|Stuart Center in Washington, D.C.|
The Upward Spiral of Gratitude
During this season of giving thanks I would like to invite us all to go one-step further: To cultivate an orientation of gratitude in life and work. On the surface there may appear to be little difference between the two. In actuality, however, gratitude carries a depth and breadth of experience that has drawn the attention of researchers and psychologists for many years.
Gratitude is thankful appreciation for the benevolence of another in either tangible or intangible ways. Most of us feel gratitude from time to time, especially when things go well or, more specifically, when things go better than we may have expected. Cultivating a life orientation of gratitude, however, is more than just spontaneous feelings of gratitude; it requires expressing it - intentionally, authentically and regularly. The focus is not on me, but rather on the other person. Psychologists have shown the physical, psychological, emotional and social benefits of expressing gratitude. In short, people who engage in genuine, regular expressions of gratitude report greater physical and mental health. This is evidenced by demonstrably lower levels of anxiety and depression; sounder sleep patterns; greater resiliency when confronted by obstacles or disappointments; enhanced interactions with colleagues; greater sense of team; and “huge increases in happiness scores.” The Templeton Foundation (2013) found, however, found that while almost all survey participants reported feeling happier and more fulfilled when someone thanked them, a staggering 60+% said they never or very seldom express gratitude.
What blocks our ability to express gratitude? Our country’s ethos of the self-reliant, can-do person tends to value independence and competitiveness over interdependence and collaboration. Researchers find that in the workplace people fear that showing gratitude makes them appear weak or vulnerable. Perhaps it is precisely through this experience of vulnerability that expressions of gratitude more often strengthen, not weaken, relationships. Certain aspects of technology (e.g., email) have created a false sense of immediacy and urgency. Gratitude, on the other hand, requires time and space to engage in three simple steps (adapted from Brother David Steindl-Rast, gratefulness.org).
First we must recognize the gift. Wake up, notice and see! Recognize the true gifts of our lives and recognize where our blessings are the result of others’ toil, not our own. Second, we need to acknowledge that something outside ourselves has touched our lives in some significant way. We must also acknowledge how unjust political, economic and social structures heap “blessings upon the blessed.” Finally, we must express what our hearts hold (joy, grief, burden, relief, connectedness, isolation). It is in the raising up of our voices that gratitude becomes the upward spiral. What we express opens us and others to further acts of benevolence; opens our eyes and ears to justice and injustice; and maybe inspires and motivates others to action. A life orientation of gratitude, therefore, provides fertile ground for the seeds of justice to take root.
Happy Thanksgiving from all at the Stuart Center! May our work and our lives be punctuated by gratitude that begets justice so that one day, working together, all in our world may enjoy the bounty of our earth.
Imma De Stefanis, rscj, Ph.D. Executive Director Stuart Center