A Google search of the word gratitude yields nearly two billion results. Yes, two billion. There are 48 million Instagram posts alone tagged with #thankful. More and more companies from just about every industry are using some form of the word grateful not just in their branding but also in their business names. Obviously, there’s something about the idea of thankfulness that the world is latching onto. What is it?
The Gratitude Problem
It’s wonderful that people all over the world, from clergy to influencers to therapists and more, are talking about gratitude. This explosion of gratitude-related content and practices didn’t come out of nowhere. There are proven benefits to cultivating a gratitude practice. Some of these include improved physical and psychological health, better sleep, and higher self-esteem. However, the sheer number of articles, products, and conversations about gratitude should tell us two things about ourselves: (1) We all know we can benefit from it, but we’re not all doing it. (2) Perhaps this is because we talk about it too much.
If we know a gratitude practice is good for us, why don’t we just do it, then? Summer Allen, Ph.D., suggests that one reason is the presence of certain genes that influence people to be more conducive to expressing gratefulness. Other possible explanations may be different brain structures or certain personality factors (e.g., more materialistic attributes)that make people less prone to practice gratitude. Perhaps it’s as simple as feeling like you don’t have enough time or don’t believe a gratitude practice will benefit you. All of these reasons are understandable. Much of the information about starting a gratitude practice is simplistic and over generalized, suggesting a quick fix that will magically work for everyone. But it doesn’t always work that way.
Maybe we’re talking about gratitude so much that we’re desensitizing ourselves to it. Even if you are someone who practices gratitude regularly, you may find yourself rolling your eyes as yet another social media post claims that being thankful is the key to unlocking the life you’ve always wanted. The truth is that gratitude is not always easy! And there are several things that go into living a fulfilled life. Our goal here at Skylight is to make gratitude accessible for you.
Defining Gratitude: What It’s Not
It’s impossible to be grateful for violence, war, oppression, exploitation, illness, and other excruciatingly painful parts of this world. Claiming that a gratitude practice will heal you from the frustration caused by these things is absurd. And what about the everyday ups and downs that come with being human? Simply saying what you’re thankful for each morning can’t change your circumstances.
In fact, some people even have negative experiences practicing gratitude because they use gratitude to invalidate their experiences. For example, if you’re a student and you fail an exam, you’ll probably feel lots of things—shame, sadness, smallness, etc. However, if you tell yourself that you shouldn’t feel those emotions by saying, “Well, at least I have a roof over my head” in an effort to be grateful, you’re missing the mark.Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being grateful to have a roof over your head! But that gratitude is being expressed in the wrong context. It shouldn’t replace the real feelings that need your attention in that moment (failing a test comes with its own battles). Misusing gratitude as a means of numbing painful emotions is unhealthy.
Another common pitfall with gratitude practices is that people think being grateful means comparing themselves to others who have it worse.While acknowledging the suffering of others is necessary, disregarding your own pain because someone else’s pain is greater is ultimately a damaging habit. It doesn’t make you feel better. In addition, a gratitude practice, as powerful as it can be, does not alleviate symptoms of clinical depression and anxiety. It’s clear that we need to change how we think about gratitude.
Defining Gratitude: What It Is
One important shift we must make is in what gratitude means to us: having naturally grateful moments vs. living gratefully. There are moments when gratitude happens naturally: when you hug a family member after months apart or when you receive the promotion you’ve worked so hard for. But a sustainable gratitude practice does not rely on naturally grateful moments alone—it has a wider scope. It acknowledges that naturally grateful moments are sometimes few and far between, and it honors the interconnectedness of the whole world.
True gratitude sees each moment as an opportunity to enjoy your aliveness in its (sometimes messy, sometimes heartbreaking) entirety. David Steindl-Rast, aCatholic Benedictine monk, explains:
“We live gratefully by experiencing, becoming aware that every moment is a gift. This moment, with all the opportunity it contains, is the most valuable thing that can be given to us . . . The gift within this gift is the opportunity, not the thing that is given to you.”
This doesn’t mean that you have to be thankful something bad has happened in your life. It means that you can be thankful to be sitting in the experience. For instance, acknowledging your emotions without judgment (a huge part of mindfulness) can be a form of gratefulness.
Another unconventional way to express your thankfulness is connected to spirituality. An article by Harvard Health discusses the etymology of the word gratitude:
“The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). In some ways, gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible.With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, being grateful also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”
Being grateful helps you connect to something larger than yourself. Spirituality helps you seek that something, in whatever form it takes for you. When you have experiences with a higher power, you naturally appreciate the goodness in your life as a whole. Therefore, practicing spiritual wellness can be gratitude practice.
Redefine Your Gratitude Practice with Spirituality
It’s time to expand your definition of gratitude to include spirituality. Spiritual wellness makes room for everyone because each individual can choose how they practice. It should be the same with gratitude. There are three elements of spiritual wellness that make it a meaningful gratitude practice:authenticity, trust in a higher power, and reflection.
Authenticity. Spirituality is about becoming the best, truest version of yourself. It includes living by a set of values that are important to you. As you practice spiritual wellness, you learn to be authentic with yourself and others—you acknowledge the good and bad in your life. Gratitude involves authenticity, as well. You can’t develop an appreciation for the good moments without a simultaneous recognition of the bad ones.
Trust in a higher power. As you develop a relationship with God, you learn to trust them with things that are out of your control. Gratitude doesn’t try to force a situation into a perfect mold, as we sometimes mistakenly believe. Instead, relying on the divine power in your life can help you see things from a more grounded, hopeful perspective.
Reflection. Spirituality requires times of stillness and quiet, which prompt reflection. You can reflect upon your aspirations, fears, relationships, and memories and be grateful for them. As you spend time with yourself and your thoughts, you gain appreciation for the things in your life but more so for the people, experiences, and lessons that you’ve collected over the years.
No-Writing Gratitude Exercises
From gratitude journals to gratitude gardens, there are plenty of unique ideas out there for practicing gratitude. But you don’t need anything special to live gratefully, and the same is true with spiritual wellness. Thankfulness comes from within, and all you really need is yourself. That being said, it can be nice to be nudged in the right direction or to have a place to start.
Enter the Skylight app. It has eighteen five-minutes-or-less exercises specifically for developing your gratitude practice. One of these is called“Roll a Die.” It starts with imagining that you’re sitting at a table with a six-sided die on it. In your mind, you’ll roll the die. Whatever number shows up on the die, you give yourself that many thank-yous. Then you’ll roll the die again, letting your mind’s eye imagine a number. Then you’ll thank God for that many things. Finally, you’ll roll the die once more, and this time it represents the number of thank-yous to give another person. The exercise is a creative way to focus on what you’re grateful for.
As we established before, spiritual wellness is, in itself, a gratitude practice. So all the spiritual exercises on the Skylight app (whether they’re focused on gratitude or not) can, in some way or another, help you feel more thankful with each day. For example, it might not seem like an animated reading of Robert Frost’s poem “Acceptance” would be directly related to living gratefully. But listening to this beautiful poem will give you the opportunity to appreciate the overall beauty of life.
Shed the unnecessary flair that surrounds gratitude and instead embrace a spiritual lifestyle. Adjust your spiritual practice to what’s most useful for you. The more time you spend with the divine, the more gratefully you will live.