“Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.”
— Karl Barth, Swiss Reformed theologian
“Are you up for a good challenge,” she asked.
“Lay it on me,” I replied and we both laughed.
“Think of something special in your life. It can be something big or small. It can be a relationship, a job, a favourite hobby, a family member, a best friend or even your morning coffee.”
“OK,” I replied. “I’ve got something in mind.” I was thinking of my beautiful little granddaughter, Alexis, and how she has brought such joy, laughter and happiness into my life.
“Now,” said my friend, lowering her voice. “Imagine if this person, place or thing were to disappear tomorrow and be gone forever. Would you miss it? Would you long for its return?”
Suddenly I wasn’t laughing anymore. I couldn’t imagine life without my granddaughter. For a moment, I was lost in thought – seeing her face, hearing her laughter — cherishing her smile.
It was a powerful exercise in gratitude — to truly ponder what it is or who it is that we hold most dear. Immediately, I wanted to hug my granddaughter, kiss her on the forehead and tell her just how grateful I was that she was here and sharing this precious life with me.
What are you most grateful for and how often do you express gratitude? If you’re like most of us, you probably take many of the most precious things in your life for granted.
And sadly, many of us never count our blessings or only acknowledge them until they’re gone.
Gratitude is a powerful force that can be used to enhance our happiness, create more loving relationships, a greater appreciation for life and even improve our health and well-being.
Michael McCullough, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami where he directs the Evolution and Human Behaviour Laboratory.
McCullough researches the origins and causes of human behaviour from the perspective of evolutionary biology.
His in-depth research on behaviours such as revenge, denial, forgiveness and gratitude has led him to be widely cited.
Within control groups, McCullough found dramatic differences in attitude and perspective and greatly divergent levels of self-esteem, self-love, awareness and appreciation.
According to McCullough, people who consciously focus on gratitude — a deep and abiding appreciation of all the good things in their lives – experience greater emotional well-being and physical health as compared to those who focused on the lack of or took things for granted.
McCullough goes on to say that people who cultivate a grateful outlook feel better about life as a whole, experience greater levels of joy and happiness, feel more optimistic about the future, get sick less often, sleep better, experience less stress, enjoy higher levels of self-esteem and self-love, and generally have more energy, enthusiasm, determination and focus.
The power of gratitude has been chronicled down through history. Philosophers and sages of every spiritual persuasion have cited gratitude as key to experiencing deeper levels of happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing. An early advocate of a daily gratitude practice was Dutch philosopher Rabbi Baruch Spinoza. In the 17th century Spinoza suggested we begin each day by asking ourselves three questions: who or what inspired me today, who brought me happiness today and what brought me comfort and deep peace today? Spinoza declared that answering the three questions daily would lead to a profound inner transformation.
Nearly 10 years ago now, I started keeping a gratitude journal. I fill it out every morning as I reflect back on the previous day. I start each page with the sentence stem, “Today I am grateful for …” and I am always able to find a reason. Some people like to fill out a gratitude journal in the evening before going to bed. The time of day isn’t important but rather it is the consistent practice of taking a few minutes every day to consciously focus on our blessings that is key.
Sometimes I like to go for a walk through the neighbourhood or along a path and ponder the many things I have to be grateful for in my life. On my walks I have thought about loving relationships, enduring friendships, my home, my job — even the neighbourhood or path itself as deserving of my gratitude. As I walk, I try to pay attention to everything: the sights, the sounds, the smells and feelings, both physical and emotional — sometimes even taste, as I did the other night when I picked some saskatoon berries off a tree growing along the path.
Another way to express gratitude is to write a letter to the people who have had a profound effect on your life. In my self-esteem counselling, I suggest to clients that they choose three people and write a letter expressing gratitude for all the gifts they have received from these individuals and, if possible, to deliver the gratitude letter in person. Many times, the recipient of the letter had no idea of the impact he or she had on the life of the other person. I have also known people who chose to write letters to late friends and relatives and found the exercise equally as powerful and rewarding. Though the spoken word certainly has power, the written word can be read, re-read and treasured for years, creating joy, love and gratitude.
“I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness,” wrote American author Brene Brown. “It’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practising gratitude.”
If you want to start attracting more positive experiences into your life, start expressing gratitude, appreciation and love for the people and things in your life. As for me, I’m already making plans to take my granddaughter on a gratitude walk along a nearby path. She likes saskatoon berries and I just happen to know where to find them growing in glorious abundance.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.