Read an Excerpt
Attitudes of gratitude
How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life
By M.J. Ryan
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1999 Conari Press
All rights reserved.
THE SIMPLE JOY OF LIVING FROM A GRATEFUL HEART
If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never truly be fulfilled. If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself. Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.
Yesterday, while putting the final touches on this book, I went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant with my friend Annette to talk about gratitude. When I opened my fortune cookie at the end of the meal, the message was, "Stop searching. Happiness is just next to you." Talk about perfect timing! For that is exactly what this book is all about. Happiness, the sheer joy of being alive, is within our reach. All we need is an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude creates happiness because it makes us feel full, complete; gratitude is the realization that we have everything we need, at least in this moment.
There is a saying that people teach what they most need to learn, and nowhere is that more true than with me and gratitude. I wrote this book not only because I think gratitude is vitally important to our world, but because I want to become more consciously grateful myself. I do not set myself up as an "expert," but rather a person on a path like the rest of us, each of us becoming the fullness of who he or she is meant to be.
Like so many of us, I spent a great deal of my life, in my twenties and early thirties, cataloging all the ways I had been injured and abused. In therapy and out, with friends and loved ones, I analyzed and categorized the whos, whats, and wheres of my misery. I was a confirmed pessimist, always able to see the dark side of anything and everything. My belief was that life was hard and disaster was looming around every corner. If things were going well, it was only a matter of time before they would take a turn for the worse. Despite life's difficulties, it was my responsibility to do all the good I could and become the best person I could be. If I thought about gratitude at all, it was only to take a moment to give thanks for a few people in my life who had helped me feel loved.
Gradually, things changed for me. I can't point to a single event, a life-changing moment, when my attitudes suddenly transformed. Rather, slowly, as I came to understand my wounding better and began to heal, I started to notice the dearth of positive emotions in my life. I wasn't so miserable, worried, or alone anymore, but I knew precious little about joy, happiness, optimism, faith, and trust. So I began to study these emotions. (I always was a good student—give me something to study and I'll figure it out.)
I adopted certain people who seemed to naturally radiate happiness as my teachers of optimism and joyfulness. One of the things I noticed is that these people all had a profound sense of gratitude that seemed to flow uninhibitedly from them. Investigating further, I discovered that each of them had experienced at least as difficult an early life, if not more challenging, as I had. But my teachers consciously chose to adopt certain attitudes, such as gratitude, that led them to great happiness.
That's when I learned that you don't have to be saddled for life with the mental attitudes you adopted in early childhood. All of us are free to change our minds, and as we change our minds, our experiences will also change. So I set out on a course to be more grateful, joyful, and hopeful. The result of my course is what you are holding in your hands.
A few of my basic assumptions: I've learned over time that it helps to take the long view, to choose to see our lives from a spiritual perspective. I know we are here to "grow our souls," to heal our wounds—or at least bless our woundedness—and become more loving, kind, fearless, and hopeful. The longer I live, the more I recognize that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is the key to living from an open heart, that is, living in a spirit of joyful expectation.
Gratitude is not just the key. It's a magic key—all you need to do is to use it, and the world is suddenly transformed into a beautiful wonderland, in which you are invited to play. That's because, like most of the great spiritual truths, gratitude is stunningly simple. This is not to say, however, that an attitude of gratitude is necessarily easy to practice. All kinds of distractions, obfuscation, and negative attitudes from our upbringings may get in the way. But all you really have to do is make a commitment to do it, and the magic will be yours.
One of the incredible truths about gratitude is that it is impossible to feel both the positive emotion of thankfulness and a negative emotion such as anger or fear at the same time. Gratitude births only positive feelings—love, compassion, joy, and hope. As we focus on what we are thankful for, fear, anger, and bitterness simply melt away, seemingly without effort.
How can this be? The answer is that gratitude helps us track success, to notice what is right in our lives, and the brain naturally works to track success. If you have ever watched a baby learn something, you'll know what I mean. Learning to walk, for example, she stands and puts out one foot. Boom! Down she goes because her balance wasn't right. Instead of castigating herself for blowing it, getting angry, or blaming the floor or her shoe, she just registers that it didn't work because her foot was too far out and tries again. She just keeps trying and trying, discarding what doesn't work without obsessing on it, and incorporating what's right until she can walk. Fall, fall, fall, walk, fall, fall, walk, walk, walk!
As we get older, however, we get schooled in our mistakes, and learn to focus on what's not right, what is lacking, missing, inadequate, and painful. That's why gratitude is so powerful. It helps us to return to our natural state of joyfulness where we notice what's right instead of what's wrong. Gratitude reminds us to be like plants, which turn toward, not away, from the light.
