A Beginner’s Guide to Gratitude

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” — Oprah Winfrey

Needlepoint pillows remind us to count our blessings, we gather around the table at Thanksgiving every year to give thanks for what we are grateful for, and since the late 1990s Oprah has been telling us we need to keep a gratitude journal. Gratitude is a concept we can all understand, but isn’t something that is always put into regular practice. Making the conscious effort to make gratitude a part of our daily existence will rewire the mind, to be more receptive to noticing, and savoring the moments of happiness that give us contentment in our lives.

Renowned writer, researcher, and TED talk speaker Brené Brown wrote a chapter on gratitude in her book the Gifts of Imperfection. Brown makes a strong connection between joy and gratitude, and opines that without practicing gratitude we are robbing ourselves of joy. In her research she’s spoken with victims of severe loss, violence, and trauma. She has learned from them that, “their most precious memories were forged from a collection of ordinary moments, and their hope for others is that they would stop long enough to be grateful for those moments and the joy they bring.”

Brown acknowledges that there are barriers we may need to overcome to truly experience joy. Our worries, anxieties, and a resistance to vulnerability are all roadblocks to our joy, gratitude, and happiness. We need to overcome these fears to allow ourselves to appreciate joy. Gratitude is something that needs to be practiced to help us strengthen our capacity for joy. She explains that for years she had an “attitude of gratitude,” but that, “it seems that gratitude without practice may be a little like faith without works – it’s not alive.”

According to Brown, joyful people express their gratitude in many ways from meditation, to journaling, art, and stopping during the day to say out loud what they are grateful for. Brown herself developed a way of recording her gratitude called TGIF, which stands for Trusting, Grateful for, Inspired by, and how she is practicing her Faith. She makes an important distinction between happiness, which is based on external situations and circumstance, and joy which comes from within and resides in the heart and the spirit. Brown explains that, “In my own life, I’d like to experience more happiness, but I want to live from a place of gratitude and joy.”

Anne O. Kubitsky is the founder of the website lookforthegoodproject.org. Her work began as a community art project where she randomly distributed postcards that asked the question, what makes you grateful? And requested recipients to write, draw, or paint something they are grateful for. Kubitsky was quickly inundated with postcards and thoughtful responses from all over the world. She displays the responses online, and in exhibits.

In Kubitsky’s gorgeously illustrated book about her project, What Makes You Grateful? Voices from Around the World, the pages are bursting with photographs, artwork, poetry, collages, quotations, essays, and question prompts and space to record reflections. The book is divided into sections covering gratitude for life, love, beauty, health, peace, freedom, creativity, abundance, insight, courage, grace, and joy.

In the book’s introduction the author explains that her work has been very healing for her, and helped her process the difficult suppressed memories of a traumatic sexual assault. She writes, “We all have bad things that happen to us. We each have something we regret. But the question is: What do you do about it? Do you get stuck in the drama of the experience and use it as an excuse to stay angry and afraid? Or do you use it as an opportunity to learn a little more about life, love, peace, happiness, and all the intangible qualities that make life great? Because there’s always something to be grateful for. We just have to be open enough to see it.”

Denmark is often ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. The source of this happiness is often attributed to the Danish concept of hygge. The word doesn’t have an easy translation.  Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research in Copenhagen writes about the concept in The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well. He writes that the word has been explained as, “taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things,” and is about the importance of atmosphere and experience over possessions.

The book explores this feeling as it applies to many areas of life including having a comfortable home with warm lighting and a cozy reading spot, savouring good food, and quality time with loved ones. Hygge can be felt with all the five senses, and is an indicator of comfort, trust levels, and feelings of safety.

The author explains that hygge is, “about the now, how to enjoy the moment and make the best of it.” He believes gratitude is an essential part of hygge, and that gratitude is a contributor to overall happiness. Wiking writes, “Gratitude is more than just a simple ‘thank you’ when you receive a gift. It is about keeping in mind that you live right now, allowing yourself to focus on the moment and appreciate the life you lead, to focus on all that you do have, and not what you don’t.”

Health experts agree that there is a multitude of ways the practice of gratitude contributes to our health and happiness. A Newsweek article on the scientifically proven benefits of gratitude quoted a 2013 University of Birmingham psychology report: “the list of potential benefits is almost endless: fewer intellectual biases, more effective learning strategies, more helpfulness towards others, raised self-confidence, better work attitude, strengthened resiliency, less physical pain, improved health, and longevity.”

Whether it is expressing thankfulness to friends and family, writing down new things that make you grateful, or pausing to think of what you’re grateful for, the true benefits of gratitude can only be felt by meaningful and consistent practice.

“If the only prayer you say in your whole life is, ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.” —Meister Eckhart

Author Bio: Tara Collum

Tara Collum lives in Toronto and grew up in Muskoka. She is the volunteer social media coordinator for the Death Row Support Project @COB_DRSP and co-writes a web serial at splitsvilleblog.wordpress.com. She is all about tea, books, mumblecore, music, long walks, and self-improvement. Follow Tara on twitter @99percentsun