Gratefulness can offer us an alternative to the acquisitional nature of gratitude.

We have heard repeatedly that there is value in having gratitude, keeping track of it, expressing it, and seeking out and replicating those experiences that make us feel it. Indeed, research is increasingly proving that a feeling of gratitude can have significant, positive impact on us, from calming our heart rate to strengthening our immune system, to enhancing our mental outlook.

Photo by Naganath Chiluveru

Gratitude seems to be able to positively influence how we experience almost all that we experience. Gratitude is surely worthwhile. However, concepts of gratitude are culturally bound and the feeling state of gratitude can be highly elusive and transitory for many of us. In Western cultures, we are likely to understand gratitude as a feeling state that arises when we get something we want or need: Something we judge as good happens, and gratitude arises. We smile. We give thanks. But, as we all know, change is consistent, and gratitude can quickly wear off: The beloved gift collects dust, the moment of kindness fades, the friend fails us, a cold front moves in, we get sick, or our partner turns out to be human after all. Then we crave and await the next reason to be grateful.

In this sense, we can see much of our lives as a perpetual quest for finding and constructing repeated reasons to feel thankful, perhaps more commonly known as the pursuit of happiness. This pursuit is a good one, but has the inevitability of a roller coaster ride, and tends to strengthen our focus on what we want to have happen to us, and what is happening outside of us, rather than what we can make happen from the inside out.

Gratefulness can offer us an alternative to the acquisitional nature of gratitude. Whereas gratitude tends to come after something happens, a state of gratefulness can already be in place to greet whatever arises in our lives, significantly increasing the likelihood we are going to experience that which arises as gratitude-producing. We can fill a deep, reliable reservoir of well-being in our lives, not through trying to stack up moments and experiences that qualify as worthy of our gratitude, but through cultivating gratefulness as a foundational state of mind. Benedictine monk and gratefulness proponent Brother David Steindl-Rast wisely observes, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.” This is a worthwhile kind of Zen koan to consider and cultivate.

Gratefulness is a distinct state of being that encourages and allows us to more consistently hold a sense of wonder, and to see the poignancy of opportunity in every moment.

Get happy

How might we cultivate gratefulness as a way of being rather than settling for gratitude as an intermittent way of feeling? Gratefulness surfaces whenever we remember that life itself is a precious gift that is irrefutably impermanent; this paradox allows the vulnerability and potency of gratefulness to become the lens through which we experience the fullness of our lives. Gratefulness is a distinct state of being that encourages and allows us to more consistently hold a sense of wonder, and to see the poignancy of opportunity in every moment. These are the hallmarks of grateful living— seeing wonder and opportunity within every moment, and recognizing the possibility of learning from everything that happens.

This brand of grateful happiness is unconditional— something for which many of us long deeply, but which the relentless pursuit of happiness can consistently undermine. When we remind ourselves—in repeated and intentional ways—about the tremendous, mindblowing opportunity and gift that is inherent within the gift of being alive, we immerse ourselves in the practice of grateful living. While gratitude may be truly moving in the moment, living gratefully can be transformational. Gratitude is to grateful living what happiness is to joy. Both joy and gratefulness do not depend on particular circumstances to bubble up and offer effervescence to our lives. They are inside-out propositions.

Grateful living can invite an experience of sufficiency and gratification that puts a cap on the feeling of needing more.

Get big-hearted

In significant ways, grateful living can also serve as a very real antidote to scarcity and insatiability—two forces that permeate our culture and unconsciously motivate our behavior in countless ways. We often feel ourselves drawn toward people, things and experiences that are not in our best interests or aligned with our values. We find ourselves in loops of addictive thinking and behavior.

Photo by Jeremy Vessey

Scarcity is often the culprit; driving longings that arise out of the sense we are not enough, and we do not have enough. Grateful living can invite an experience of sufficiency and gratification that puts a cap on the feeling of needing more. And then sufficiency invites us toward using our lives and resources in ever more generous, openhearted and conscientious ways.

Living gratefully, we are conscious of our innumerable and very real blessings, and from this sense of plenty, we can feel full to overflowing. Feeling full, we are more inclined to share generously and freely with others.

In this sense, it is grateful recognition of all we already have that establishes the only real, lasting conditions for generosity, kindness, compassion and the impulse to serve. When we are awake to all that is enough in our lives, we can turn our attention beyond ourselves. We need to feel our fullness in order to have anything truly meaningful to offer others, and the world.

Grateful living can be learned and practiced—just as mindfulness and compassion are practiced—and strengthened by learning to focus our minds and hearts on all that is enough in our lives. A practice is a repetitive act of offering our full attention to something we do for the purpose of being more and more fully present and available to life. If we engage with focused attention and intention, many aspects of our lives can be a portal for deepened self-awareness, more reflective action, and greater mindfulness.

We can have daily practices around money, health and wellness, relationships, communication and work. Why not cultivate gratefulness in similar fashion?

It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy

Pour yourself out

sunlight shadows

You are an unlimited reservoir of life energy. What you have to offer will only be enhanced when it is given from great fullness. You can receive more than you give, when it is the profound nature of gratefulness that guides your interaction and your generosity.

Experiment with pouring yourself out. Let yourself hold this truth deeply: It is not happiness that makes us grateful, it is gratefulness that makes us happy—and you may find yourself more nourished by your [life and] work than you imagined possible.

Learn more: Massage in the Moment, a Grateful Living Practice


Reprinted with permission Massage Magazine, November 2015

Kristi Nelson is the Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living.  To read more about her visit this page.


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Kristi Nelson

Kristi Nelson

About the author

Kristi Nelson is Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living and the author of Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted. Her life’s work in the non-profit sector has focused on leading, inspiring, and strengthening organizations committed to progressive social and spiritual change. Being a long-time stage IV cancer survivor moves her every day to support others in living and loving with great fullness of heart. Learn more about Kristi here.