Because of the simple power of gratitude, it's easy to make all kinds of Pollyanna-ish generalities, which slide off into meaninglessness and are boring to read about. My hope is that within these pages you'll find true inspiration and some solid ideas for making the practice of living from a grateful heart real and meaningful.
To entice, encourage, and support you in your commitment, this little book begins with The Gifts of Gratitude, which look at what happens in our lives when we begin to practice gratitude. Don't worry if you don't know how to do it yet. Right now, we are focusing on the wonderful effects your new attitudes will create. We then go to The Attitudes of Gratitude, which are the outlooks or stances we need to take in cultivating gratefulness. Finally we move to The Practices of Gratitude, which are the practical ways we can develop and maintain thankfulness in our daily lives.
In a sense, each of the sixty chapters is a meditation in and of itself. This is not a book to be read at one sitting. Rather, I encourage you to read one chapter and let it sink in for a while—a day, two days, even a week or longer—before moving onto the next. Since gratitude is both an attitude and a practice, you need time to integrate the learnings so they can become truly yours, and not something you just read, put away, and forget.
To get started, take a few minutes right now to reflect on a happy moment in your own life that stands out for you, a moment that stays with you, even if it happened ten, twenty, or forty years ago. Experience it again: see the scene, hear the sounds that were around you, feel the sensations. What was it about that moment that stays with you? Was gratitude a part of it? What was going on for you that allowed you to feel grateful?
For me it is tiny kittens crawling down my back when I was about two. I can feel the tiny claws, hear their little mewls, and see the grey wispy baby fur. It is the prickle of the tiny claws against my skin—the sensation so deliciously startling—that makes me smile even now. It's the first memory I have of the wonder of being alive in a body. It was the newness, the "first everness" that allowed me in that moment to feel grateful for being alive, and it is why that minute of my life continues to be one of my most powerful memories.
It has been a great joy for me to write this book, for its creation has been an act of gratitude in and of itself for those who have so unselfishly taught and inspired me throughout my life; for those who shared specific ideas, stories, and practices with me; for my mind's ability to put it together; and for you, the reader, for being interested and willing to enter into the experience.
That's the most wonderful thing I've discovered so far about gratitude—it makes you feel full, bursting with delight, just to remember the gifts you have received. Thus are we doubly blessed when we receive something, for the gift itself, and later, in recall, for the miracle of having been given it.
THE GIFTS OF GRATITUDE
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity.... Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.
Consciously cultivating thankfulness is a journey of the soul, one that begins when we look around us and see the positive effects that gratitude creates. We do this by noticing those around us to whom gratefulness comes easily and realize how much we enjoy being around these people. We also tap into these gifts as we think about times in the past when we felt particularly grateful. Remember the peacefulness and the delight that accompanied those times? As we come to understand the gifts of gratitude, we realize that being grateful is not something remote or foreign, but part of the natural joyful expression of our full humanness.
Gratitude Is the Mother of Joy
Joy is prayer—Joy is strength—Joy is love—Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls. She gives most who gives with joy.
I don't know about you, but in general, there hasn't been a lot of joy, that opening and swelling of the heart, in my life. It wasn't because of my circumstances, because they weren't particularly hard, but because of my mental training. Growing up, I learned to plan and to work hard. Accomplishments were good because they led somewhere I was planning to go: high school, college, a good job, a relationship. But they weren't to be relished and celebrated in and of themselves.
Like so many of us, I was so busy climbing the ladder of success, that I took no time to enjoy the journey. I was too busy getting on to the next challenge. When I think back on particular occasions for joy in my past—graduating valedictorian of my high school, getting married, making a bestseller list for Random Acts of Kindness, for example—I realize that as soon as I attained each goal, my eyes were immediately on the next "prize": getting to the top of my college class, having a baby, getting on the New York Times bestseller list. It was as if I was a machine, mindlessly churning out accomplishments and not stopping to relish the journey along the way.
But I got sick and tired of a joyless existence, and so have thought a lot in the past few years about how to bring more joy into my life. The more I think about it, the more I believe that joy and gratitude are inseparable. Joy is defined in the dictionary as an "emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires," while gratitude is that "state of being appreciative of benefits received." In other words, whenever we are appreciative, we are filled with a sense of well-being and swept up by the feeling of joy.
So I determined to stop climbing mindlessly to some undefined peak of accomplishment and focus my attention on all the wonderful things that were happening in my day-to-day existence. As I do, without my even trying, joy creeps in.
