It's important to recognize the small things that are always happening around us.
When things get difficult, when fears are looming and obstacles are blaring, it’s hard to see the positive side of things and remain grateful. It’s not only that without gratitude we will rarely find ourselves at peace, it’s also that being grateful helps us see the good as well as the bad in any situation and can help us put things into perspective, lessen our panic, and open up our thinking to new solutions.
At this point, it’s a well-known fact that gratitude can increase our happiness and well-being and that there are mental and physical benefits of having a grateful attitude in life. Research from Northeastern University, for instance, found out that people with a heightened sense of gratitude were more patient and better able to make reasonable decisions, and other studies have found that gratitude is among the healthiest of emotions.
But a lot of these studies focus on what could be called formal gratitude, that is, a lot of them put their focus on individuals that take part in formal practices to boost their mood like the writing of a journal (the “three good things” exercise is a good example) or similar let-me-sit-down-and-count-my-blessings exercises. But, important as these practices are, what’s even more important is to foster what Julie Beck in an interesting piece calls casual gratitude, the ability to recognize, without making a big deal out of it, the small things and simple acts of kindness that are always happening around us.
But this is, perhaps, the most difficult kind of gratitude to practice. In fact, it’s so difficult that sometimes it seems we are simply not hardwired to be grateful. But this ability to just thank people casually with grace and sincerity can actually be acquired, the only thing is that, like any skill worth having, it requires practice. According to Dr. Robert Emmons, author of Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, the whole process of practicing causal gratitude can be broken down into three stages:
- Paying attention to what other people do and not taking simple acts of kindness for granted.
- Recognizing what we’re grateful for, acknowledging it, and appreciating it.
- Giving at least one compliment daily, whether directly to a person or by sharing your appreciation of something.
Without gratitude, we are blinded to the blessings of family, the gift of friendship, the wonders of nature, and the many delightful and beautiful things surrounding us. Being ungrateful ultimately deprives us of optimism, of that sort of optimism about which Jane Hirshfield spoke so well in one of her poems:
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.
“Let Christ turn your natural optimism into Christian hope”