We are all feeling very grateful, judging by the ubiquity of this common hashtag. But what does it really mean?
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, meaning grace, graciousness or gratefulness. It is a thankful acknowledgement of all that is good in our lives. Feeling gratitude connects us to something much bigger than ourselves, whether to other people, nature, the universe or a higher power.
It’s a word that often pops up on social media below a perfectly curated photo. Look at me, I’m in this beautiful place, with these beautiful people, I’m so grateful, so humbled, so blessed (guilty as charged by the way).
I don’t doubt the sincerity of the gratitude, but it’s easy to feel grateful when all is well in our world. And yet, the irony is that the more reason we have to be grateful, the less grateful we often are. We forget to stop and take stock of all that is good in our lives. We complain about daily irritations and lose sight of the bigger picture.
As someone pointed out to me the other day, if you have food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over your head and a car to drive (mine comes with the addition of several dents thanks to an unfortunate incident with a shopping trolley) you are indeed blessed on a global scale and have much to be grateful for.
Now that’s gratitude …
The test of how grateful we really are, how much gratitude we genuinely feel, comes when we face adversity. Two cases in point: Earlier this year a friend of mine lost her husband after a brutally short, exceptionally brave, battle with cancer. She’d lost her best friend, her soul mate, the man she had expected to grow old with. Her children had lost the father they adored. Shattered doesn’t come close. The grief was immense.
The celebration of his life was held in a beautiful church in a leafy suburb. Standing room only. Tribute after tribute. Amusing anecdotes, moving memories, stirring music, rivers of tears, occasional laughter. It was an uplifting memorial service for the life of a wonderful man. You could almost touch the love.
Afterwards, guests were invited back to the family home. Hospitality plus. The wine flowed, the food was bountiful, the atmosphere upbeat. I looked around me. Everyone was sharing memories, smiling, even laughing. In death, as in life, my friend’s husband was bringing people together, reminding us of the importance of community and friendship, of seizing the day, following our dreams, being our best selves. For that was how he had lived his life.
Gratitude and grace
My friend was grace personified, moving amongst the guests, making sure everyone had what they needed, the perfect hostess. I don’t know how she did it. When we spoke, I tried to express how I felt about the service, the man, the amazing hospitality, her beautiful family, her moving tribute standing in the church, surrounded by her adult children.
‘You are amazing,’ I told her, feeling my words were inadequate. ‘I feel so grateful,’ she replied. She went on to describe her profound gratitude for a wonderful family, her life with her husband and for all they had created together. In the depth of her grief, she was still able to express her thankfulness for all that she had. Now that’s gratitude.
Glass half full
Second case in point. A few years ago, another friend faced a health challenge that required immediate, life-saving, surgery. The operation was successful, and he was soon back to his old self, but it wasn’t long before he and his wife were once again hearing bad news from a doctor. He had a tumour in his head, an operation was needed to remove it, there was no time to lose. His wife’s immediate reaction was to wonder why this was happening all over again, why them? But she was soon buoyed by her ever-optimistic husband who declared how lucky they were that his tumour was not inoperable, as many are. Now that’s gratitude.
He came through, and continues to live life to the full, knowing just how precious it is.
Practice makes perfect
Like meditation, gratitude needs to be practised. You can train yourself to be more grateful, especially if you, like me, are prone to a glass-half-empty mindset when things aren’t quite going your way. Even on the worst days there is joy to be found somewhere. The kindness of a stranger, the comfort of friendship, another glorious sunset on the Indian Ocean. The phrase ‘count your blessings’ may be a cliché, but clichés become so because, more often than not, they hold true. Counting your blessings works; expressing gratitude actually changes the brain.
Scientific findings back this up and research into the impact of gratitude on the brain is ongoing by experts worldwide. In positive psychology, gratitude is clearly and consistently associated with greater happiness. It helps us feel more positive emotions, create stronger relationships, and appreciate good experiences more fully. It improves our physical and mental health, enhances overall well-being, builds resilience, leads to greater optimism and helps us cope with adversity.
Make gratitude a habit
Robert Emmons, one of the leading researchers in this field, has demonstrated that making gratitude a habit (regular journaling and writing thank you notes are two effective and easy ways to do this) strengthens our self-worth and allows us to celebrate the present, block toxic emotions and be more stress-resilient. He has also outlined some of the characteristics of ingratitude, including arrogance, vanity, self-importance and the need for admiration and approval.
As the festive season approaches, and the world seems so troubled, I’m trying to be more grateful for all that is good in life. And to be mindful that, as Leigh Sales writes in her Walkley Award winning book, Any Ordinary Day, ‘ … life isn’t all one thing. It’s not all happiness or all grief … Life is much more complicated and beautiful than that.’ The key is to retain our sense of gratitude through the highs and lows of our lives.
Changing Lightbulbs: order your copy now
To read the ‘inspiring and deeply personal account’ of how I turned my life around, order your copy of my memoir, Changing Lightbulbs, here https://suetredget.com/shop/ – the perfect gift to yourself or anyone going through tough times.