The Warm, Hard Facts About Gratitude – 11/13/2017

We have entered into our culture’s season of gratitude. The state of gratitude is one of my favorite wholesome states or feelings, along with compassion. As Ginger pointed out last Monday, the two wings of awakening in Buddhism are Wisdom and Compassion. As she also pointed out, the wholesome states, which include compassion, are seamlessly interwoven with one another. It was easy to see this in the meditation she led: we could experience both sympathetic joy for the Astro players’ excitement with their World Championship win and our own grateful appreciation for what it meant for a post-Harvey Houston.

Before I delve into gratitude with you, I would like to lead you in a short meditation for about 4-5 minutes. One of the reasons we don’t feel gratitude (or other wholesome emotional states) more consistently is related to the difference between our direct experience of and our thinking about gratitude/gratefulness/ appreciation. We often seem more habituated to thinking. This meditation may help you connect with the direct experience of gratitude.

(Adapted from Appreciation meditation series on Headspace)

First, gently close your eyes and take a few seconds to follow your natural breath. Now, begin silently asking yourself this question: “Who or what are you most grateful for in your life at this time”? Keep your question in the 2nd person as though you were addressing it to a friend. This allows you a little more distance from your ego and your intellect, giving you a less analytical approach and more spacious quality of mind without any expectation. You are not waiting for a specific answer, you are asking the question and noticing what arises. There may be nothing or there may be something you have never thought of before.

Allow your mind to sink down into the feeling of appreciation that naturally arises. If nothing seems to arise just now, gently ask again, “Who or what are you most grateful for in your life at this time”?

Continue to follow your breath as it moves in and out of the feeling that has arisen. If no feeling has arisen, simply rest your attention on your breath. If a feeling of gratitude arises but quickly fades, simply repeat the question again.

This feeling of appreciation or gratitude is always there. You are not creating it now. It is a natural feeling, but very often other feelings or a busy mind interfere with our experience of it. Practice and repetition of this exercise strengthen the experience of feeling gratitude.

Bring your attention back now to your natural breath. Have an intention, if you’d like, to return to and remind yourself of this feeling of appreciation and awareness. Then, slowly open your eyes.

In doing this exercise quite a few times, I have had many different experiences. Most recently, I felt very appreciative of our Insight practice and community here and the other touchstones I regularly engage with that allow me to become aware of and work with some unpleasant personal traits and unwholesome emotion states in a more welcoming way!


For starters, according to Cicero, gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others. Throughout history it has been given a central position in all major world religions and philosophy.

The Buddha reportedly said “A noble person is mindful and thankful of the favors he receives from others.” He went even further with this statement: “Now what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful and unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity. A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity.” (Katannu Sutta)

In recent years, with the advance of the positive psychology movement, gratitude has been studied as an emotion and a personality trait. The leading researcher on gratitude, Robert Emmons, Ph.D., states that gratitude is the cardinal moral emotion that promotes cooperation and makes our society civil and kind. It is the feeling of reverence for or affirmation of the good things in the world that are given. Its sources are outside of ourselves and thus our relationships to the sources of good (whether other people, nature, a higher power or the universe) are strengthened.

Gratitude is also best experienced as a result of good that is freely given. Unlike indebtedness, gratitude is experienced as unequivocally positive. If someone does something for you because they have to, you don’t feel particularly grateful. In this regard, it is related to generosity and to compassion and unconditional love.

These understandings help us begin to glimpse how gratitude has a link to other wholesome emotions and, as Cicero stated, may well be the parent of all the virtues.

Buddhist teachers have made the following observations or connections, among others, between gratitude and other wholesome states:

A mind of gratitude helps us see the world as a place of belonging and connection, we are not weighed down by all the unfilled needs and looking out only for Number One.

Gratitude develops patience, and patience or forbearance is one of the paramitas or perfections that Buddhists cultivate.

Gratitude assures us that what we have is enough. It is thus an antidote to greed or a feeling of scarcity.

