Have you heard of Brother David Steindl-Rast?
Brother David is a Benedictine monk.
And although his fascination with gratitude pre-dated his commitment to the Benedictine order, it was one of his teachers at the monastery who introduced him to his deepest understanding of the concept. Through an exercise; a disciplined practice.
He suggested that for a year Brother David write two notes of gratitude every morning before leaving his room. Brother David imagined the task would be easy...until he heard the rest of the assignment.
"And you have to experience the gratitude before you write the notes."
A bit different than a simple 'thank you' note.
Brother David was a dear friend of Terry Pearce, whom I have mentioned in previous writings. Terry, along with another friend, helped Brother David launch gratefulness.org on (the U.S.) Thanksgiving in 2000. And it was Terry who passed the story on to me.
Although I didn't do the year long assignment myself, it's a lesson that has stuck with me for the 19+ years since I first heard it. I think about that story whenever I write a card or note, or prepare a meal for someone.
Embody the love and appreciation...truly feel it, dwell on it, and in it...and then send it out into the world.
The both/and of gratitude
Life is not a bed of roses...or I was never promised a rose garden...or...what was it we were told?
Whatever it was, it wasn't this.
A partial bouquet of red roses on the beach, heavy with sea water, and tangled in wide bands of seaweed.
While our kids and baby Chloe were out visiting friends, the four of us grandparent types elected to go exploring in and around the sea town of Anacortes in north western Washington state. It was cool and brisk and the sun made frequent and welcome appearances through the clouds. The tide was relatively high and heading out. The stones on the beach made a wet crunching sound as we walked along the shoreline.
We each had a story to explain the roses on the beach--the honoring of a life lost, the beginning of a life together, a romantic gesture rejected. Whatever it was, the flowers were left behind.
I was reminded that gratitude-in-the-bones isn't something that we put on to feel happy. It isn't the result of an easy and trouble-free life. It is a commitment, a decision to experience life fully...all the ups and the downs...and to regularly notice things for which we are truly grateful throughout it all.
Both the reasons for giving flowers and the reasons for leaving them behind.
The little things matter
My very first executive assistant told me before I hired him that he wouldn't be with me longer than a year or so.
He had other part-time work, work that was his true calling. He planned and hoped that work would soon grow to be full time. I hired him anyway. Because he had skills that I needed, I liked his humor and intelligence and his way with people, and I particularly appreciated his honesty.
When we had our exit interview (about four years later I think), one of the things he told me was how much he appreciated me saying "thank you" to him so frequently. A bit stunned I asked for more detail. There were two things that stood out to him--one was that he wasn't used to being thanked for doing his job and, second, that knowing specifically what was appreciated helped him focus his efforts on that which was most valued.
That exchange happened well over 20 years ago, and I remember it vividly. Perhaps because he was giving me the same thing he said that I gave him--sincere appreciation that was specific enough to be meaningful.
And I realized at that moment how powerful gratitude could be in relationships--at work and at home. It also brought to mind a statement from one of my professors when I was working on my Master's in counseling..."the classic downfall of most marriage relationships is the transition from appreciation to expectation." One of the foundational keys to success in relationships, he said, was to let go of (or at least loosen up) our expectations and focus on noticing and appreciating the other person(s) for who they are and what they do.
Gratitude makes us stronger
Research on the impact of gratitude on our health and well being has been going on for a number of years. Psychologists Robert A. Emmons (UC Davis) and Michael E. McCullough (U of Miami), and Martin E. P. Seligman (U of PA, of Positive Psychology fame) are the most well-known for their work in the field.
Forbes and Psychology Today both printed articles (by Amy Morin) several years back that outlined seven benefits of being grateful. Since that time there have been numerous articles and varying degrees of research about the effects of gratitude on our brains, general nervous systems and digestive tracts, emotional well being, relationships (at home, at work, socially). The original studies are continuing to be expanded and verified; recent publications by the medical schools at Berkley and Harvard are prime examples.
And the folks at happierhuman.com have expanded the list to 31 benefits which they list in their Ultimate Science-backed Guide.
Since 31 is too many for me to remember, here is the original list of seven benefits.
Gratitude has been found to--
- Open the door to more relationships--more new friends, more opportunities
- Improve physical health--fewer aches and pains, more activity and attention to health
- Improve psychological health--increase happiness, reduce depression and anxiety
- Enhance empathy and reduce aggression--increase prosocial behavior and reduce toxic emotions like revenge
- Improve sleep--increase length and quality of sleep (particularly when one writes down a few gratitude statements before bed)
- Enhance self-esteem and performance--increase performance in athletes and reduce social comparisons (enabling more appreciation of others' accomplishments)
- Increase mental strength--reduce stress reactions, foster resilience and recovery from trauma
So what do we have to do to experience some version of these benefits?
The researchers (and many others) recommend spending some time each day to write down a few things for which we are grateful. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? It's the discipline of it that can be the challenge (to which I can attest).
I would also invite you to spend time outdoors, in nature, if you are struggling to find things for which to be grateful. At least it works for me. And spend time around joyful young people. I'm happy to share my granddaughter with you, if you like...I'm a bit partial to six month olds at the moment.
Brother David would encourage us to feel the gratitude as we write. In our bones (my addition). And I think it's worth noting that the key benefits and motivation for his work are much bigger than you or I as individuals. His inspiration comes from a vision of "a peaceful, thriving, and sustainable world – held as sacred by all."
Now isn't that a compelling vision!?
Image Credit: Lexi Ruskell
- QUESTION ONE:
What are 3 or 4 things for which you are truly grateful? What is your strategy for remembering those things and feeling the gratitude (in your bones) on a regular basis?
- QUESTION TWO:
How might an increased focus on gratitude enhance your effectiveness as a leader?
- QUESTION THREE:
What greater good do you believe could be achieved if you and those with whom you work interacted from a place of increased, sincere gratitude?
May you continue to experience gratitude-in-your-bones every day, and be inspired to go forth and spread it to others!