A lot can stand in the way of feeling genuinely grateful. Gratitude can feel like a loaded term, invoking a sense of entitlement around who is or isn’t grateful for what they have.
When we’re told we should feel grateful, the word is tied up with shame or guilt and used as a way to incite either of these reactive emotions. For example, to avoid feeling shame or guilt and being judged by ourselves or others, we can feel grateful that we still have a job, or that no one close to us died from COVID – comparing our fortunate situation to someone else’s misfortune. But when we’re viewing gratitude from the polarity of being grateful or ungrateful, we’re just caught up in our judgments, and the deeper meaning of gratitude is lost.
To feel gratitude is to appreciate what our relationships, activities, possessions and personal development bring into our lives. After all, it’s not difficult to appreciate the things that bring a lot of joy and ease. On the other hand, it’s not about feeling UN-grateful for the things that aren’t all that juicy, like cleaning the litter box or having a necessary interaction with a difficult person.
I’ve often felt conflicted about the topic of gratitude because it is a profound concept, often trivialized or reduced to exercises like: “Make a list of ten things you’re thankful for.” In my experience, this only serves to keep our understanding of gratitude superficial.
Gratitude can’t be forced. If you move your lips into the shape of a smile, for example, it releases endorphins, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that if you practice smiling, that physical expression will make you feel better. And while it might, I think we can agree that your decision to smile isn’t anything like the spontaneous smile that results from the feeling that wells up from within when you’re reunited with a loved one you haven’t seen in ages.
So how do we get to this deeper, spontaneous expression of gratitude, if not by making a list?
My answer is to cultivate gratitude by focusing on essence, which I write about here. Essence is the feeling experience we want our experiences, possessions and relationships to bring us, like enjoyment, freedom or ease. Essence is the feeling we have when we are fulfilled by something. And once you’ve identified the essence qualities that really make your heart sing, you can then focus on being more mindful of when and where these essences are happening in your life.
The more aware of essence you are, the more appreciative you feel. When you practice cultivating essence, you can’t help but experience gratitude in the process.
Gratitude is an essence word itself and one of the “broader” essence qualities like fulfillment, freedom, or love that often accompany other essence qualities.
To Cultivate Essence, Focus on the Small Things First
We tend to focus on bigger things and what we have accomplished when we think about gratitude. For me, those bigger things are my children, my grandchildren, other close personal relationships and my company, One Body Incorporated, including the amazing women we work with. These aspects of my life are easy to identify as essence rich. But there are also plenty of small things that enrich our lives, and taking the time to notice them will help us begin to develop an even deeper experience of gratitude.
For me, my daily hike in the park near my home might be called a “smaller” essence, but it’s really sacred to me for many reasons including peacefulness, a connection to nature and my health and wellness, not to mention the shear joy of moving my body!
The gratitude I feel for this natural space is so important to me that I joined the board for the park, adding community, and stewardship to my essence list as I interact with other like-minded people on the board to raise funds and improve the park for the whole community to enjoy. I spend so much of my spare time maintaining the trails that last week my 11-year-old granddaughter called me from the park playground to ask if I was there cleaning trails because she and her sisters heard a leaf blower!
Her call reminded me of 3 more essences: providing a safe, clean and fun place for my grandkids to play and the chance to offer them an example of someone experiencing the joy of service. And for all of this, I couldn’t be more grateful.
This is just one example of how gratitude can grow by starting with the small things, like a hike in the park. Small, incremental changes aimed at essence can lead to bigger ones as you follow the trail of essence in your life. If you focus on it, essence can’t help but accumulate, and gratitude will naturally flow from this.
Other importance essences in my life include the satisfaction I feel from teaching what I have learned, as well as learning new things. My garden provides me with a creative outlet, and I feel so much gratitude when I see the beauty of the space I have created and the chance to enjoy the wildlife it attracts.
To receive the rich rewards of gratitude, start paying close attention to what gives you essence and what that essence is for you. Take the time to identify the essence quality. If you’re not sure where to start, simply look around you and pick something. Why did you buy your computer or phone, or that handbag? Was it for the economy, portability, functionality, or its sleek design? Did that new book or magazine subscription feed you intellectually, emotionally or even spiritually?
What are you glad to have in your environment and why? Move around until you find yourself somewhere you appreciate being, then ask yourself what it is about this space that brings you essence? Is it peaceful? Do you find it inviting or comfortable? If you like being there, essence is the reason. Identify that essence and consider what else you can do to bring more of that essence into the other spaces you inhabit, and your life overall.
Gratitude really is about what we pay attention to. Because our brains are biased to negativity, we have to retrain our focus to recognize these essence qualities in order to better see what is already there and invite more of it into our lives. Once you notice the essence, you will likely notice that gratitude is also present along with whatever the essence quality is. And you will slowly come to experience more and more of it. In this way, gratitude becomes a natural outflow of focusing on what is essence-rich for you.
Take good care : )