Gratitude Frees Us from Past Regrets and Future Anxieties
There is one thing I have in common with Albert Einstein. He had to remind himself, a thousand times a day by his count, of how much he depended upon other people. A thousand times a day, I too have to remind myself to be grateful and to remember how much I depend upon other people.
Sometimes I justify myself by saying that since I am constantly thinking about gratitude, I don’t need to actively practice it. But more often than not, my thinking isn’t about the things in life I am grateful for, it’s just about the next article or the next talk I’m going to deliver. I suspect that Einstein and I are not alone. Gratitude can be hard and painful work, but so necessary.
The evidence that cultivating gratitude is good for you is overwhelming. Gratitude is a quality we should aspire to as part and parcel of personal growth. This wisdom derives not only from ancient philosophers and theologians but also from contemporary social science research. Analyses of the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and the Koran have all exposed gratitude as central among the virtues they extol.
There is credible evidence that feeling grateful generates a ripple effect through every area of our lives, potentially satisfying some of our deepest yearnings — our desire for happiness, our pursuit of better relationships, and our ceaseless quest for inner peace, wholeness and contentment. Gratitude is more than a tool for self-improvement.
Gratitude is a way of life. As a short term, fleeting emotion, the feeling of gratitude cannot be acquired through willpower alone. You can’t try to be grateful and then, through sheer will, automatically achieve it, any more than you can try to be happy and succeed. There is an old saying that “happiness pursued, eludes.” You cannot obtain it through conscious striving.
An internal focus on whether one is happy or trying to be happy appears doomed to fail. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” wrote John Stuart Mill in 1873, “and you cease to be so.” The same holds for gratitude. If you ask yourself whether or not you are grateful, you are probably not. What I’m saying here is you can’t mentally change your mood into gratitude instantaneously. So relax – the feeling cannot be achieved by snapping your fingers.
The benefits of gratitude come from the long-term cultivation of the disposition of gratification through dedicated practice. The disposition to experience gratitude, or gratefulness, is the tendency to feel gratitude frequently, in appropriate ways in appropriate circumstances.
A person with the disposition to feel grateful has established a worldview that says, in effect, that all of life is a gift, gratuitously given. Although we cannot in any direct way be grateful, we can cultivate gratefulness by structuring our lives, our minds and our words in such a way as to facilitate awareness of gratitude-inducing experiences and labeling them as such.
By appreciating the gifts of the moment, gratitude frees us from past regrets and future anxieties. By cultivating gratefulness, we are freed from envy over what we don’t have or who we are not. It doesn’t make life perfect, but with gratitude comes the realization that right now in this moment, we have enough, we are enough.
Bob Mueller is senior vice president of Development at Hosparus Health