Gratitude Is an Attitude by David Baum, PhD, DMin
The poet William Blake said it well: “Gratitude is the best way to keep on going. Gratitude is heaven itself.” In my personal experience with the never-ending challenges of Covid, it may be the best antidote to the struggles of lethargy and what Adam Grant calls “languishing.”
The International Encyclopedia of Ethics defines gratitude this way, “Gratitude is the heart’s internal indicator on which the tally of gifts outweighs exchanges.” What a lovely way to think about this most important human endeavor. It basically says that gratitude is the willingness to recognize the incremental value of one’s life. And in doing so, we remember the best parts of ourselves and uplift our best selves. Said another way, in a favorite French proverb, “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.”
Years ago, I was walking one evening through a park in Toronto, a place where homeless people hung out on benches. As I passed one particularly disheveled man, trying hard not to make eye contact, I suddenly felt compelled to look at him directly. He raised his eyes towards mine, and with the softest, most beatific look I have ever seen, said, “How do you not cry? It’s so beautiful.” With all I had—and all he clearly did not in terms of possessions, physical safety and comfort—he taught me in that one moment that gratitude is, indeed, an attitude. In fact, it’s more.
Make gratitude a habit
When Oprah says, “My practice is gratitude,” it is much more. To build a gratitude practice, we start by recognizing (as with any practice) that first, we must make it a habit. To make it a habit means we must be very intentional. And our intention is all about the choices we make. Simply put, like that homeless man on the bench, we can either choose to be grateful … or ungrateful. A beautiful model comes from the Maori of New Zealand. In their lodges, they always place two sticks. One is a straight stick and the other a crooked one. This is to remind all who enter that, every day, we have a choice of how we act and think. And the choice is to be in gratitude or not.
The word “gratitude” comes from Latin grata or gratia, meaning “given” or “gift,” from which we get the word “grace” or “to be in God’s grace.” Grace is an aspect of gratitude and unearned; it’s a free gift, a moment of peace, comfort or ease. It implies we can choose happiness; we can choose gratitude—every day, in every moment and every breath.
The problem is we often focus on what is not working. Researchers tell us we think between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day—and that 80% of those thoughts are negative, as opposed to thinking about what is working. We choose to focus on the shadow, not the light, the hollow and not the ground on which we stand, the pain and not the joy. This focus is, at best, an illusion.
Let’s consider today
First, good news: You woke up. You’re back! Through some magic you don’t fully understand, you’re still breathing and your heart is beating, even though you’ve been unconscious for many hours.
On this day, like almost every other, you awoke inside a temperature-controlled shelter. You have a home! Your bed and pillow are soft, and comfortable blankets cover you. As usual, you have electricity. Your many appliances around you are working flawlessly. The water you need comes out of faucets in an even flow, and it’s either hot or cold as you desire. It’s pure and clean.
In your kitchen, appetizing food is waiting for you. Many people you’ve never met worked hard to grow it, process it and get it to the store where you bought it. This bounty is unprecedented in the history of the world.
Let’s say it’s now 8:30 PM. You’ve been awake for 12-14 hours, and hundreds of things have already gone right for you. It’s as if there were a benevolent conspiracy of unknown people who are tirelessly creating hundreds of useful things you like and need. And that’s not even including the miracles of language, safety, transportation, freedom, family and friends.
However, if three of those hundred things had not gone right—if your toaster was broken, the hot water wasn’t hot enough, your Zoom connection froze—you might feel that the universe was against you, that your luck was bad, that nothing was going right. And yet the vast majority of things still would be working with breathtaking efficiency and consistency. You would be deluded to imagine that life is primarily an ordeal.
An alternative perspective of life through the lens of gratitude
Instead, I offer you the alternative view, that gratitude is the understanding that the universe is fundamentally friendly—that life gives you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. That if you pivot away from the question “Why did this happen to me?” and toward “Why did this happen for me?” you will end up in a more grateful place.
This is not just New Age talk. It is in our self-interest to feel gratitude. Consider that recent studies have shown that people who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others tend to have better health, more optimism, exercise more regularly, suffer less stress and experience less clinical depression than the population as a whole—even when you factor in differences in age and income. Grateful people tend to be less materialistic and suffer less anxiety about status or the accumulation of possessions. Thus, they are more likely to describe themselves as happy or satisfied. Nigeria, one of the poorest countries on earth but one that is dedicated to gratitude practices, is, conversely, the happiest. The United States, the richest, ranks 17th on the happiness scale.
What is true is that grateful people do not take a Pollyannaish view of the world. On the contrary, people who score highly on gratitude indicators also report a strong awareness of the bad in their own lives and in society. In fact, they can be slightly more cynical. But they can be aware of life’s problems yet still thankful for those who help lighten their load.
To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great. It just means we are aware of our blessings. If you only think about your disappointments and unsatisfied wants, you will be prone to unhappiness. If, however, you’re fully aware of your disappointments, but at the same time you’re thankful for the good you have been given and for your chance to live, you will increase your chances for happiness.
Conversely, the chief assailant of gratitude is envy. The more we compare our own lives with those of others, the less we feel for what we already have and the more we will diminish our own appreciation.
Cultivating gratitude daily
The most powerful thing you can do is to know that wherever you focus your energy is what the mind supports. The answer is simple yet effective. Replace what you don't want with what you do want.
Start by saying thank you. Oprah has trained herself (and it is a training) to say "Thank you" as the first thing she does when she opens her eyes in the morning. This simple act sets her up for the rest of the day.
The best way to grow gratitude is to generate thinking that eradicates envy and comparison and replaces it with thoughts reflecting our abundance. It begins with the renewal of a disciplined mind and a commitment to replace thoughts of envy or comparison with thoughts of what is working or of blessings that exist. When we do this, we enact what Cicero called "the highest of all virtues."
To counter our addictions to the negative, try this: right before falling asleep, place one hand on your heart and the other hand on your belly. Then spend one to two minutes considering all the blessings and gratitudes from the day. Do this every day for 30 days, and you will begin to develop a deep gratitude attitude.
Every day we have a choice about how we act and think. And the choice is to be in gratitude or not. We can choose happiness; we can choose gratitude, every day, in every moment and every breath.
Angeles Arrien, Living in Gratitude, Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc., 2011.
Fetzer Institute, Resources on Gratitude
David Baum, PhD, DMin
For more than 30 years David has facilitated big conversations that create big change. With two doctorates—the first finding horizontal connections as a social psychologist and the second looking for vertical ones in divinity—he seeks the overlap. His why is always the same: create connection without dots.
David has worked on conflict mediation in Northern Ireland, designed walking board meetings in the Middle East and large-scale change projects for Shell Oil, Barclays, GE and Fidelity Investments. His clients have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the World Children’s Prize, the Malcolm Baldrige Award and the Clinton Global Citizen Award. He's also worked in a circus. No one has ever accused him of being boring.