Daily without fail for five years, a friend kept up a conversation by text that would, to anyone other than her texting partner, seem perplexing at best, concerning at worst.
“Just a sec,” she said one morning when I met her for coffee, and showed me as she typed the message “Oat milk latte” and pressed Send. “Washing machine” was the immediate reply.
She handed me her phone so I could swipe up and see: Yesterday morning she sent “My sister’s apology,” and got back “Wool socks.”
I swiped down to see more: “Trusted cat sitter,” “Gluten-free pizza,” “Rachel Maddow.”
What on Earth were they talking about?
“No, we’re not speaking in code,” she laughed at me. It wasn’t quite a wish list, and she denied it was a word game….
“It’s gratitude practice,” she smiled. Ah yes, I should have known.
In their messages they were simply naming something for which they felt grateful in the moment. Their daily commitment to sharing what brought them joy was a “practice”—a regularly repeated act of cultivation—designed to promote their well-being and sense of connection.
Gratitude is the naturally-arising appreciation for something that brought us benefit or delight. It is not just a feeling, but an experience we have in our bodies, as in warmth in the belly, an invigorating swell of the chest, an inner smile.
Gratitude practice has many forms. There is my friend’s commitment to connect with her ‘gratitude partner’ every morning. Some people journal, answering prompts designed to evoke awareness of the benefits we receive, evoking a sense of fullness or abundance. Others make it a point to think about three things for which they feel grateful at bedtime, and perhaps as a result drift off happily.
Ask around, and chances are you’ll find that at least a few people in your life have tried developing a gratitude practice of some sort. The recent proliferation of these practices is driven by an interest in well-being and underpinned by science.
The Science of Gratitude
Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons of University of California, Davis, describes gratitude as a “felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” Here, “felt sense” indicates an embodied experience, not just a thought.
It turns out that noticing the good that comes our way in life, and feeling our response to it in the body, is a potent tonic.
Growing evidence indicates that the experience of gratitude may benefit us not only psychologically and relationally, but physically. Research shows it results not only in increased feelings of happiness and a sense of connection to others, but in better stress management and more sound sleep.
Studies also show it actually lowers blood pressure and increases immunity, and that people who are more grateful experience fewer physical ailments such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and respiratory infections. Newer research attempts to clarify whether this is because gratitude staves off health problems, or good health causes gratitude.
Interestingly, a new study suggests that stress responses to challenging tasks in the workplace are improved when we express appreciation specifically for our co-workers, even when we don’t know them well (a relationship category known as “loose ties”). Researchers found that expressing and receiving personal gratitude seems to buffer against threat responses and amplify challenge responses, meaning we stay cool and engaged even when our performance is on the line.
It makes sense, of course, that when we feel valued and connected, we do not worry as much about social evaluation.
Gratitude’s Shadow Side
It should be noted that the promotion of gratitude has its detractors.
Take gratitude that is practiced for the sake of feeling good rather than doing good. Practices that are kept to oneself, such as in journaling or writing letters that are not meant to be sent, can be seen as suspiciously self-involved, and perhaps produce more self-satisfaction than connection.
Or consider the scenario where a meager raise is offered to a worker, but it does nothing to repair a harmful inequity. Certainly in this case the attitude of gratitude should not be encouraged or expected from the recipient.
Indeed a non-discerning (or “bright-sided,” to use the term coined by the late writer and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich) approach to gratitude misses the mark.
At its best, gratitude is prosocial. It involves communication or exchange. When we express gratitude for receiving something from someone, both parties benefit.
Gratitude and Generosity
This summer I had an experience of gratitude that changed me. It began as a sudden flourishing of ease deep in my gut that quickly spread through my body, bringing a smile to my face and tears to my eyes.
I had unexpectedly received a care package from a friend who was on a long-term Buddhist meditation retreat, living in a remote cabin with only occasional interaction with the world.
The last time we spoke, I told her I had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and in response, here was a small box bursting with items from her cabin: Packets of tea, a book of poetry, a scarf, a meditation practice guide, dried flowers, etc., and a card describing what they were and how she came by them.
She had not shopped for me; she had given me what she already had. Some items she had received from someone else long ago and used lovingly for years; they were intimate. Others were everyday supplies.
I was floored by her generosity and felt her care. My gratitude was natural and palpable; I did nothing to conjure it.
Generosity and gratitude—attitudes of giving and receiving—are, of course, two sides of the same coin. Lovely Buddhist teachings encourage us to ‘perfect’ our generosity and gratitude, in other words to grow them into highly selfless, foundational attitudes that motivate how we are in the world.
The Perspective of Reciprocity
In passing along her belongings, my friend made them gifts, which made her a giver, and me a recipient. From the Buddhist perspective, none of these things—gift, giver, and recipient—exist alone. They exist only in relationship to each other; otherwise gift, giver, and recipient would simply be an object and two people.
Put another way, without the giver there is no gift, and without the gift, there is no recipient. The Buddhist perspective is that all things exist as they are dependent upon others.
This may seem like an abstract way of thinking. It is helpful as a reflection, however, as it illuminates generosity and gratitude as ways in which we participate, collectively, in the world. It encourages more ease with the coming and going of things, and with the skills of letting go and allowing in, which are not always easy, especially when what arrives is unpleasant or unwelcome, as will happen in life.
The care package is an example of something wonderful, however, and gave rise to a natural sense of connectedness, of being part of something larger than myself. The care I received was in the form of objects that had been molded and transported and traded and loved already by others long before they were in my friend’s meditation cabin. In turn she passed them along. I am merely one in a line of folks that has had something to do with them.
