Want more Love and Goodness? Savor Gratitude
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
One way to understand spiritual health is a journey of becoming whole – of becoming wholly ourselves – with others, and with a growing sense of purpose and service for others. Our becoming is beholden to what we attend. In other words, where we focus our thoughts and practices, our lives will follow. We don’t have control of all that presents itself to us, or even all that occurs to us, but we do have agency and influence over the things we attend to. We can train our minds to be more flexible and to notice what is good and beautiful. Gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to attend to goodness. The goodness of gifts, the goodness of givers, and the goodness of ourselves as receivers. Rather than nonchalantly rummaging through practices of gratitude – by saying thanks while sitting at a red light, or making a list through journaling – take time to savor gratitude.
When we savor gratitude, when we slow it down and break it down, we have three opportunities to behold love and goodness:
1) We recognize the goodness of the gift – what we are grateful for.
2) We recognize the giver – who (or what) we are grateful to.
3) We are offered an opportunity to recognize our worth – we’ve received a gift and we matter.
These moments help us to understand that we don’t have to do anything to receive certain types of gifts. Each of the three cognitive appraisals of gratitude lights us up – enhancing dopamine and seratonin production in the brain, the neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. Practicing gratitude, similar to practicing other positive emotions, actually changes neural structures in the brain, and broadens and builds our capacities to withstand difficulties when they come.
After 3 years of research at the Thrive Center and in conjunction with an interdisciplinary team of scholars, I have a deeper appreciation for gratitude – especially transcendent gratitude or gratitude to God. Gratitude for gifts that cannot be attributed to human others casts us in the loving light of God. Things like the gift of life, a beautiful day, or a “chance” run-in with a cherished friend are gifts. Who do you thank for such gifts?
When we asked this question to a group of people around the United States in our 2021 study, we found that there were differing ideas about the “transcendent giver” – some people believed that gifts came from God, others believed that gifts came from nature or the natural order. Some people believed that gifts came from science or karma. In general, people believed in a transcendent source for the gifts they received. The kinds of gifts that people recognized as coming from a transcendent source were things related to people and connections, experiences and accomplishments, basic necessities, and the absence of troubles. The absence of troubles is particularly interesting in light of the fact that the study was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, but as Anne Lamott says in her beautiful book, Help, Thanks, Wow, prayers of thanks are often prayers of relief. She says “…most of the time for me gratitude is a rush of relief that I dodged a bullet – the highway patrol guy didn’t notice me speed by, or the dog didn’t get hit by someone else speeding by.” In our study, we found that believing in something (or someone) as a source of goodness enhances the recognition of, and experiences with, our sources of gratitude. Another interesting finding from this study is that people “pay gratitude forward” by helping others and our world – this quality so important for thriving.
Although discussions of gift, giver, and receiver might sound esoteric or abstract, they are very important. Each of these appraisals provides an opportunity to pave the way to behold goodness and love. In the Christian faith – the ultimate gift is also the giver. The giver and the gift become one beautiful source of goodness. Savoring the giver and the gifts, and who we are as receivers of those gifts opens us to love, and prompts us to live out that love for others.
Focusing on gratitude does not deny the challenges of suffering, but it allows us to let more light into our lives, even when our lives brush up against darkness or get stuck in the murky. Gratitude is a real, actionable, and practical way to let light in. My research has helped me to understand gratitude as a virtue that can be cultivated. Practicing gratitude helps shed light on what is most meaningful and brings you joy. Wherever you are, whatever you are dealing with – attune to the goodness in your life through practicing gratitude – savor the gift, the giver, and yourself as the receiver. Overtime, you will become more aware of sources of light and life that are particularly powerful for you. Ultimately giving you sunlight to grow toward.
Questions to help you savor gratitude
- Identify a gift that you received today from God or a transcendent source? It could be a recognition of the gift of a child, or the beauty of the day, or even a challenge that is making you grow. Name the gift and how it has specifically blessed you.
- Think about the source of the gift and why God or the transcendent is bestowing you with such a gift? What is it about the giver and the generosity that touches you? How does the gift help you to understand the nature of your source of the gift?
- Sit quietly and think about yourself as the receiver of the gift. Did you do anything to deserve the gift you received? How does the gift help you to understand that you are loved?
For deeper reading:
Barbara L Fredrickson, The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, 2004, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1693418/
Jenae Nelson, et. al., How diverse beliefs shape the experience of transcendent gratitude, 2023, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2023.2239785?journalCode=rpos20/