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“You should be grateful!”

This concept of gratefulness gets thrown around a lot today, especially as an ingredient to a good life. It’s a key part of well being and positivity psychology regimes.  But do we actually know what we are trying to achieve?

Grateful is easily confused with it’s many almost-but-not-quite-substitutable synonyms. We often think of

Thankful… appreciative… happy… joyous…

And if you look it up, we get offered concepts like

Beholden… indebted… obliged.

When you look at these words on a spectrum, I think we can all agree that they’re quite different experiences.

According to the dictionary, gratitude, or being grateful means having a “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”. It also defines it as being thankful, but the first definition seems to be asking for more than how I feel when someone opens a door for me. And this explanation “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives” brings in this idea that you need to get something from someone to be grateful.

Gratitude, more than thankfulness, does seem to come with some of that indebtedness. There is a “sharper” edge to being grateful that there isn’t with happiness and joy. It’s almost as though you have to have been at risk first to then be able to feel grateful. Does that make sense?

To be truly grateful, you have to have previously felt unhappy, or scared, or threatened, or thought something was going to fail, and that you were not necessarily able to resolve it easily yourself.

Gratefulness is then what occurs when that negative experience changes because of an intervention of some kind… not even necessarily to something positive, but just to something slightly less shit. When the relief that comes with the change is significant enough, and you can pin point the cause – thus is created your Locus of Gratefulness.

 

Here are some examples –

I am thankful when someone opens a door for me… I am grateful if I’m on crutches at the time.

I appreciate more birthday presents for my kid’s already overloaded room… I am grateful for a present to give my kids after the floods or the fires destroyed my home.

I am happy being around my friends… I am grateful when my friends gather after my partner has died.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy being thankful, appreciative and happy!  But discovering the meaning of and motivation for being grateful, as a separate emotion, has actually made those moments so much more powerful in my life – which I think is the point of the word being used in the spiritual and holistic realm.

 

What I love about gratefulness is its ability to connect you to all sorts of things that might otherwise go unnoticed.  It’s easy to be grateful for the policeman who saves your life in a hold up.  Less common to realise what they’re doing when they stop you with their hand at an intersection while a traffic light is being fixed.  Often this turns into a frustrating, annoyed, road rage build up offense at their rude and dismissive “palm in the face”.  But in fact, they are stopping you either never moving because everyone would be waiting, or driving into other cars because everyone would go.  And when I think about it like that (realising the potential negative, and what they are saving me from), I start to feel much more grateful when they’re eventually waving me through.  

In this light, the idea of ‘practicing gratitude’ is an interesting one to think about. It’s difficult to create gratitude. No one can really tell you to “be grateful”, any more than they can tell you to be happy or angry or sad. But unlike those emotions, another person can’t make you feel grateful without you actively being involved in the situation, and you can’t make someone else grateful just because you want them to be. Gratitude is all dependent on what the action means to your safety and opportunity, and to some degree how much of it was outside of your control.  AND whether you had any insight to this or not.

And this is where it gets “hard” to be grateful. It takes work –

insight to your own needs, understanding of how they are fulfilled (and not fulfilled at the time), acknowledgement of what the other did to help fulfill them, and a willingness to share the credit with that other. 

Which requires a self aware, thoughtful and inclusive approach – something we can all admit is not always the norm in human behaviour, including our own.

This also makes more sense of the weird relationship that resilience and gratitude sometimes have – where gratitude can seem reliant and weak and thus not consistent with developing resilience, but in fact, it is well known that resilience is stronger in grateful people (seeing as all those skills we just mentioned are key capabilities in building resilience).

Realising that we may be sub-consciously swapping in a whole bunch of simpler, easier or more readily available emotions with gratitude explains why sometimes this “gratitude practice” - which should make us realise what we have, focus on the good, recognize how those around us care for us, and remind us of our own value in our community – seems to fall short in it’s outcomes.  It could be as simple as we’re eating a toasted cheese sandwich when we really thought we were making a pizza!

 

Being grateful sometimes comes naturally, and sometimes, it takes a bit more effort.  And we all have limited resources.  But it is known that gratitude does beget:

 

Deeper relationships, improved optimism and happiness, stronger self control and better physical and mental health.

 

So perhaps as a simple gift to yourself this festive season… Take 15 minutes to CHAT

·         Stop and think about what you CARE about, and which of those things are most important to you.

·         Work out how those around you HELP you achieve these things.

·         Clarify and ACKNOWLEDGE exactly what they do, and that it’s their choice to do it.

·         Take the time to say THANK YOU.

I’m already smiling just thinking about it. 😊

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