The Gratitude Cure for (Almost) Everything

Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul.
– Henry Ward Beecher

During my recuperation from a brush with death, a high school friend sent me a letter. In it, he hypothesized that as a survivor of near-death, every moment for me must be exquisitely sweet, a precious gift, in ways he could not imagine.

At first, he was mostly right. Despite the pain, my initial response was celebratory. But the celebration was relatively short-lived and bittersweet. As weeks became months and months became years, the glow gradually diminished. Yielding to the numerous problems that almost dying had also brought on, gratitude faded and a more troubled self re-emerged. Returning to that place of celebration has been a process.

Grateful people are generally more satisfied with their lives and relationships, cope better with difficulties, and are more generous, empathetic, and self-accepting. But despite these many benefits, many of us have a hard time feeling gratitude.

Often, early deprivation gets in the way. When there isn’t enough of what we need – money, warmth, praise, joy, many other things – we intuitively respond by feeling deprived. We may carry this deprivation forward into adulthood and see life mainly as a struggle to get what we need. We often became good at making do, learning to be independent, acting assertively. But we don’t learn to fully experience what is already there for us, if only we were open to taking it in. And so we grow cynical and jaded, mistaking an internal barrier for an external lack.

Or, deprivation may leave us hungry for more. If we’re grateful for what we have, we may ask ourselves, what will motivate us to get more? But always wanting more does not make us happy. It just makes us always wanting.

An alternative approach is to start from a place of gratitude. Then we say, “I am happy with what I have now. If I get more, I will be happy then, too.”

The difference between these two approaches came to me most clearly at a Buddhist retreat held at a local college. I requested a half-hour meeting with one of the monks there. We sat together on a hillside overlooking the dining hall and ate our lunches while I talked with him about feelings of hurt, betrayal, and despair that followed the difficult ending of a long relationship.

“I understand your feelings,” he said, “but this way of looking at love is too limited. You think it comes only from these people, and now it is gone. But love comes from many places.” He held out his sandwich. “The baker who made this bread shows us love. Yes, it is his business, but the bread is very good and there is love in it. And there are the trees and the grass. They give us oxygen – without them we could not live.” He looked up at the sky. “And the sun gives us warmth.”

As he continued to point out human and non-human sources of love, I felt a shift inside. Until that moment, the idea that “the universe loves us” had seemed so abstract it was meaningless. But now, listening to this young monk as he took in the love of the cosmos, I vicariously experienced his gratitude, and I carry these feelings with me to this day.

A simple but effective tool for counteracting our in-built tendency to focus on shortages is the gratitude list. It is a way to reinforce the feeling that regardless of what we lack, we also have many things for which to be grateful. We may not have all the wealth we want, the health we want, the relationships we want, the things we want, but when we list what we do have, we have a lot.

Most of my own gratitude lists I keep in my head, but from time to time I write them down. I started one for this essay. I soon realized I could spend hours naming things for which I feel grateful, and that the list of what I’m unhappy about, even in the worst of times, is always much shorter. Here, in the order in which they occurred to me, are the first 50:

Being alive. Being human. Coming of age in 1969. All five of my senses. Intuition. My friends and family. Women I’ve loved. Beauty. Sadness. Joy. Wonder. Curiosity. Imagination. All the arts. All the sciences. Other animals. Plants. Rocks. Clouds. The blue sky. The ocean. Mountains. Children. Gadgets. Cars and motorcycles. Things to figure out. People who figure things out. Intelligence. Hope. Coffee. Chocolate-covered almonds. Memories. Greek yogurt. Strawberries. Apples. Books. Meditation. Movies. Music. Air. Water. Land. Humor. Babies. Flowers. Silence. Wind. Lightning. Compassion. Popsicles.

What’s on your gratitude list today?

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From Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
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52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
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Copyright 2017, David J. Bookbinder

P.S.  If you find what you read here helpful, please forward it to others who might, too. Or click the social share and email buttons on this page.

2 thoughts on “
The Gratitude Cure for (Almost) Everything

  1. Your fine essay prompted me to start my own gratitude list. In alpha order, here is a baker’s dozen: coming in from the cold, conversations, cousins, fresh sheets on the bed, hot showers, long walks, a new dress, poetry, purring lap cats, popovers, reading, shovel into dirt, writing…

    Thank you for your inspiration.

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