“Give thanks, count your blessings, live a life of gratitude, be grateful, cultivate an attitude of gratitude,” these phrases strewn throughout our modern world. What do they really mean though, and why is it a “good idea” to be grateful? The word gratitude originates from the Latin gratus meaning “thankful, pleasing, agreeable,” sharing its origin with words like grace, meaning “mercy, favor, elegance, and virtue.” One of the interesting aspects of gratitude is that it is other-person directed, meaning that the feeling is generated by another being outside of ourselves. We feel grateful towards another, because of something given to us. This creates an opportunity for connection and explains the positive effects of feeling this emotion. Studies show that gratitude increases the ability to handle life’s challenges, create strong relationships, enjoy positive experiences, and generally increases positive emotions and physical health. But how do we effectively incorporate this feeling into our daily lives?
Like many of you, I’ve watched and read “The Secret,” seen “What the Bleep Do We Know,” and attended countless “Self-Realization” seminars based on the idea that a state of gratitude can shift our consciousness. I’m often divided by the idea that this act of thanks can seem simultaneously simple and complex. Is it enough to simply say thank you more often? Does listing 10 things I’m grateful for upon waking really change my life? Is it really healthy to be in a state of gratitude all the time?
As a lifelong student of Five Element Theory, my personal belief is that our emotions are an ever-evolving and transformative movement of energy. The categorization of emotions as good and bad is static, unrealistic, and simplistic. If a loved one is wronged or a societal constraint is obviously unjust, anger is a powerful initiator for change. Health and balance lies in the ability to fluidly shift through our emotions to effectively connect, communicate, and create. Dis-ease arises when we get stuck in one or another emotion, particularly when that emotion is inappropriate for the situation.
Thankfully, I was raised to say please and thank you but I’m not going to lie, sometimes the words are truly felt and sometimes they are just empty words. Here lies the divide between the simple and complex. Are words powerful simply being spoken, or is the strength of the sentiment more essential than the expression? Studies indicate that saying “thank you” does have a positive effect, but the effect is on the person receiving the thank you. My personal opinion is that words are sounds that convey our true feelings and emotions. The word love spoken with hate can feel condemning and hurtful, hate spoken with love can feel uplifting. Don’t get me wrong, consciously choosing words is a powerful tool, but saying one thing when you feel another is actually disempowering. What matters to me is being conscious of what my words mean and what I’m trying to convey. “Be impeccable with your word” (the Four Agreements) is a tall order and not always achievable to the level I would like (enter “Always do your best”), but simply attempting to do so is when the internal shifts take place. This shift of internal awareness and the act of choosing words to speak our truth is when our empowerment becomes real. This is when an “attitude of gratitude” sends ripples of joy and compassion through our life.
So what does gratitude really feel like? Is it the emotion you feel when the Thanksgiving Holiday comes to mind? What are we choosing to celebrate? I am often dismayed with the manner in which our holiday rituals and traditions have become accepted and celebrated in modern society. My mother was and is a great believer in the power of ritual. Ritual at its best elevates conscious speaking by adding physical action, at its worst it becomes a forced and empty activity.
Thanksgiving can mean so many things. It could be observed as one of the many ancient traditional festivals that takes place around this time of year, of giving thanks to the bounty of Mother Earth and preparation for the long, hard winter. It is difficult to access this appreciation and rhythm of the seasons in the tawdry modern world of jumbo grocery stores, temperature controlled houses and cars, and the disconnect from our community tribe. It can be a true recognition of the gratitude of our ancestral settlers giving thanks to the Native Americans, although this seems a ridiculously small and empty recompense for the shameful mistreatment of an indigenous people who are still being mistreated. It could be the simple appreciation of good food and gathering with family although, admittedly, family can be a minefield of emotions and old behavioral habits. Maybe your favorite tradition is shopping after you’ve cleaned the Thanksgiving dishes, heading to your local mall to cross off the gifts on your Christmas list at half the price. This too has a flip side being that all those employees serving you during this tradition are sacrificing whatever Thanksgiving ritual they might have, which they may or may not be grateful for. Perhaps you volunteer your time to serve those who have less, though this can be done in a state of gratitude or with a misguided sense of self-righteousness.
Whatever your celebration, why not be truly conscious of it? What is your true expression of gratitude? Is it a global connection to the Earth and our ancestors, an honoring of the Native American people and their ancient traditions, a connection to your family tribe, the joy of gift-giving to your loved ones and gratitude to the people who make that possible, a true selfless act of giving back to those who have less, or a personal expression that has yet to be written?
When I look forward to Thanksgiving I think of my family with all of their quirks, occasionally frustrating habits, and my own relapse into old habits. I think of their unending love, support, and sacrifice and I am full of gratitude and grace. I am grateful for the opportunity to celebrate our own unique tradition. I am grateful to my mother for consciously recognizing the meaning behind the holiday and its national and ancient history. I am grateful for the delicious food we share and the sacrifice of both animal and plant-life so that I may subsist. And of course, I am grateful to be alive and able to feel and express gratitude along with all the beautiful myriads of human emotions. There are many ways to elicit and express gratitude. I find the exploration of what that individual journey is, and how it transforms throughout my life, creates the “good” in gratitude.