Thursday, November 25, 2021

Gratitude is a Practice

Thanksgiving is a conflicted holiday for many of us. Despite the sacred civic myth that has grown up around it, Thanksgiving as the USA has come to celebrate it has roots in colonial violence and hides a much more complicated history. ( )  But in 1863, Abraham Lincoln was not as interested in historical accuracy, or in reckoning with the nation’s colonial violence, as he was in creating a unifying national holiday amid the terrors of the American Civil War. Over the centuries, our collective avoidance has perpetuated a lot of harm that we are hopefully beginning to address. There are, after all, good reasons why many Native communities call it “Thanks-taking.” 

  The conflict comes when people (not me) have fond memories of Thanksgiving and genuinely enjoy the traditions and gatherings. Having just passed through another year of civic myths, televised parades, football games, and comprehensive coverage of Black Friday sales, it’s probably a good moment to reconnect with that kernel of goodness in Thanksgiving. That is, gratitude is truly essential to our health, both personally and socially, and practicing gratitude is something we can all do to make life better for ourselves, others, and the earth. 

Gratitude and Our Missed Connections

Back in 2013, a survey of more than 2,000 people in the United States revealed one of the real challenges of cultivating gratitude. ( ) First, there was overwhelming agreement that gratitude is a great trait. Over 90% agreed that gratitude was good and made life better (“grateful people are more fulfilled, lead richer lives, and are more likely to have friends”). 93% thought that a grateful boss is more successful. Over 95% affirmed that parents should make teaching gratitude a priority. And only 1% believed gratitude is unnecessary.

If you think this would make gratitude easier for everyone, though, you’d be wrong. While 92% said their gratitude has been steady or increasing, they don’t believe the same about others: “only 19 percent selected the option that most people today are ‘more likely to have an attitude of gratitude than 10 or 20 years ago.’” In other words, people are convinced that they are grateful, and their gratitude is increasing, but that they are the exceptions. The rest of the world is getting less grateful; “60 percent thought that people are less likely to express gratitude today than 100 year ago.” (ibid) The fact that so many people had this conception – that I am grateful, but you are not – shows that we have a sizable gap between experiencing, expressing, and receiving gratitude. 

This isn’t a new problem. In the Buddhist tradition, for example, we find the Buddha observing that – 

“these two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world.” ("Dullabha Sutta: Hard to Find," translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, )

That was about 2,500 years ago, but it holds up well today. It also points out two pathways for us to cultivate if we want to make ourselves and our communities better, healthier, and happier. First, we can be kind, the type of people that others are grateful to know and be around. And second, we can be the type of people who recognize kindness, feel grateful, and know how to express and experience that gratitude. 

The first topic is something we talk about a lot, from working on getting free from injustice, to helping one another when we’re in need, to cultivating mindful compassion in our daily lives and more. But this second set of skills – knowing how to feel and express gratitude – is just as essential, especially in a world with so much injustice. I’m not suggesting that gratitude will make everything better, but gratitude can help us maintain our well-being amid the difficulties and challenges, so we can keep working together to make another world possible. 

The Negativity Bias

Most of you who have been involved in social change movements know exactly what I am talking about. I have watched so many people come and go from our movements and communities over the years. Many of us become involved out of a sense of outrage and anger, which is natural enough, but usually not sustainable. We encounter so much suffering in ourselves and in the world, and we want to make a difference. All too often, though, we burn out, experience compassion fatigue, or even lash out against one another. The exhaustion and conflicts tear our relationships and movements apart. 

         I remember one mediation case between two people who began as best friends working on important human rights issues. Over time, the extreme pressures of their work put pressure on their relationship. They both started building resentments for one another. Every action or inaction was proof that the other didn’t care or was attempting to undermine them, and they began treating each other accordingly. By the time they sought mediation, their friendship was destroyed, and they were seeking to responsibly dissolve their organizational commitments and go their separate ways. In a short year, they had gone from inseparable friends to this, requesting a shuttle mediation where I moved from floor to floor so they would not risk seeing each other face to face. It was heartbreaking for both of them; their friendship was a casualty of their wonderfully important but excruciatingly stressful work. 

