Expressing Gratitude

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Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.

"Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude." --Denis Waitley

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. No presents, no stress of did you buy that for her or him. No rushing around and making oneself into a consumer nightmare. Dressing a delicious turkey even as Amelia Bedelia did is oh so easy and volunteering at a homeless shelter oh so fulfilling. To express gratitude all one has to do is to be kind, walk with clarity, have pure intentions and perform random acts of gratitude.

While my family and friends often give a devilish sigh before our fine Thanksgiving tradition, I happen to see it as an example of an act of gratitude. For the tradition, each family member must stand and express gratitude. It can be a small tidbit or a grand list of thoughts and ideas. It’s my family’s way of reflecting on the past year and bringing to light that which we are most grateful for. To unearth gratitude in your life, here is a question to start with:


Some say I am terrible at gratitude. I wake up and forget to thank the Hummingbird that perches on top of our feeder, or say Namaste to the giant Buddah that graces our pool with prayer flags swinging overhead, or say thank you to my sweet spouse who makes sure the coffee made, or the driver that stops his car so I can cross busy Santa Monica Blvd.

I take for granted my knee replacement as I climb steep Alta Loma, or my bright blue eyes that I see with or arms to hug my grandchildren with. When I was younger I sometimes forgot to pick a daughter up at school or listen carefully. As I face the later half of life, I sometimes forget how much all of my children have changed my life for the better.

Gratitude and its sibling - appreciation - is the mental tool we use to remind ourselves of the good stuff. It's a lens that helps us see things that don't make it onto our lists of problems to be solved, a spotlight we might shine on the people who give us the good things in life. It’s a bright red paintbrush we apply to invisible blessings - like clean streets and bathrooms, outdoor parks, health or enough food to eat.

On my recent trip to Bhutan, people expressed gratitude to nature, to the sky, to their kingdom and to their religion. The Bhutanese people taught me that expressing gratitude is about walking with pure intentions, being mindful and respectful.

Gratitude, as I have learned, does not make threats or problems disappear. Grateful folks still lose their jobs, witness crimes, become ill, lose people they love. I have experienced all of those things and more. I remember some very harrowing times where my heart raced, my palms were sweaty, my throat constricted and my stomach ached. My body wanted to crawl into a hole and shrivel up. I wanted to hit someone when there was no one to hit. The threats were real and at the moment of memory they exist albeit only in my memory or my imagination. Expressing gratitude has helped me realize that I am the threat, it is me who is worrying me out with worry!

That's when I turn to gratitude. I know and I teach my clients as such that it takes 90 days to change a habit, and I invite them to take on gratitude as a habit. I invite them to wake up each morning, meditate, and write down 5 things they are grateful for and to practice expressing gratitude twice a day. What that means for me and you is we increase our chances of psychologically surviving the hard times. And we stand a chance of being happier in the good times. While we cannot ignore, deny or minimize the tough times, we can increase - with daily practice of gratitude - the resources and people that might help us face those challenges.

In anticipation of Thanksgiving, I want to share with you The 6 Habits of Grateful People as inspired by Jeremey Adam Smith (The Daily Good).

1. Contemplation Life and Death

Contemplating endings really does make you more grateful for the life you have, according to several studies. For example, in Bhutan, life and death are inextricably tied to one another. There is an impermanence of all things. However, each birth and each death is revered. According to friends and colleagues, when one is asked to visualize their death their gratitude measurably increases. When people envision the sudden disappearance of a romantic partner from their lives, they became more grateful to their partners. As a woman who has experienced several sudden deaths (father, mother, son, first husband), I can tell you first hand that family and friends became more important and hence I became more grateful for them.

Researchers have also found that when you take something for granted you value it less. When you give that something up for a while and reintegrate the activity back into your life, research suggests you value it more. It’s a specific relationship we can observe in many aspects of life and experience.

Have you contemplated the great mysteries of the life cycle today?

2. Take Time to Smell the Roses

And smell the coffee, the bread baking in the oven, the crisp fresh air, the sweat at the gym, etc. The point is to stop, observe, dwell and relish in whatever gives you pleasure.

Fred Bryant, a Loyola University professor, finds that savoring positive experiences makes them stickier in your brain, and increases their benefits to your psyche. And the key, he argues, is to express gratitude for the experience.

For example, I recently traveled to the land of happiness (i.e. Bhutan) after speaking at several conferences meeting all kinds of wonderfully thoughtful people. In Bhutan, we climbed over 10,000 feet to a temple called Tiger’s Nest to visit one of the oldest temples. The experience of rejuvenation and pleasure from our climb, which I savored along with the graciousness, kindness, and sincerity of the people who took this journey, can be recalled in a nanosecond. So when I’m traversing the darker, narrower passages in my brain, I switch over to an experience like the climb in Bhutan to help me return to gratitude and therefore happiness.

