What About This Thing Called Gratitude

As you know, gratitude is all the rage these days.  I think it started a few years back when Oprah said on her show that gratitude was responsible for her success, that once she began writing down what she was grateful for, her life turned around.

I've had a rocky relationship with gratitude.
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I love the theory of it.  What could be better than to spend a few minutes basking in the glow of all the wonderful things in your life, focusing on all the good you enjoy?  (And, as a brief aside here, do you ever have moments when you are, say, in the supermarket and you look around with wonder at the vast array of good stuff that we have available to us?)

And yet, when I sit down to do this, it feels phony.  For instance, "I'm grateful for the birds singing outside my window."  Well, I am.  They are singing at this very moment as I write this.  But for some reason it sounds sappy and childish to say it.  I've found gratitude lists written a few years back and I cringe when I read them.

So I indulged in gratitude in fits and starts, and generally end up with mostly stops.  Recently, though, I had a breakthrough about gratitude and came to a brilliant conclusion about my rocky relationship with gratitude.

I'd been thinking of it as settling.  As in, settling for what I have, not what I want.  Settling for what I think I should get, instead of getting my heart's desire.  As an example of this, consider a story my friend told me yesterday.  After going through a number of vacuums in the past few years, she finally bought herself the expensive, efficient vacuum she had always wanted.  Her point was that if she had just bought what she wanted in the first place, she'd still have the expensive vacuum because it would have lasted.  Instead, she spent as much on cheaper vacuums which fell apart and had to be replaced regularly.

For me, gratitude was like that cheap vacuum–the second choice, the also-ran, the thing I settled for.  No wonder those gratitude lists sounded sappy when I reread them.

Lately, however, I've been revisiting gratitude.  I'm doing a program with Christine Kane, and one of her practices is called Gratitudes, Gains, and Gifts.  Every night you're supposed to sit down and write down in your journal, the gifts you've received, the gains you've made, and what you are grateful for.  So there are those pesky gratitudes again.  Maybe it is because this time making a gratitude list is paired with looking at accomplishments and serendipities, but at the moment being grateful is a bit easier for me.

I'm still working on it, though. 

One of the biggest things that I'm grateful for is my writing and often I note things related to that, like, "I'm grateful I finally finished that @#$% chapter rewrite."  As a matter of fact, much of my gratitude list is writing related.

So what about you?  What are you grateful for, in your writing or otherwise?  And what do you think about gratitude?

26 thoughts on “What About This Thing Called Gratitude”

  1. J.D., well I’d say being able to be grateful for your wife and poetry and art and books is a pretty good start. (And thanks for including me in your list.) So you can be as pissed as you want, as far as I’m concerned.

  2. Grateful for healthy kids and wife, for the ability to provide for my family, for living a life filled with the possibility of opportunity and success and fulfillment. (Double-dipped chocolate peanuts, too! 🙂

  3. Hmmm, wives seem to be a common theme in this string, which is very sweet of you husbands. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered a double-dipped chocolate peanut before, but it sounds like something I must try immediately.

  4. I have some things to be grateful for. My wife. I like Rachel Wetzsteon’s poetry. I like art by Van Gogh, Caspar David Friedrich, and Elizabeth Patterson. I like the books of Michael Connelly, Scott Turow, Faulkner, and a zillion others. I like this blog. But mostly I’m pissed. So I say @#$@# gratitude.

  5. I’m grateful for my beautiful apartment and amazing landlord (who speaks English! A very special thing in China).

    I’m grateful I don’t have to teach English. (Most of my friends do and they have horror stories.)

    I’m grateful I can work from home and don’t need to take the ‘sardine express’ every morning. (You do not know bonecrushingly packed until you’ve taken the subway at rush hour.)

    And most of all I’m grateful for my wonderful friends and family who patiently support my writing endeavours. 🙂

  6. Charlotte, I started practicing an ‘attitude of gratitude’ some years back. I decided that, while I was saying my prayers at night, I would specifically name at least one thing in my life for which I was grateful. Some days it’s easy, those days when life seems to shower me with bounty. Some days it’s hard, and the only gratitude I can find is that I made it through alive.

    Over the years, it’s become easier, more or a habit and less of a chore. Sometimes, when I hear or see or read of something terrible happening, I find myself with long lists of things I’m thankful for. Actually I consider myself one of the luckiest people I know.

    At the same time that I’m being thankful, I am also consciously letting go of the things I don’t want in my life, to make room for the things I want to come into it. The more good things in your life, the less room for negativity. Simple things but they’ve helped me a lot, and it gets easier with practice.

  7. I find that gratitude – although I don’t know if this is the correct term – is a good exercise for when I have been seduced into my mind’s negativity. I have also regularly used this “blessings counting” exercise with my clients that have turned up at my consulting room full of fears and anxieties, with a degree of success, but the results tend to be transient. What is really needed here is to uproot the insecurity behind our insecurity, and with me my Zen comes to the rescue.

    If I sit for a while and look at my own assets and achievements that I have worked for all my life, I can see that I am really OK, and that my mind, conditioned with years of thrift based on fears of loss inherited from my parents’ fears of loss, is merely warning me of the illusory perils of the potential poverty to come if I don’t keep up the effort. But in reality, in the here and now, that struggle for survival is over. But my mind won’t let me get away with it that easily! My worries may then turn to the aches and pains that come with the ageing process and will warn of some terrible disease or even worse! However, I can usually manage to transcend this through my zazen (meditation), by just sitting and witnessing the antics of my mind.