This is true of so many things in life. Who exactly is responsible for the benefit we receive when we eat a meal? The grocery store clerk? Yes, but could that person have played that role if not for another tending or teaching their child while they are at work? Could the food have been on the shelves without the people involved in its transport? Of course there are the farmers and agricultural equipment makers, the field workers. What about the Earth herself? The list goes on and on, where no one being is singularly responsible for the gift. Everything is interdependent.
Ultimately it is for all of life itself that gratitude is best expressed. This is why I consider the care package not a material but a spiritual gift. And why Emmons’ definition of gratitude is a “felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”
Living with Gratitude
Audre Lorde wrote: “We are all more blind toward what we have than to what we have not.”
In one sense, gratitude is a sense of “enoughness” rather than trouble or lack. Given that we evolved to be on the lookout for what’s wrong (a brilliant strategy for staying safe that scientists call our “negativity bias,”) we may need help in seeing the good more clearly.
According to Brené Brown, “Practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough.”
That word “practice” again.
Capturing a sense of gratitude can require thoughtful reflection. Saying grace before a meal is acknowledging the benefits we are about to receive. But said quickly, we miss the true opportunity. It takes a few moments to think about the scope of people from far flung corners of the globe who made a contribution to our meal.
Pausing in a given moment with curiosity, and reflecting on our place in the larger family of things, changes us. It changes how we feel, whether we are saying grace, exchanging ideas with a co-worker, or walking through our neighborhood. What was ordinary becomes extraordinary: When we stop to think about it, a meal with ingredients from all over the world becomes astonishingly good fortune. When we listen, a co-worker seems unexpectedly creative in their own way. When we look, changing leaves and busy squirrels seem amazing, as if we’d never seen them before, and we stop in our tracks to take in the beauty of it all.
When we slow down and refuse to let the busyness and distraction of everyday life remain front and center, the naturally arising appreciation for what we see we have is unselfish and naturally expressive. We feel the generosity in the food we eat and respond with kindness and care toward the people and ecosystems that provide food. We appreciate our co-worker’s thoughtfulness and respond with more patience. We love the landscape of our neighborhood, pick up litter when we see it, and plan a block party.
Gratitude in November
When we no longer see our lives as disconnected or take things for granted we may have energy to engage more deeply with our fellow humans on this achingly fragile planet.
We may have reciprocity with what journalist and humanitarian Krista Tippett beautifully calls the “ordinary and abundant reality of things that are going right.”
However, our world is imperfect and highly unjust. To participate helpfully and not perpetuate harm, we must understand that “everything is connected” means that what we do and say matters.
In the U.S., many people focus on gratitude in November as it contains the holiday Thanksgiving. At face value this seems to be a holiday about giving thanks for abundance. Certainly the myth behind it–that in the first encounters there was reciprocity and lasting peace between newly arrived European migrants and the native people who made way for them–supports this.
But as with all myths, this story serves to cover achingly tragic harm. The full story is a more nuanced historical trauma for native people, who bear the burden of being identified with a simplistic role in the myth.
And in reality, thanksgiving feasts predate “The First Thanksgiving,” which we celebrate the fourth Thursday of each Thanksgiving. Historically, thanksgiving feast days were proclaimed to celebrate bloody victories.
More recently, days promoting consumerism–Black Friday and Cyber Monday–have come to characterize this holiday period. So much for giving thanks for what we have–Americans are now encouraged to spend this time acquiring new things at bargain prices.
This month in the States, if we are to situate gratitude in natural reciprocity, we cannot celebrate Thanksgiving out of its true context. Even if we choose to express gratitude for the privileges we have, we must acknowledge the harm that has come from celebrating in a way that erased a whole people’s story. Perhaps you are one of the native people who will pause for a National Day of Mourning instead.
My family has begun to read Native American poetry at the table, as part of our round-robin of giving thanks.
A Parting Note
In Buddhism, the philosophical inspiration for many mindfulness practitioners, gratitude and its counterpart generosity comprise the first of the six “Perfections” or personal trails we are invited to develop as part of becoming more awake and aware in life.
According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “You try to think of these as the priorities in your life. If you make things like material wealth [or] status your priorities then you’re placing your happiness on things that are largely out of your control.”
The qualities you develop in your heart and mind, however, are in your control. If our well-being, psychologically and physically, is buoyed by appreciation, and appreciation is supported by a view of the world in which we are dependent and connected, then gratitude practice should be relational and generous.
My gratitude practice now through the end of the year is to supplement thinking of three things for which I feel grateful each night with a weekly handwritten letter thanking someone for their generosity. I have received benefit from many people in the last few months as I rely on many to navigate cancer treatment. I would not be faring as well as I am if it were not for their kindness.
Post by studio BE Senior Facilitator Sarah Jane Shangraw.
Sarah Jane Shangraw is a Boston-based mindfulness educator, Insight Yoga teacher, and end-of-life doula. In classes, courses, and coaching she guides individuals and groups in somatic and contemplative self-inquiry practices to antidote the stress of modern living and grow in awareness for the greater good. She studied religion at Boston University, has a master's degree in communications, and has completed several certifications and trainings in mind-body practices and therapies. In 2018 she was endorsed to teach Insight Yoga by its founder, Sarah Powers, and recently graduated from a two-year meditation teacher training with psychologists and Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Now she is training in Somatic Experiencing. She is a member of the International Mindfulness Teachers Association and holds Yoga Alliance E-RYT 500 and YACEP designations.