Jack Kornfield ties gratitude to mindfulness. To be mindful is to see the world as it is. Gratitude helps us be fully present and attentive to our surroundings.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Kornfield even advised that we be grateful for difficulties since they teach us the most. He discussed a common prayer in many Buddhist temples where one asks for difficulties: “May I be given the appropriate difficulties so that my heart can truly open with compassion.” Imagine asking for them, not just being grateful when difficulties occur!

Some of the warmest things I have experienced about gratitude since I began working on this talk and practicing gratitude more include some of those I just listed: Like other wholesome emotions, it is innate but can be cultivated. It is associated with present moment awareness, embodiment and interconnectedness. I am aware right now of gratitude for my relative health, given a recent cold, allowing me to speak to you tonight. I feel an inner appreciation toward some things outside of myself. Yes, I have done what I can do for myself about my cold, but I am aware that my current state of health includes my constitution and possibly genetic traits going back generations, as well as what I learned from parents and other sources about resting and managing cold symptoms. My state right now also benefits from medical science and the availability of over the counter medications that made me feel better earlier. My gratitude even extends to the universe for looking after me or to blind luck that I got a cold very early last week, not this weekend.

About now, you may be thinking “Enough of the idealistic, anecdotal and subjective. We know that meditation changes our brains for the better and has demonstrated hard evidence of its benefits. What about gratitude, can it do that?”


For about the past decade, the positive psychology field has studied gratitude and established many important relationships. Gratitude has been strongly and consistently associated with happiness and well-being. It helps people relish good experience, feel positive emotions, deal with adversity, improve health and strengthen relationships.

Although many personality traits are statistically related to levels of mental health, gratitude seems to have one of the strongest links of any personality variable (Park et al. 2004; McCullough et al, 2002). Gratitude practice interventions have demonstrated psychological benefits that include decreased levels of depression and perceived stress and higher levels of positive emotion, joy and pleasure.

Gratitude interventions have demonstrated social benefits including more compassionate, generous and helpful behaviors, more forgiving and outgoing behaviors, greater feelings of connection to others and less lonely or isolated feelings.

Physical benefits reported from gratitude interventions have included stronger immune system responses, decreased pain perception, lower blood pressure, longer and more restful sleep and lower Hemoglobin A1C, a sign of good blood-glucose management. A new series of studies reported just last month by the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley finds gratitude helps people with cardiovascular disease get healthier. In a very recent pilot study of patients with heart failure, those who kept a gratitude journal for two months, making daily entries on two or three things that they were grateful for (and also received their usual care) showed reduced markers of inflammation as well as increased heart rate variability when compared to those who received usual care only.

A new wave of gratitude research is now looking at the processes behind the associations that have been demonstrated and is designing investigations into questions of causality. Why, for example is gratitude associated with lower HemoglobinA1C?

Before I share some information on how gratitude can best be cultivated, I will share that my research also indicates there are roadblocks to gratitude. I have mentioned the tendency to rely heavily on thinking rather than experiencing, but other barriers are narcissism (looking out for #1), cultural emphasis on materialism (and clinging to all you can get), and even overscheduling and excessive busy-ness. There are also myths that impede cultivating gratitude; e.g., that gratitude expressed at work is “kissing butt,” that gratitude can lead to complacency, that gratitude is not possible in the midst of suffering or that expressing it makes you a “pushover”. Have you heard or felt any of those? Such roadblocks need to be addressed as part of our successful cultivation efforts.


The research findings I have summarized for you are based on many years of gratitude studies. As a result of those efforts, we can say for certain that gratitude can be cultivated/improved by interventions and practice. We also know which gratitude practices are most powerful in achieving positive change. Like meditation, gratitude must be practiced for change to become evident. It is stronger when it is shared.

Three stages of gratitude development have been proposed, each more effective than the last. For each of these stages, I have given an example of a powerful practice below.

1) Feeling grateful for the good things in your life.

A daily gratitude journal that lists from the simplest good (no red lights during commute, a cozy bed) to those of great significance (a good result on a medical diagnostic test) strengthens neural pathways that help you find even more things to be grateful for. Writing about gratitude reduced by 28% perceived stress among health care workers and halved the risk of depression in those with a history of the disease.

2) Expressing your gratitude to the people who have made your life better.