In an evolutionary context, one of the factors that contributes to these experiences is an inclination called the negativity bias. Despite its dreary sounding name, it has been essential in keeping our species alive. As I’ve pointed out before: 

“Our ancestors needed to eat enough to stay alive, and stay alive long enough to reproduce. So an important part of our affect system focuses on what things we label as pleasant and desirable – the ‘I like that and I want more of it’ parts of our brains. We like things that feel and taste good, or put us in a position to get more of what we want. Yet as essential as these things are to the survival of the species, a creature can’t do them if it is dead. So our affect systems also let us know when we are likely to be in danger and need to protect ourselves. When a threat arises, all the other stuff can be put on hold. We label some aspect of our experience as unpleasant, disgusting, or dangerous and we take action – the ‘I hate that and want to get away from it’ part of our brains. This reaction needed to be strong and urgent. If we manage to survive, we can look for more food or mates tomorrow. But if we die, that’s the end.” ( )

This reality meant that we needed to amplify our awareness of negative experiences. It’s no fun, but, from an evolutionary perspective, we can afford to miss out on recognizing a positive experience. Most of the time, it just makes us lonely and grumpy. However, we only have to miss noticing one fatal danger, and it’s all over. So we evolved to be extra alert to anything that could be a threat. The upside of this bias is that we can use it to learn how to have healthy boundaries, functional mistrust, and strong commitments to justice and equity. But there is also this potential for us to become unhappy, resentful, cynical, exhausted, and on the edge of despair. In a world that is overflowing with injustice, it takes intentional work to bring about a healthy balance in our lives.

The 5:1 Ratio

That balance appears to fall in a roughly five to one ratio. In the 1970s, John Gottman and Robert Levenson began a longitudinal study with couples, analyzing their interviews and then predicting which couples would stay together, and which would not. Their predictions were over 90% accurate, based on what came to be called “the magic ratio” of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction. ( ) Similarly, in the 1990s, Betty Hart and Todd Risley documented that children who experienced five positive experiences to every one negative experience with their caregivers were more likely to thrive. (

I’ll admit to being a little skeptical of some aspects of these studies, especially with a few of the limitations in terms of class analysis in Hart and Risley’s original research and more especially in popular applications of it. ( ) There is also the question of how we judge an impact. At least for me, the weight of my experiences is not uniform; some interactions and relationships are more impactful than others. But the ratio doesn’t have to be exact in order to be useful. It rings true and helps me reflect on how to care for myself and others. It is a handy way of remembering that, in our world of constant and chronic stressors, it takes intentional effort to maintain relational wellbeing. 

The 5:1 ratio gives us another mindfulness practice. If there are unhealthy patterns in a relationship, those need to be addressed. But if you notice resentment or irritation growing in an otherwise healthy relationship, see if you can also notice a corresponding shift in that ratio of positive to negative experiences. It may be that you can restore the resilience and bring that ratio into balance by savoring the positive aspects and sharing some gratitude. And even in relationships that need work, getting in touch with gratitude can provide energy and compassion to help you through the process. As Dennis Rivers has put it, “It is the ongoing expression of gratitude and appreciation that makes a relationship strong enough to accommodate differences and disagreements when they come along." ( )

The Three Skills

Returning to the study on gratitude, call to mind the popular conception that ‘I am grateful, but you are not.’ That gap is where we practice, taking concrete steps to enjoy feeling grateful and sharing it with others. It’s a skill that feels so obvious that we seldom take the time to reflect on the three sets of skills involved: 1) recognizing and savoring positive feelings when our needs are met; 2) expressing thanks in ways that connect; and 3) opening up and receiving thanks from others. All three are essential. If I don’t notice, if I rush by a feeling of gratitude, I lose the chance to express it. If I struggle to say thank you, or say it in a way that another person doesn’t recognize, that’s another missed opportunity. (Perhaps the most common occurrence of this is when we assume someone else has said thank you, so that we don’t need to do so.) And then there is our reluctance to receive thanks. Sometimes, we hesitate because we don’t want to come across as arrogant. Sometimes, we don’t want to get pushed into making other commitments. Sometimes, we are just feeling awkward and uncertain how to respond. Not knowing what to do, we miss yet another opportunity.

