G is for Gratitude

You saw that coming, right?

Recently I was listening to an interview by Dan Buettner who has spent many years researching the Blue Zones, those handful of places on earth where big percentages of the population live over 100 years. He made a statement that surprised me. He said that there is no evidence that practices of gratitude make people live longer or that they significantly improve a person’s level of happiness. That’s interesting, I thought, because I’ve felt chagrined for years struggling with the idea of “gratitude.” Maybe I could let myself off the hook.

Let me clarify. I’ve always found it easy to be grateful TO specific people in my life for the gifts they’ve offered me—in time and material—but a greater understanding of gratitude has often baffled me.

There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you…” Seems like advice you might hear from any number of positive thinking gurus. Almost every self-help author I read encourages us to keep a gratitude journal. But the very idea of gratitude denotes that there is someone to say thank you to. Who? And what about when times are hard? Is it not ludicrous to be grateful for EVERYTHING—even experiences of abuse or injustice as the Bible verse seems to suggest? That’s just denial, right?

Last week, the issue of gratitude came up in my own therapy. My therapist said she sometimes simply feels an overwhelming sense of joyful appreciation, and she thinks of that as gratitude. A light bulb went on for me. “Joyful appreciation!” Now, that makes sense. Joyful appreciation is something I can easily cultivate.

  • For the beauty of this place I live.
  • For my friendships, many of which span decades and have seen me through hard times.
  • For the opportunities life has afforded me.
  • For the chance to contribute to others as a teacher, author, therapist, and coach.

And (here’s where the shift happened at the idea of calling gratitude “joyful appreciation”), I can ALSO find appreciation for the dark moments of unkindess and injustice that have come my way. How can I have joyful appreciation for some of the hardships in my life? Well, not because I condone or accept them, I can tell you that. But I CAN deeply appreciate myself for how I’ve put my hardships to good use. Growing up, my parents were a mess for much of my childhood (details in my next book—for now, take my word for it), and for many years all I felt was pain and disorientation at how my head got screwed on wrong during those years. But in my late twenties and early thirties I made a commitment to heal and to suck every bit of wisdom out of those hard times that I could, to put that wisdom to use for humanity in any way that presented itself. And I’ve spent my entire adult life doing just that. I have viewed my life as a project in making a person out of myself—someone I could trust and rely on and that others could, as well.

There have been some pretty significant setbacks and confusing decisions to make in the course of this project so far, but each setback has required that I re-commit to the experiment. And I have. So, I suppose I can authentically say that some of the “bad” things that have happened to me have given me opportunity to appreciate myself for my own strength and determination—and also to appreciate the way other people have shown up for me.

This week, I’m looking out for things I appreciate as a way of cultivating the feeling of joy inside of me because one thing Dan Buettner did say contributes to long, happy life in the Blue Zones is the lack of “time-urgency.” Slow down and smell the flowers. Let joyful appreciation settle in your body and savor it for a few moments. That’s my plan. What’s yours?