Why I'm grateful for gratitude

I like gratitude but not for the typical reasons. Yes, it helps you focus on what you have rather than what you don't, and that's great. Some research (but not all) has shown that it can boost our general sense of well-being and, in some cases, happiness. A paper I'm working on (that may or may not ever get finished) shows, also, that it is one factor that can help people experience posttraumatic growth.

Still, I think there's something else to it, beyond just giving thanks.

The thing about gratitude is that it really solidly grounds you in the present moment. It doesn't let you keep thinking about the life we imagined for ourselves but are now grieving. It doesn't let you get lost in unrealistic fantasies about the future (positive or negative). It doesn't let you get bogged down by past mistakes, painful memories, or the glory days of old. It makes you look around at what you have now, what is going on in your life now that you appreciate. 

Have you heard of "mindfulness?" It's a word that encompasses a variety of mental exercises or practices to focus on the present moment, not the past or future (real or imagined). I first was taught it during a difficult time in my life, and would throw up my hands and ask, "well, what if I don't like the present moment? Why would I not want to drift away to the past or the future?" Eventually, I was able to find my way to giving it a shot and not totally hating it (the past and the future can be just a bit too much sometimes), but I couldn't find a way to naturally fit it into my life. 

But then I started noticing some really nice things in my life, which led me to noticing the smaller, still nice things. There were still bad things, and life still felt like a struggle when I started, but gratitude became a swiss army knife for life. It helped me: 

1) bring me into the present in a purposeful and rewarding way,

2) help me see the colors hiding in the shadows, and

3) when said out loud, give me a way to connect with another person in the present moment.

Number 2 is what people typically think of when they think about gratitude, but #1 and #3 are also pretty great. Put them together, and they're damn near magical.  

Gratitude, if thought or said in a fleeting way as a half-second passing thought, is a start, and then when you allow yourself a few more seconds to be in that moment of gratitude, it allows you a space in time to let go of the past, to let go of the pressure of figuring out the future; it allows you to see all that is around you, beyond the filter that sees only the wrongs and hurts, to acknowledge the full reality of the presence of good as well. 

When said out loud, you bring another person into that present moment, get to slow down, and connect with that moment and another person. You can look at it side by side, stepping out of loneliness and isolation into a real, shared space, glowing with gratitude.*

 

*Bonus points if it is gratitude for something about the person or what they do, but more on that next time, stay tuned!