It’s autumn. Back to school, back to work. I find myself instinctually burrowing down into my life. Literally, I want to burrow into a cozy blanket and dive into a good book. Metaphorically, I also find comfort in the return to a routine - getting a break from the frenetic, albeit exciting, summertime energy.
Sometimes I wonder if my relief in the more internally-focused energy of autumn also comes with a twinge of a defense mechanism: avoidance. It’s a fine line for me between happily snuggling into the couch for a restorative nap and burying my head under the covers to shut out the world.
The question of where this line falls for me has been highlighted as I’ve been ramping up my gratitude practice (with the online community).
Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, defines gratitude as having two components: “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness.” Second, and this is the part that really has me thinking: “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves.”
“...the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves.”
I love this definition of gratitude because it places us in the world. It allows us to belong and to be connected to goodness beyond ourselves, beyond our control. I can enjoy the cozy blanket, the good book, time spent in solitude - AND this enjoyment is possible because of my connection to things outside of myself, even including the people and conditions that allow me the time to be alone.
There is a sense of spaciousness in this definition. Goodness is bigger than our individual lives. It exists, inherently, without us having to work for it.
I think that many of us (hello, all my go-getter friends 👋) feel responsible for making everything “right” in our own lives and in the lives of the people we care about. That is a high pressure place to live. It feels - at least to me - like I have to put my nose to the grindstone and focus on getting all my ducks in a row so that good things can happen.
Emmons’ definition of gratitude is an invitation to say, “Relax. You’re not responsible for it all. Goodness can come from outside of us. We just have to look up.” What a relief.
The goodness that exists outside of us is like money on a deserted sidewalk. We don’t have to create it. We just have to lift our gaze from our phones long enough to see it and then we have to put in the effort of picking it up.
In a similar way, practicing gratitude requires us to be present enough in our lives (a meditation practice can help with this) - not scrolling through our phone, not worrying about an upcoming meeting, not even reliving the great point we made in the last meeting - to see the good things that already exist around us. And, then we have to “pick them up.”
“Picking them up” is the practice of gratitude. Practicing gratitude is more than just an attitude of appreciation, according to Brené Brown, another leading scientific researcher of gratitude. It does include a little bit of effort to see the good - to be present to what’s around us. Then, we have to formally, consciously, take the time to articulate that goodness in writing, orally, or even in your own head. Some people keep gratitude journals. Some people go around the table at dinner and share things they are grateful for. Some people silently list to themselves 3 things they’re grateful for while they brush their teeth in the morning. The practice can be easy, but it needs to be conscious.
The pay off from practicing gratitude has benefits. One of the most intuitive things it does is that it increases our joy. Who doesn’t want that? Brené Brown interviewed thousands of people and found: “Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or described themselves as joyful actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to that practice.” (source) Beyond Brown’s research, practicing gratitude has been studied a lot. In various scientific studies it’s been shown to lower depression, improve sleep, increase resiliency (source), boost the immune system, decrease anxiety, strengthen relationships (source) and on and on.
Not bad. Found money.
I’ll attest that connecting to the world around me through gratitude feels a lot healthier - more spacious, more joyful, and actually wiser - than burying myself in my own world of “to do” lists and nose-to-the-grindstone work. It’s an interesting paradox that by expressing gratitude and connecting to goodness outside of ourselves, we also connect more to our internal lives, our own joy, our own priorities.