How about you? As Sarah Ban Breathnach puts it, "Begin today. Declare out loud to the Universe that you are willing to let go of struggle and eager to learn through joy." Then think of all that you have accomplished today and celebrate each feat, no matter its size.
Gratitude Makes Us Young
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Young children are such exuberant, joy-filled creatures, eager to embrace life in all its mystery and majesty. Everything is new and exciting; everything—a bubble, a snowflake, a mud puddle—is a gift. But something in the process of growing up so often takes the juice out of us. We become encrusted, hard, jaded. We lose our joy, our exuberance, our passionate embrace of life. We trudge instead of skip, retreat instead of explore, "too old for that," whatever "that" is.
This drying up is so common that when we meet a vibrant, joy-filled older person, he or she stands out as a singular exception. But we don't have to lose the happiness or juiciness of youth. All we need to do is to tap into our sense of gratitude, for when we do, we are like little children again, seeing the world for the first time.
In Simple Pleasures of the Garden, Dawna Markova shares a story about such a woman: "Several years ago, I was walking in March along a gravel road that led to the ocean in Rhode Island. A very old and thin woman came hobbling down a driveway toward me. I waved and continued walking, but as I passed, she grabbed my arm, turned around and began to pull me in the direction of her house. I instantly thought of the witch in Hansel and Gretel, and tried to pull back, but that only made her clutch tighter around my wrist. Besides, she didn't cackle, so I relented.
"She didn't say a word, in fact, until we approached her house: a shingle-style cottage with green shutters and a front lawn erupting everywhere in purple crocus. She released me there, throwing her arms up in the air and shouting, 'Look at this splendor! Isn't it a miracle?!'"
This old woman was open to the magic and beauty of life, and her sparkling eyes and eagerness to share made her and everything around her more vibrant and alive.
Gratitude Makes Us Feel Good
Mental sunshine will cause the flowers of peace, happiness, and prosperity to grow upon the face of the Earth. Be a creator of mental sunshine.
—graffiti on a wall in Berkeley, California
Tom comes from a family of highly successful businesspeople who taught him to climb the ladder of success by criticizing him whenever he did something wrong. He learned early on that life is "hard work," that it's a "dog-eat-dog world," and that to get ahead he had to never make a mistake. While he did succeed, including getting an M.B.A. from a top business school, he was never happy. To him, work seemed only drudgery; he spent much of his time noticing what he did wrong: he didn't assert himself at the meeting, he should have made more calls. Most of the time he felt lifeless and depressed.
Finally Tom went to a therapist to ask for a prescription for Prozac. But since he really didn't want to take an antidepressant if he didn't have to, at the therapist's suggestion, he agreed to first try something else for one month. Before he started work in the morning, he was to ask himself, "What do I feel grateful for about myself?" In this way, he reminded himself of his resources, strengths, and talents. Then, at the end of the day, he was to finish work by asking, "What did I do today that I feel good about?"
"Do you know what I discovered?" he told me. "Gratitude is a natural upper. It works so well that now, whenever I feel my energy going down during the day, I ask myself, what do I feel grateful for in this moment?" By concentrating on what he's doing right and what he appreciates about himself, Tom overcame his depression and has begun to look forward to work.
Gratitude makes us feel good because it helps us widen our frame of vision. Under depression or stress, we can develop tunnel vision, seeing only this problem, that difficulty. We can get overtaken by a heavy, dark feeling of despair. But when we experience a sense of gratitude, we give ourselves a dose of mental sunshine. Suddenly the world seems brighter, and we have more options.
And the greatest thing is that as we experience the mental sunshine of gratitude, we begin to glow with sunshine ourselves. Suddenly not only is the world brighter, but we are too. Soon we notice that our lives are full of people who want to be around us because we exude peacefulness, happiness, and joy.
Gratitude Promotes Health
Feelings of gratitude release positive endorphins throughout the body, creating health.
Josephine is a seventy-seven-year-old woman who, in her late fifties, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and scheduled for surgery a few days later. While waiting for the operation, she sat in her porch swing and gave thanks for all the wonderful things in her life. She wrote a letter of thanks to each of her family members, called them around her, and went into the hospital. The night before surgery, she suddenly saw "what looked like a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair smiling at me and radiating light. She said she was an angel who felt my love and she had come to reassure me that everything was OK; that I would have plenty of time to fulfill my life's purpose. And then she said, 'Always remember that it was your love and your appreciation that brought healing to you.'" It turned out that the tumor was gone, and Josephine was sent home without surgery.
Excerpted from Attitudes of gratitude by M.J. Ryan. Copyright © 1999 Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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