Gratitude is not only
the greatest of
virtues, but the parent
of all the others.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Having worked in the field of values, ethics and virtues over the past three years, one of the key things I have repeated to me is that gratitude is a key virtue. It underpins many other virtues and is an integral skill to explore and learn to lead a good life. However, gratitude is easy to overlook as a simple act of thanks. We are reminded by our parents (or remind our children) to be thankful all the time but is this helpful, or are we simply teaching automatic behaviour? Gratitude is more than this. It is a deeper appreciation of someone or something that produces a long term positive effect. But how do we become more grateful? If it were simple, we would surely all be more appreciative and benefitting from this throughout our lives.
The roots of all
goodness lie in the
soil of appreciation
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
As with most of the musings in this blog, the answer is linked to a need for deeper contemplation and appreciation of the act of thanks. This firstly requires a heightened level of awareness of ourselves, others and the environment around us. Noticing when we feel grateful and the sensations and thoughts that arise within us, noticing when people are kind to us or we receive (even if sometimes the thing we receive does not seem positive at first) and a general appreciation for the things we have the world around us. This is certainly something I have been trying to do more of, appreciating the things around me, whether it is my home and items within it or things in the environment in my day to day life. Spending time expanding my awareness of nature, whether a tree or small flower, on a walk to drop my kids at nursery. I have noticed how this has elevated my mood and lessened my desire for ‘new’ things.
Secondly, we can deepen our understanding of others and the world around us and spend time thinking about the way we express gratitude. Can we be thoughtful about the way we are thankful? We could buy a general gift or thank you card but would that person be more inspired by an act related to their kindness and them as a person? Understanding the situation or world around us can benefit us in many ways and enable us to be more mindful of how we express gratitude. Finally, we can produce an act of kindness that encompasses the gratitude we feel, the understanding we have of the situation, and that will best express how we feel. All three combined, awareness, understanding and kind actions can help guide our gratitude, deepening our thanks and the benefit we can receive and give.
Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.Ralph Waldo Emerson
An act of kindness or gratitude can cause a response in the human body of feeling safe, better, and stronger. Our brains are flooded by dopamine and serotonin, two key neurotransmitters related to emotions. These neurotransmitters produce feelings of happiness and joy. The magic of this effect is that both the person receiving and giving thanks experiences this effect. In fact, simply contemplating or thinking about something we are grateful for can have a similar effect of heightening mood. As with most processed in the brain, the more we practice gratitude, the more we reinforce and strengthen these parts of our mind increasing our wellbeing and tendency to show gratitude.
There is huge depth to gratitude, more than can be fully explored here in this short blog. I have benefitted from and recommend the wisdom found in Oliver Sacks’ book Gratitude and The Psychology of Gratitude by Robert A. Emmons & Michael E. McCullough for a deeper exploration of these ideas.