Writing a letter of gratitude to one for whom you are particularly grateful or making a gratitude visit to verbally express gratitude lifts mood and sense of well-being in dramatic ways. The letter (or visit) should give specific examples and be descriptive about what the positive impact involved. Expressing gratitude heightens it. Saying thank you to those you supervise at work gives them a strong sense of self-worth and self-efficacy.

3) Incorporating gratitude into your life as a default (as a result of the prior two stages and beyond).

Receiving gratitude gratefully from others, noticing your experience as both a receiver and giver also takes you further. When gratitude is your default position, it leads to more sympathy and compassion, less judgement and greater appreciation for all of life itself, laying down a blueprint that over time leads to brain changes.

In summary, gratitude is powerfully related to other wholesome emotions, has demonstrated many positive benefits and is a strong resource against many of life’s challenges. By setting an intention to prioritize it, you can begin to adopt a gratitude mindset. Keep a look-out even in the popular media for new research findings on gratitude and its powerful connections, for they will surely show us even more reasons to practice it (for those who need more evidence).

Explore gratitude resources and articles on the Internet (The Greater Good Science Center is very helpful) for even more ideas. The idea of using specific gratitude exercises to shift perspective is one I would also encourage, especially if you or those you are close to have been faced with a major life change recently and feel overwhelmed and not very positive. This change might include Hurricane Harvey- related issues, a job lay-off, a medical diagnosis or any of a number of other major challenges. One exercise that I have tried myself and found useful for perspective shifting is The 5-Minute Gratitude Exercise from Living Whole, found on the following pages.

I close with this quote by Rumi: “Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.”

Everyone at one time and another, in their living, experiences problems that consume them.

• Relationship challenges.
• Work problems.
• Health issues.
• Financial challenges.

The list is numerous. These issues grab hold and overwhelm you and your energy. Sometimes so much so you are exhausted for the problem. They grab so tight you wonder if you will ever move forward.
How do you lessen the grasp your challenges have on you and your energy? What something could have you seeing a way of positive change? The 5-Minute Gratitude Exercise just may be what you have been looking for.

The practice of acknowledging gratitude lessens the heaviness issues have on you, your energy, and your ability to see through your challenges. With slack on the problem, you create space for new and more harmonious views on the situation.

In 5 minutes and 7 steps. That’s it . . .

  1. For one minute ponder the issue that has consumed your energy.
  2. Focus on how you are feeling as you think about the problem.
  3. For the second minute think of something you are grateful for
    around that issue.

Some examples might be:

  • My spouse and I are having difficulties at the moment. I am grateful for my best friend as I can call and talk with her and feel I have someone who I can share my feelings. Or, you can focus on something you love about your spouse.
  • My doctor told me I have cancer. I am grateful that they caught it early. Or maybe, I am so lucky to have the doctor and his support staff to assist me with this.
  • This layoff has made it difficult to pay my bills and I worry about where the money is going to come from until I find work. I am thankful my mortgage was paid off last year so that I do not have that expense presently. Or possibly I have an abundance of love and support in my life to see me through this experience.

These are just examples to get you going. Think of what is in your life around the issue that you can honestly be grateful for even though the issue seems to hold you so. There’s always something to be grateful for even in a difficult situation. It may require a bit of searching but it’s there.

4. Once you have identified that which you are grateful for, close your eyes and focus     on it. Let your thoughts wander and soon other things for which you are grateful         in other areas of your life will begin to speak up. Positive thoughts attract positive       thoughts.
5. As these thoughts speak to you, imagine there is a volume knob inside your head, a     physical knob like the one on a car radio, not the digital one. Now envision you           reaching out and turning up the volume on these thoughts of gratitude to a point        where it is comfortable, but stretches you a little bit.
6. Just like that song that you crank up the volume because it feels good, let this               volume of gratitude fill you with that same sense.
7. Notice how you feel. Hold onto this feeling and when you feel yourself stuck by the     situation, go find this feeling and think of another thought-of-gratitude to add.

When you find yourself being sucked down into the “woe-is-me” syndrome, or consumed by your problems, stop for five minutes and give this exercise a go.