We often feel gratitude when we get or experience something we want. It’s much more difficult to experience gratitude when life delivers less—or more—than we bargained for.
Gratefulness, on the other hand, is an overall orientation to life. When we wake up in the morning and feel grateful just for the blessing of being alive, we open our heart and senses to the gifts and opportunities of another day, a day that was never guaranteed. This approach to gratitude is more radical since it isn’t contingent on a transaction — on something good happening to us — but is rather a way of living.
When people think they’ve nearly lost something then realise that isn’t the case, gratefulness is often the feeling that arises. Losing electricity for two days then having it restored, with the ability to flip a switch and light a room, often evokes gratefulness. Or a terrible accident is miraculously avoided, and the only response is: “I’m so grateful to be alive.” In these times, we are far less likely to take the gifts of our lives for granted.
But, in a surprisingly short time, the feeling of gratefulness can vanish, and we default to our baseline expectations, assumptions, and even entitlement. A daily practice of gratitude is the key to appreciating all the things we tend to take for granted. The core practice of gratefulness is to truly notice, to be present to the gifts of our lives from the moment we wake up in the morning until the moment we go to bed at night. This daily practice can be a gateway to blessing.
Upon waking up in the morning, even before getting out of bed, pause to think of five things that call for gratefulness. It could be: My lungs are breathing. The air temperature is comfortable. My eyes can open and see. I get to put my feet on the floor and walk. There are people I love. I’m still here. Call forth those things that simply exist and that don’t have to be earned. In doing so, we remind ourselves of the inherent gift of the day, as reflected in Pierre Pradervand’s blessing “I bless this day in the fullness of good it already contains…” With this daily practice, we remind ourselves that gratefulness is an internal approach to life that we can cultivate and reference at any time.
I believe that there is always something to be grateful for, even in the midst of loss, fear, and pain. I was diagnosed with cancer at age 33 and underwent multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. I had to face my mortality squarely at a young age. Yet, even in this most challenging period of my life, I was aware of opportunities to cultivate gratefulness. In the hospital, separated from all my friends and family and tethered to all kinds of IVs and dealing with pain, I had nurses and technicians, doctors and cleaners who came into my room every day. I remember thinking, what if this is my life now, what if this is all I ever have? And then I thought, I can always love these people.
Gratefulness asks: Where can we find opportunities to grow, learn, and love, even in the darkest moments? And, once the darkness has passed, how do we live fully and deeply in the present while also remembering that we once had an ache and now we don’t? Part of being human is that we remember and forget, remember and forget. The work is to remember more often than we forget.
Here is a simple yet powerful practice that can change the lens through which you view your days: Think of all the things on your to-do list today — perhaps running errands, finishing a project at work, or contacting people. When you think of these kinds of things, you likely say to yourself “I have to…” Instead, try changing the words “I have to” to “I get to.” It’s a very different frame around the things we do in our lives, a way to shift our obligations to opportunities, and to see our responsibilities as privileges. When we see what we have to do in life as a privilege rather than an obligation, it opens up a new energy with which to approach all of the moments and tasks of our lives. This practice can also help us model gratefulness for others and approach our circumstances more graciously and generously.
I think of the practice of living gratefully as “regret prevention.” When you live fully inside your vulnerability, feeling grateful for the gift of life, you’re much less likely to say and do the things — or not say and do the things — that will lead you to regret. When we embrace the poignancy and vulnerability that come with gratefulness, we’re reminded that our time on earth is limited and that experiences are fleeting. This helps us to better treasure deeply what we have now and live more fully into what we know really matters — experiencing and giving honour to the blessings in and of our lives.
Kristi Nelson is executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, a global organisation offering online and community-based educational programs and practices which inspire and guide a commitment to grateful living, and catalyse the transformative power of personal and societal responsibility.
Thank you to Manuela and our friends at The Gentle Art of Blessing for sharing.