheer them up. And many people keep gratitude journals in part because without the journal they feel in danger of losing sight of their blessings. Sounds rather forced, or at least manufactured.

But is Hank right? Does gratitude need to be spontaneous and effortless to be real?

The answer is a resounding NO. Gratitude can be cultivated, and is no less real than a spontaneous welling of appreciation in response to a benefit.

The feeling of gratitude can’t be forced.  (You can force your kid to thank Aunt Mabel for the fruit cake, but you can’t make her feel thankful!) But if you deliberately point your mind in the direction of the good things in your life — if you “count your blessings” — it is truly remarkable how the feeling of thankfulness often follows. The emotions one feel when practicing gratitude are authentic — and may even be more heartfelt because of one’s heightened awareness. There’s nothing second-class about cultivated gratitude.

Just as I have discussed the need to pursue happiness actively rather than wait around for it to “happen,” I believe  in relentlessly cultivating gratitude. So often our minds focus on the negative, and for good reason: our success or even survival may require that we spend a fair chunk of time solving problems and navigating hazards. But sometimes the daily slog can prevent us from feeling or even remembering the blessings all around us. A gratitude practice — even something as simple and traditional as saying grace before a meal — puts us back in touch with our own feeling of appreciation. The point is not to ignore the negative, but to balance it out, to provide some perspective. And anyway, nobody likes an ingrate.

So how about you take Thanksgiving as an opportunity to plant your own seeds of gratitude. Last year’s Psychology Today has some great simple tips.

And by the way, I feel grateful for:

  1. My family’s good health
  2. The community of parents around me
  3. Snow in Tahoe
  4. The ability to pursue work I love
  5. The myriad ways my husband supports me
  6. Swimming yesterday
  7. My awesome neighborhood
  8. Living in relative peace and safety
  9. Good relationships with my sisters and parents
  10. My children’s good natures