<p>I’m holding a flower during my recent travels to Bhutan. </p>

I’m holding a flower during my recent travels to Bhutan.

Also, look around you. What are you taking for granted? Food, sex, sunlight, grandchildren, children, spouses, Soul Cycle, etc. Try to stop seeing someone for a few days and then really savor as you bring them back into your life. The same can be done for activities you enjoy. Savor the experience.

For example, I immensely enjoy indoor cycling at Soul Cycle. As I have written, spinning feels like a cross between a 12-step meeting, a baptist church and motivational inspiration. My endorphins kick in, I sweat and a creativity meter is installed in my brain. When I’m away from Soul Cycle, my heart grows fonder for the experience and I take time to let it back into my life and return a few days later.

That goes for people too. If you are taking someone for granted, step back and imagine your life without them. Then try savoring their presence just like you would a rose, a fine meal, a new car, etc. the point is absense just may make the heart more grateful.

What experiences can you recall? What experiences do you savor? Who do you remember and why?

3. Take Good Things as Gifts. Not as Birthrights!

The opposite of gratitude is entitlement, the attitude that people owe you something just because you believe yourself to be “special.”

“In all of its manifestations, a preoccupation with self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to be thankful,” writes Robert Emmons, co-director of GSS Gratitude Practice.

Counting blessings will be ineffective because grievances always outnumber gifts. In the substance abuse/mental health field we all have had clients who enter treatment angry at loved ones and even us. We all have had the client who wants someone else to wait on them. For those folks in the beginning of treatment, focus on the gifts that have been given such as a safe place to sleep, healthy nutritious food, a safe place to talk and practice new behaviors.

According to Emmons, the antidote to entitlement is to see inter-connectedness with nature and with other human beings and to understand we are never truly self-sufficient. We need other people to grow our food, heal our injuries, wipe away our tears. We need love and for that we need family, partners, friends and pets. As it has been famously written, no man is an island.

Seeing with grateful eyes requires we see the web of interconnection in which we alternate between being givers and receivers. So for folks that are experiencing substance abuse and other disorders that means being of service to others and doing simple life tasks, like working, managing finances, cleaning their houses, volunteering and honoring themselves and their loved ones.

What have you done today to take care of yourself and your affairs?

4. Be Grateful to People Not Just Things

Experiences that heighten meaningful connections with others - like noticing how another person has helped you, acknowledging the effort it took, and savoring how you benefited from it - engages biological systems for trust and affection alongside circuits for pleasure and reward. This provides a synergistic and enduring boost for the positive experience. Saying thank you to a person registers in your brain that something good has happened and you are more richly enmeshed in a more meaningful social community.

Make a list of people you are grateful for. Tell them Thank you and why you are grateful for them in your life.

5. Specificity Is Paramount

Grateful people are habitually specific. They don't say, I love you because you are just so wonderfully you! Instead a grateful person will say, I loved the way you were quiet, focused and direct in the way you moved that person to change. Or they will say, I love you for those blueberry pancakes you make me when you see I am hungry and the way you massage my feet after work even when you are tired and how you give me hugs when I am sad so that I will feel better.

The more specific one is with another, the more authentic gratitude feels, for it reveals the thinker was actually paying attention and isn't going through the motions. The richest thank you’s will acknowledge intentions.

For example, I am blessed by some wonderful colleagues and loved ones. James Flowers who I have the pleasure of working with and his team at Driftwood Recovery. Paradigm Malibu blesses me with the privilege of teaching their staff, and Joe Capella, Jeff Merrick and David Malow who I can call in a moment’s notice and talk shop, Roger Porter who is always ever ready to edit and Marcus Crutcher who makes by web beautiful. And I’m blessed with my daughters and my husband John who is my biggest, biggest advocate.

Who are the three, four, even five people you can thank today for a specific thing they have done that enriches your life?

6. Thank Outside the Box

So far, we have thanked the obvious. The really tough minded thankful person thinks outside the box. They thank the boss that laid them off or fired them, the boyfriend, girlfriend that dumped them, the homeless person who asked for change.

As Dr. Emmons suggests, "it's easy to feel grateful for the good things.” No one feels grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health or who has taken a devastating hit on their retirement portfolio.

In such instances, he says, gratitude becomes a critical life process. Gratitude can turn disaster into a stepping stone. If one is willing and able to look, we can find a way even to be grateful to people who have harmed us. This premise has been eloquently written about in the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

We can thank the boy or girlfriend for being brave enough to end our relationships, the homeless person for reminding us of our advantage and vulnerability, the boss for forcing us to face new challenges.

Life is suffering writes Emmons, so no amount of positive exercises will change the truth. And telling people to simply buck up, count their blessings and remember how grateful they are can certainly do harm. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. Instead it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss to a potential gain and recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.

How have you expressed gratitude today?

To learn more about Louise Stanger and her interventions and other resources, visit her website.