Spreading the Word on Gratitude

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Artwork by Terri Friedman and her students at the California College for the Arts. Photo courtesy of GGSC.
Artwork by Terri Friedman and her students at the California College for the Arts. Photo courtesy of GGSC.

“There is no greater tonic and perhaps no more potent tonic for our spirit than gratitude,” wrote Sir John Templeton. Millions have recognized that wisdom: when acclaimed filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg’s TEDx talk on gratitude was posted, it became a viral sensation. “Nature’s beauty is a gift that cultivates appreciation and gratitude,” he says. “It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard.”

The science of gratitude has now built a considerable body of findings which supports such intuitions. It also shows how gratitude might positively impact a wide range of social problems, from bullying to health care costs. “Many in the field feel that, alongside continuing to develop the science, a key task now is taking these findings to the public and seeking ways of integrating gratitude into everyday lives,” says Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis. To that end, the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley has been working on a large-scale project to expand the real-world impact of gratitude research. The project, supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, has become “the epicenter for research on happiness and gratitude,” according to The New York Times.

Schwartzberg is taking steps to be part of that journey. “Gratitude Revealed,” also supported by the Foundation, is a series of 15 online films that explore what gratitude is, why it’s important, and what people can do to live more gracious lives. Themes include creativity, purpose, curiosity, and forgiveness.

Mindfulness is a virtue strongly connected to gratitude as well. One of Schwartzberg’s short films explains how mindfulness facilitates observation, which opens the heart to experience as it is, and then, in turn, nurtures thankfulness. The mindful person comes to recognize that challenges are often gifts and blessings in disguise. “Gratitude nurtures within us a positive, joy-filled consciousness and unifies us with the universal flow of life energy,” wrote Sir John in Wisdom From World Religions. “In this manner, our feelings of gratitude can give birth to greater inner fulfillment.”

This inner fulfillment is especially integral in the workplace, an often gratitude-deficient environment high on the list of GGSC priorities. Research suggests that people are less likely to express gratitude at work than in any other area of life. The GGSC’s popular article, “Five Ways to Cultivate Gratitude at Work,” is an informative resource to start building a culture of gratitude in the workplace.

Also considering the effects of gratitude at work is Janice Kaplan, an author and former magazine editor who recently published a new book, The Gratitude Diaries, as part of an effort supported by the Foundation. Citing a study in an article for The Wall Street Journal, Kaplan notes that “some 80% [of respondents] agreed that receiving gratitude [at work] makes them work harder, but only 10% managed to express gratitude to others every day.”

In The Gratitude Diaries, which appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List for several weeks, Kaplan describes what a year of grateful living did for her family, her work, and her relationship with herself. As Kaplan confesses, she has not always been grateful, and she learned something from her experience. “Writing down one thing every day that made me grateful could change my attitude about everything else,” she says. Rather fittingly, Sir John named that transformation as one of his Laws of Life: “It is a law of life that if we develop an attitude of gratitude, our happiness increases,” he wrote. “The virtue of gratitude can directly touch the ultimate foundation of a person’s existence and the reasons for being grateful can begin to multiply.”

Kaplan took to gratitude partly because she feels it is a more tangible pursuit than happiness, and more digestible than mindfulness. The idea of keeping a gratitude diary—recording three or more things a day for which you give thanks—is something most people immediately understand. As Emmons puts it, gratitude can be produced by people at almost any moment. And, in time, gratitude becomes a habit, Kaplan told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph. When it is raining, she finds gratitude for the umbrella. When the small irritations of life mount up, the bigger things seem like blessings.

Furthermore, Kaplan does not believe being grateful means becoming a dupe. The key element here is to recognize that gratitude must not only be felt, but expressed—in a word, a text, a blog. That develops the courage and character required to convey other emotions, too; when appropriate, anger and frustration can be conveyed.

As we move closer to the Thanksgiving season, now becomes the ideal time to contemplate the power of gratitude. It can be a reflection that changes lives. “When we fill our minds with blessings and gratitude, an inner shift in consciousness can occur,” concluded Sir John. “As we focus on the abundance in our lives rather than on what we lack, a wonderful blueprint for the future begins to emerge.”