    Looking from my usual Zen perspective, I see gratitude as a sort of paradoxical desire. Does my mind really want me to sit and genuinely thank God, or is it because I want more security? A sort of insurance policy that He will continue to keep those rewards coming simply because He’s pleased that I keep thanking Him?

    Zen wants its practitioners to live in the here and now in harmony with all other beings. If I am truly present in the here and now, I am already in a state of gratitude – I am celebrating the is-ness of life. By just being, I am in a state of acceptance, which is the same as saying I am in a state of universal love for what it so. I am not judging what is good and what is bad, but seeing experiences, some painful some not painful, that are creating who I am.

    In nature, a tree (or flower) will just be… Showing its majesty and beauty, is the tree wordlessly thanking the universe by merely being itself? If we can really experience a tree, it will embrace our senses and we can get a strong sense of gratitude for and from the tree. Being at one with the tree at such times is something that we create within. No rituals are needed here, no ambition coming from neediness, just a spontaneous experience.:-)

  8. Jessica, I love your list of gratitudes, it is so very different than mine, seeing as how you are in China!

    J.D., When is Killer Nashville? And glad to hear you just finished a short story.

    Melody, Thanks for reminding us that letting go with what we don’t want goes hand in hand with accepting what we do.

    Derek, I love the idea that being fully present is an act of gratitude!

  9. I just finished a short story set in China. During November of 2008, I was in Beijing for two days, so I’m an expert.

  10. Oh damn, I’ll miss it–are there good speakers and agents coming? My own Loft orientation weekend is September 17th and 18th, we open it to the public on Fridays for a small fee if you are interested.

  11. I write mysteries. Well, sometimes they are mysteries. The story is about a technical writer who travels to Beijing to help his company launch a product. During his morning jog, he stumbles on a body and is accused of the murder. I’m sure I have many of the details regarding place and culture wrong!

  12. I am grateful for the way your blog topics have an uncanny way of paralleling ideas I’m working through in my own life. I’ve also struggled with gratitude and abandoned gratitude journals and it hit me this week that it is hard to be grateful for things if you don’t feel worthy of them, but that this is a self-correcting problem. If I allow myself to experience the gratitude, then the feelings of unworthiness vanish.
    I am grateful always for healthy, happy children and husband, and all the amazing people I have met just because I am a writer. Also for instant spell check, Pandora, my doctor, boiled peanuts, people who will tell me stories and cherry ice cream.

  13. J.D., sounds like a really good conference, with great speakers. I am familiar with Jeffrey Deaver, and J.A. Vance is from my neck of the woods. I’m jealous!

    Denise, I think you bring up a great point, that it is hard to feel grateful if you are busy feeling unworthy. Also, now we have a peanut theme. Roy is grateful for chocolate double-dipped peanuts and you are grateful for boiled peanuts, neither of which I have had. I’m adding boiled peanuts to the list for when I’m in Nashville!

  14. Charlotte, Killer Nashville is August 20 thru 22, that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I’m sittin’ on ready.

  15. I’m not so grateful for those italics, but each to his own and it’s good to be grateful for something.

    What I have found about gratitude is that it doesn’t really change things, other than the way I view them. But for me, that is huge. Beyond huge – it’s the whole ball of wax. I lived much of my life it a state ranging from mild irritation to full-on pissed-off-ness. It came to a point of making a conscious decision: am I going to be like this for the rest of my life, or am I going to look at myself as blessed rather than deprived. I only managed to make the switch after a couple of years of gut-wrenching therapy and self-discovery. Hard duty, but really worth it.

    So what am I grateful for? Just about everything in my life – except perhaps my arthritic thumbs. But, I can truthfully say that I’m glad I have thumbs. And if that sounds sappy, well … tough.

    And if you want really sappy, try this one on for size. I’m grateful I met Charlotte the last time she was here in Nashvegas, and I’m grateful she’s coming back. Knowing Charlotte makes my life a bigger place.

    Cocktail shakers standing by, honey. Hurry on back to see us!

  16. Jeffrey Deaver is the guest of honor. I don’t know if you are familiar with Mr. Deaver. I read recently that he has been contracted to write the story that will be used in the next James Bond film. I am thinking someone else will do the screenplay and he will write the manuscript it will be taken from. What do you think; is that any good? J.A. Vance will be signing her books. There are 8 others I haven’t heard of. As of now there are five agents coming.

  17. Hey JD,

    Your story sounds eerily like my life, except for the dead body/accused of murder thing.

    If you’re worried about the details, I’d be happy to take a look for you. 🙂

  18. Oh dear, I have no idea why we are suddenly all in italics, will go see what I can do.

    David, you make another great point–that being grateful doesn’t change the world but it changes how it makes us feel about it. I’ve been doing something similar to you lately–looking at my life and realizing how damn good it is, most of the time. And I consider you to be one of the things I’m grateful for, also! Keep those cocktail shakers standing by, we’ve got lots to talk about when I get to Nashvegas!

    Jessica, You and J.D. should just write a story together!

  19. I look at gratitude lists and exercises as an opportunity to appreciate what I really do enjoy, but do not always consciously acknowledge. Carefully considering all of the good things that one encounters within the expanse of a day is very much an exercise in being present (as already mentioned). Lately I have been appreciating silences and expanses—the subtle, that I don’t feel or interact with directly, but which still affect me.

  20. Thanks, Wyo. I am with you on how important it is to appreciate that which we don’t usually take time to notice. When I think of silence I think of Taos, New Mexico, where you can actually hear the wind. It is incredible.

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