With so many ways to go after a dream, it’s easy to focus on the traits that can be seen. Hard work, dedication, and building physical strength can be watched and tracked. However, more subtle traits sustain the part of us that can grind. Traits like gratitude are the internal force that allow greater external force to exist. A grateful heart is a meter of humility, trust, and hope.
Sounds simple right? Say thank you. And mean it. Express appreciation and mean it. Yes, that is gratitude out in the world. But what does gratitude look and feel like inside?
Gratitude is an Inside Job
Gratitude feels humbling for certain. It recognizes our small-ness in the big-ness of the world. And yet it understands that our individual capacity is greater than we know. Even when we feel our limits – physical, emotional, or otherwise – gratitude says that what I have is enough. What I have can do great work. My small-ness is part of the big way this world works.
When shit has really hit the fan, gratitude is the quiet voice of reason saying “how lucky am I to have this be my version of a ‘bad’ day?” Gratitude pulls us back to the simple things that actually matter. Yes, maybe work absolutely sucked today, but gratitude says “thank God for my family to come home to after a bad day.” Want to know what is truly essential in your life? Step back from a bad day and list three things you are thankful for – those are the parts of life that matter.
Gratitude is Now
One of the most amazing characteristics of gratitude is that it is a constant anchor to the present. Even when we feel gratitude for something that has happened in the past, we feel the emotion of gratitude deeply in the now. And while gratitude is aware of the future, it doesn’t live there. The only thing gratitude knows about the future is that when the moments ahead arrive, there will be something to be grateful for.
What gratitude does tell us about the future is that we can trust the journey ahead. We don’t know just where the road leads, but whatever is ahead was somehow meant for us. Even in the bad, the lessons learned move us forward. A terrible loss brings gratitude for having had someone worth loving. Illness brings gratitude for the ways we can still find health and well-being. And in that way, gratitude is the ultimate combatant of fear.
Gratitude Takes Strength
Gratitude sounds fluffy but that is far from the truth. Finding gratitude in challenging times takes some serious grit. Keeping an eye on gratitude when things are going great takes some humbling. But it is absolutely worth the effort. Gratitude in all the ways we have discussed allows us to stay deeply connected to our goals, purpose, and pulls us to find our greater potential – because we are grateful for every step along the way.
Even the world of science is trying to understand how gratitude affects us. A 2016 study out of Indiana University found greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain – the part associated with learning and decision making – three months after participants had written gratitude letters compared with those who did not. So I can change the functioning of my brain by practicing gratitude? What more do I need to know?
How Do We Practice?
It’s pretty simple:
- Keep a gratitude journal. Whether free writing or making a daily list of 3-5 things you are thankful for, a gratitude journal is a great way to be intentional and committed to a practice of gratitude.
- Say it out loud. Practicing gratitude in our relationships is a perfect way to build esteem, focus on the positive of a long-term relationship, and recognize the good in those around us. Let’s be clear that kids will notice when kind words are spoken between parents or when a parent looks them in the eye and says “I’m grateful for how kind you were to your friend.”
- Breathe it in. Breath practice and gratitude are practically meant for each other. Each breath is such a gift. Breathing deeply while recognizing the gifts this life offers is a truly grounding practice.
- Be thankful for the small things. Before rolling out of bed in the morning, we can start with a quick thank you for being present in a new day. We can offer thanks as a red light turns green just in time. There millions of chances every day to be grateful.
How wonderful that a simple practice like gratitude can build so much inside of us. It fully commits us to the now – finding good in where we stand. Gratitude connects us to the little things that make this life meaningful. And it fully recognizes the big things that our lives are meant for. A grateful heart will lead the way.
More gratitude resources:
Cole is a wife and mom of three. She has been a Registered Dietitian since 2005. Her journey through self-mastery and anchoring herself in her family has been the most important and on-going practice of her life. Cole loves being active with her family, yoga, cooking, and spending time in nature.