Ruminations on Gratitude

You may have noticed that there was a pretty large gap in my blog posts this past year.

A year ago I got engaged. We decided that we didn’t want to wait too long to get married. We’d been living together for six years at that point and were completely done with our foot dragging.  So, I took four months to plan a wedding, while simultaneously working on my MA thesis, and finishing up my Reiki Mastership.  All three of those things culminated this past Fall.

So, my only explanation for my absence is that I got busy.  After the busy time had passed, I collapsed for a couple of months, and by the time I regained consciousness, I was out of the habit of blogging.

The reason I’m bringing up the wedding, at all, is because part of our wedding experience inspired this post on gratitude.

The very last thing we did for our wedding was an exercise in gratitude—we wrote our thank you cards. We wanted to make sure that every guest got something written to them personally, even if it was something small, expressing our gratitude for their presence on our wedding day.

I insisted on it, and my husband ran with it. At first it looked a lot like a very long chore, but in the end, we’d stumbled onto an exercise that enriched our experience much more than we had expected. We experienced gratitude in a deep, all-encompassing way that we don’t have in our regular daily lives.

Gratitude has gotten enough press, lately, that most of us believe that it is an important ingredient for a satisfied life, or at least, that’s what we’ve heard. We hear it so often now in yoga classes, meditation retreats, and “spiritual” teachings—the word “gratitude” has become almost fetishized.

One 2013 article summarizes, “Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting positive effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, promote happiness and well-being, and spur acts of helpfulness, generosity, and cooperation.”¹

That sounds pretty good, right? But, how do you get there?

To answer this question, I went to Robert A. Emmons, PhD, who is not only one of the authors of the article quoted above, but the person behind a good number of the gratitude studies that have been coming out these days.

Emmons tells us gratitude is a conscious choice and practice. His first suggestion is have a daily gratitude practice, and the easiest way to do that is to keep a gratitude journal.

I read somewhere (perhaps another article based on Emmons’ work) that gratitude journals work better when you choose to write several sentences about a few things, rather than make a long list of one sentence thoughts on gratitude. I’ve searched, but I have not been able to find that particular article or study.

Perhaps the longer ruminations work better because a list makes us start writing down a bunch of things that we think “should” make us feel grateful, rather than focus on the few things that actually make us feel grateful.

Trying to feel grateful for something that doesn’t make us feel grateful is a good way to make ourselves feel guilty about not being good enough. Haven’t we had enough of that, by now?

Even if the list is short, work with what actually makes you feel grateful. Write about it.

I think Dr. Emmons sums it up pretty well as he discusses one of his case studies in a paper of his:

“Her gratitude was not a selective, positive thinking facade, but rather a deep and steadfast trust where goodness ultimately dwells even in the face of uncertainty. This thanksgiving was grounded in the actuality that true gratitude is a force that arises from the realities of the world, which all too often include heartbreak, sometimes overpowering heartbreak.”¹

¹Emmons, R. A., & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 846–855. http://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22020

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