If you’ve lived in The United States for more than five minutes, you’ve probably noticed that we’re lacking in gratitude. This is not to say that Americans aren’t capable of feeling it but it’s an area in our culture that leaves much room for improvement. Before I understood the power of soft skills, core values and living wholeheartedly, I lacked this sentiment. This came as a particular detriment, given that I soon learned that gratitude is actually one of my core values.
It is not a coincidence that the deficit of gratitude in our culture is fueled by instant gratification, over-consumption and impulsivity. Many of us are not able to tolerate discomfort or stillness, costing us discernment and purposefulness. Add all of this together and we find that we’re more prone to unhappiness, dissatisfaction, disconnection and apathy. But what happens when we start injecting gratitude into our lives through a daily committed practice? Emotional researchers—and individuals like myself—have found that having a gratitude practice can make our lives feel more fulfilling. And this news may leave you feeling…well…grateful.
Before I get into what a gratitude practice is about or what it can look like, I want to share a personal story about the impact that it is has had on me. I mentioned that it is now one of my core values and that for many years I functioned without a consistent practice. Not being centered in gratitude, I learned, threw me out of alignment with these values. This looked like a variety of toxic behaviors that included abandoning my authenticity and acting with entitlement, impatience and a lack of compassion. I festered in judgement and felt weighed down by perfectionism.
One of the most profound memories that comes up for me was during graduate school when I was directing my thesis puppetry production. My lack of gratitude showed up as an inability to be present, having a domineering rather than diplomatic demeanor and being unforgiving with myself and others when things went wrong. I remember that my perspective was very binary during this time. Either my project was a success OR a failure. Either I, and those assisting me, were doing everything right or everything was wrong. Set backs, obstacles and challenges pointed me towards defeat rather than persistence. Secretly, I felt like a fraud and I carried so much fear and stress about the opinions of others. I can easily say that I was not a great collaborator or communicator during that time. Luckily, I’ve learned a lot since then, largely thanks to gratitude.
What pains me most about how I functioned back then was how much I overlooked the abundance I was surrounded by. Lacking gratitude literally cost me my perspective. When I was rooted in judgement, scarcity and perfectionism, I missed seeing how much support I actually had. Without my ability to see the efforts of those around me, I couldn’t feel it. When I didn’t feel the support I was given, I couldn’t acknowledge it, which left others feeling unappreciated and ineffective. My thesis project literally required effective collaboration and my lack of gratitude was eroding effective teamwork.
It would be years before I understood the connection between gratitude, an optimistic perspective and the ability to shift culture. When I began incorporating this into my daily routine, it was only out of necessity. I’d catch myself spinning out on criticism or judgment and I’d notice the wave of dissatisfaction that would wash over me. That unpleasant flush brought with it so much anger and aggravation. Eventually, these charged negative emotions and behaviors became my red light to slow down and step back. In the beginning, that pause felt like a never-ending gap and it was so hard not to fill it with more negative thoughts. That’s when I began listing my gratitude.
I started with saying, “Just find five things to be grateful for right now.” It didn’t matter what I listed as long as it was something. Early lists included things like, “I’m grateful that I didn’t punch anyone... I’m grateful that I can breathe... I’m grateful that I’m not a cockroach... I’m grateful for the color green.” It almost didn’t matter what I wrote down. What was more important was how I felt when I was done, which was more relaxed, centered and, yes, grateful.
The more I practiced the gratitude lists, the longer they’d become. It started becoming more and more clear to me just how much abundance I had around me. From simple things like being thankful for having a warm cup of tea to drink to profound things like appreciating the existence of compassion, the more consistent my practice became the more my perspective shifted. I noticed that I was less taken over by stress and anxiety. And I noticed that there was more space for kindness and compassion.
Gratitude opened the doors to deeper connections with myself and others. When I listed what I was grateful for, I found a deeper appreciation for myself. When I shared my thanks and received them from others, I discovered layers of vulnerability and belonging that I never knew existed. Gratitude was actually shifting my internal culture and that rippled outwards and impacted the world around me. This is why I'm such an advocate for gratitude. It literally changes how our brains process and respond to information, people, places and things.
Yung Pueblo, a poet and spiritual teacher, said, “Practicing gratitude reinforces our ability to receive love.” When more of us are dedicated to small acts of kindness and those acts are received with thanks, our love for our fellow human beings grows. This is how gratitude becomes a powerful tool for shifting culture. When we look at it through this lens, it brings a new level of importance to the “simple” daily gratitude list that we jot down.
Below are the top three behaviors I adopted to help make gratitude more accessible as a practice.
#1 Start with Awareness
Developing gratitude does not need to be an arduous process. Just starting with mindfulness and awareness about when your gratitude reserves are low is a great place to begin. The more I learned to bring awareness to my own thoughts and actions, the easier it was to access the next step.
#2 Notice the Gifts
Once I catch myself in moments of low gratitude, I ask myself this question, “Is there a gift, lesson, opportunity or overlooked success that I can take from this situation?” In other words, how often do I notice when something goes right? Was my coffee order correct? Did I practice courage even though I received criticism? When I experience a setback, what can I take away and apply to the future so that I am wiser?
We will always encounter disappointment, setbacks and struggles. The goal of having a gratitude practice is not to avoid struggle but to give you a way out of it when it happens. Finding the “gold in the shit,” as I call it, is all about that.
#3 Record your Gratitude
This third step is critical for getting the full benefit of a gratitude practice. When I’m talking about recording things that I'm thankful for, I’m VERY flexible about what this looks like. Likely, we have heard of "gratitude lists," where we write down the things that we’re appreciative of. But how many of us actually do this?
I’ve become flexible with what recording gratitude means because what’s most important is not HOW you do it but rather THAT you do it in the first place. I have drawn pictures, created art, shot videos, made lists, sang songs, walked a mile and more, all in the name of expressing my thanks. What I have noticed is that the more grace, flexibility and creativity I’ve given myself with how I record my gratitude, the more consistent my practice becomes.
When we record and share our gratitude with the world, two big things immediately happen. We deepen our connection to the source of our appreciation AND when our thanks are received, we get a boost of joy. Joy and connection are two of the most powerful emotions when it comes to how we see ourselves and others. When our connections are amplified through gratitude and joy, we pay more attention to how we show up and engage with other people. This is how we can shift culture. When we are grateful, we create spaces for grace, compassion, tenderness, connection and joy. And when more of us are creating these spaces, our world begins to reflect these values back to us.
This holiday season, when things feel overwhelming or stressful, take a step back and practice sending and receiving gratitude. You may be surprised by the shifts that follow.
Kate Katz is the owner and founder of All Hands In, a soft skills development company. All Hands In specializes in soft skills development by using play and puppetry. If you'd like to learn more about the work we do, please visit: www.allhandsinworkshops.com or email Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org.