I realize that the first skill, savoring the positive feelings when our needs are met, sounds very obvious. But there’s a catch. There are so many difficult, painful, unjust, oppressive things in the world, and that negativity bias keeps drawing our minds to those things. And for good reason; we want to be aware of them, so that we can be part of the change. But all that attention means that we can easily miss the many wonderful and lifegiving experiences and relationships. We might not even notice when our needs are being met, because our anxiety, anger, despair, or ambition crowds them out. 

And for those of us who grew up in a harmful religious tradition that we no longer practice, it doesn’t help that many of the ways we learned to experience and express appreciation are ruined by those experiences. In many cases, I’ve seen people drop those practices without replacing them with anything else. I completely support and celebrate our freedom from habits and rituals that harmed us, but I also want to encourage us to find new ways to, for lack of a better term, “count our blessings.” I’ll share two examples that have worked well for me, the Five Contemplations from the Plum Village tradition of Buddhism. This is a way of expressing gratitude before I eat a meal: 

“This food is the gift of the whole universe – the earth, the sky, and much hard work. May we eat in mindfulness so as to nourish our gratitude. May we transform our unskillful states of mind and learn to eat with moderation. May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness. We accept this food to realize the path of understanding, love, and joy.” (Adapted by the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center, )

And for many years, we’d have a family gratitude practice we called “Touching the Wonders.” We’d begin by enjoying the sound of a bell, then singing a mindfulness song together, and then sharing about things we’d experienced that day that had brought us joy. It was inspired by a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that remains embedded in my heart: “Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life.” ( )

These kinds of practices have the benefit of training my mind to pay attention and feel grateful when my needs are being met. They also interrupt the constant encroaching of the difficult and unjust. This makes it easier to get in touch with the world we are creating, one that can heal and transform those injustices. This practice of recognizing and savoring the feeling of gratitude is a foundational one, too, because it changes how I express gratitude. I want to say thank you out of this sense of wellbeing and joy; I want to share that wellbeing with others.

We all have our favorite ways of saying thank you: words, cards, gifts, time spent together, or a hug. It may also be giving a helping hand, perhaps running an errand for someone to say thank you. We all also have our favorite ways of receiving thanks. It’s helpful to recognize that sometimes, we may be saying thank you in a way that another person doesn’t recognize, and vice versa. In important relationships, it’s good to take the time to learn how to say thank you to each other in ways that connect. Just as we learn to savor those moments when your needs are met, we can also learn to savor our healthy relationships. 

With Grateful Hearts

I began by acknowledging the violent history of Thanksgiving and the accountability offered by Indigenous peoples to honestly address that history and its impacts. One of the ways we can honor that call is to listen to and learn from Indigenous peoples, including on ways to build gratitude and generosity into our cultures. Ruth Hopkins, a Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer, biologist, and tribal attorney, wrote – 

“Generosity and gratitude are so revered that the most powerful among us are not those who hoard wealth. Rather, they are those who give the most to others, especially to those who need it most. … Giving thanks is a common theme in our ceremonies and prayer songs too, and honouring Mother Earth and the abundance she provides us with is a key part of our culture. / This is what Thanksgiving could be, but in order for that to happen, we must recognise the truth of the holiday’s revolting colonial origins. … Acknowledging our shared history can help put an end to vicious destructive cycles meant to fill spiritual emptiness, and replace it with grateful hearts that will bring families and communities together, united in purpose, giving thanks for nature’s bounty. Then, not only will our bodies be nourished, but our souls will be too.” ( )

This is a vision worthy of celebration and overflowing with life. And in case I have not said it recently, I’ll say it now: thank you for being part of this change: ending destructive cycles; healing and nourishing bodies and souls; and cultivating grateful, joyful hearts. Thank you for being part of our shared efforts to make this world a more just, compassionate, and joyful place.