Life can be busy, and from my experience, this busyness can sometimes lead us off track, especially with regard to spirituality. Perhaps we stop meditating regularly, forget the daily spiritual text we normally read, or neglect to take conscious breaths. Suddenly we find ourselves being reactive instead of proactive, jumping to judgment or defensiveness more quickly, and generally feeling a sense of disconnect—from ourselves, our friends and family, our environment, and our sense of something greater. Getting off track is normal, so there’s no need to be upset with ourselves when it happens (relinquish perfectionism, remember?). However, it’s also not a comfortable place to be, so it’s helpful to have tools that let us jumpstart that return to Connectedness, spirituality, and love.
One of the best methods for doing this is practicing gratitude. My mom has always said, “It is impossible to be unhappy and grateful at the same time” and, as much as it irked me to admit as a child, I wholeheartedly agree with her now. Not only has gratitude proven itself over and over again in my own life, but there is substantial scientific evidence that supports its use. Practicing gratitude has been shown to bolster self-esteem and self-worth, promote the savoring of positive experiences, help cope with stress and trauma, encourage moral behavior, nurture and strengthen relationships, decrease social comparisons, diminish anger, and generally increase happiness and well-being.[i]
One of the main suggestions for practicing gratitude is writing a list of what you are grateful for.[ii] Perhaps this will include the customer service representative who kindly waived a fee (that’s on my list from this week!), or perhaps simply a list of people in your life who love and support you; they don’t need to have done anything specific, you may just appreciate having them as part of your life! Beyond people, the list can continue with places, things, circumstances, opportunities, and anything else that speaks to you 🙂
Of course, listing everything could take a while, so one study suggests writing a list of five items once a week—even that small gesture has been shown to significantly increase happiness.[iii] Nonetheless, the practice is yours to customize. Maybe you will write every day, or maybe just on a need-to-need basis when you are feeling off track; maybe you will skip the physical writing and create a mental list through meditation or prayer, or maybe you won’t create a gratitude list at all!
I recognize not everybody enjoys practicing gratitude. If this is you, that’s okay; not every spiritual tool will work for everyone. However, before you dismiss gratitude, I recommend examining how you define it. Often when I inquire with gratitude-disinterested individuals, they say something like, “I don’t like expressing gratitude. It makes me feel like I owe the person.” If this is how you view gratitude, I understand why it may not appeal as a spiritual tool… However, understanding gratitude as indebtedness is actually a misunderstanding.[iv] Gratitude is not about feeling obligated to reciprocate; instead, it is about empathetically appreciating others’ contributions, feeling a sense of abundance instead of deprivation, and recognizing the simple pleasures in life.[v]
In other words, when we feel a sense of obligation, it can cause resentment, guilt, and a sense of separation. However, if instead we choose to feel a sense of gratitude, it can lead to Connectedness, a feeling of being part of something greater than yourself, and a desire to respond with kindness and respect.[vi] In the words of Melody Beattie:
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”[vii]
Consequently, it’s not surprising that gratitude is strongly correlated with happiness, like I mentioned above. But what is surprising is how often the practice can slip our minds! Goodness knows how often I forget about it. So, I challenge you: the next time you get off track, I dare you to choose gratitude, to unlock the fullness of life and embrace Connectedness. I bet once you start a gratitude list, it will be impossible to remain unhappy 😉
P.S., Here’s what my list often includes:
Important people in my life (I usually name them individually)
Clean air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat
A functioning body that can walk, run, do yoga, and make art (if I’ve injured myself, I focus on what is still functioning)
My favorite spiritual books and resources
The country where I grew up
The universities I have attended
The opportunity to study what I am passionate about
My current (and past) jobs
My little balcony garden
My retro road bike
The amazingness of the internet
My blog readers! <3
[i] Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (p. 90). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Emmons, R. A., and McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84: 377–89.
[iii] Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (p. 92). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Watkins, P., Scheer, J., Ovnicek, M., & Kolts, R. (2006). The debt of gratitude: Dissociating gratitude and indebtedness. Cognition & Emotion, 20(2), 217-241.
[v] Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 31(5), 431-451; Toussaint, L., & Friedman, P. (2009). Forgiveness, gratitude, and well-being: The mediating role of affect and beliefs. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10, 635-654.
[vi] Watkins, P., Scheer, J., Ovnicek, M., & Kolts, R. (2006). The debt of gratitude: Dissociating gratitude and indebtedness. Cognition & Emotion, 20(2), 217-241.
[vii] Beattie, M. (2003). The Language of Letting Go: A Meditation Book and Journal for Daily Reflections. Hazelden Publishing.