We live in extraordinarily complex and confusing times, and many of us are feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of our lives and the difficulty in navigating a world in which so much seems to be out of our control. We may have become resigned to the belief that the best we can do is to get through our lives with as little pain as possible, and may have determined to only care for ourselves and, perhaps, a few other people that are close to us.
Such an approach, though, eventually imprisons us in the very small world of our own needs, pushing away other people, and closing down the possibility of real growth. We may seek relief in a variety of ways - from the pleasures of physical entertainment, to the call to community service, and the possibilities of peace offered by spiritual practices and religion - but we often find that these tactics don't provide the relief that we had hoped for, leaving us feeling more apathetic and cynical than before.
How can we escape this downward spiral?
All that ails us and the world, and the cause of all cynicism and apathy, I believe, comes from the lack of one essential factor in our lives: gratitude. The greatest human spirits have recognized that gratitude is the most rewarding and transformational practices that we can undertake. Cicero, the versatile Roman philosopher, stated:
Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others.
In a similar vein, the thirteenth-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, advised:
If the only prayer you said your whole life was "thank you," that would suffice.
What exactly is gratitude, though? One definition that I discovered notes that gratitude is "an emotion that involves indebtedness toward another person," and that this emotion arises when one receives something that meets the following criteria:
• It is valued by the recipient.
• It is costly to the benefactor.
• It is given with positive intention.
• It is given graciously, without any societal or professional obligation.
According to this definition, when these four criteria are met and we allow the emotion to arise, we experience gratitude. The problem with this definition, though, is that it makes gratitude conditional. When one of the criteria is not met - for example, when we don't value the gift, or when we don't believe that the gift is costly (monetarily, emotionally, or temporally) to the giver - according to this definition, we are excused from feeling gratitude.
Ethical, religious, and spiritual traditions encourage us to adopt a higher perspective on gratitude. From this point of view, gratitude is something far more profound than a momentary feeling of thanks for a specific valued gift. At its deepest potential, gratitude comes from an existential awareness that our bodies, our minds, our families and friends, the world in all its miraculous diversity, and all that we have are gifts. And that these gifts are given to us unconditionally, in love, at every moment of our lives.
This concept can be very difficult to incorporate because, as noted earlier, we tend to associate gratitude only with the receipt of a gift that we perceive to be valuable. When unwelcome events inevitably happen in our lives - disappointments, illness, conflicts - we naturally feel bitter and can easily believe that there is nothing to be thankful for. Conversely, when we get things that we think we want, we may be tempted to take all the credit, and believe that we have achieved these successes solely based on our own efforts and attributes. True gratitude, however, calls us to feel grateful not only for our successes, but also for our problems, our mistakes, and even for people who treat us unkindly. We can actually feel gratitude for our most difficult struggles, because these are seen as ultimately beneficial in our lives, even if the intention is not always immediately clear to us.
Gratitude can solve all that ails us because when we are truly grateful we immediately rise above our fear-based needs to dominate, control, or retreat in to cynicism. And when we approach people and situations with gratitude we will naturally be drawn to positive action, discovering new possibilities that we could never have imagined in the protective shell of self-isolation. These actions can take many forms, depending on the needs of the other person and the situation in the moment, but will always be beneficial for humanity.
Although gratitude is a feeling, it must be cultivated through action. The following offers several suggestions for developing gratitude:
1. Make a gratitude list: Srikumar Rao, who teaches a hugely popular class at Columbia Business School, and is author of "Are You Ready to Succeed"? recommends that we write a daily list of the things that have occurred for which we are grateful. These do not need to be major events, but can be the little occurrences that we usually ignore - the train arriving on time, good weather, a satisfying meal, a stranger's warm smile - and the wonderful people and things in our lives that we all to often take for granted - our families, spouses, friends, jobs, homes, health, bodies.
2. Say "Thank you" to others: Stay alert for opportunities to express gratitude to others as often as you can. You will find that even when you are not feeling grateful, simply saying "thank you" will connect you to others, and will have an impact beyond the moment.
3. Develop a daily gratitude prayer: All religious and spiritual traditions stress the essential nature of gratitude, and place it as the bedrock of faith. Within many of these traditions the first prayer that a practitioner says every morning is "I am thankful for having awakened to another day." This is a prayer of gratitude to our Creator for the very miracle of our lives.
These practices remind us that gratitude is available to us at any moment and under any circumstance, even - or especially - when we are not feeling particularly thankful. Seen from the highest perspective, gratitude is the door that opens to individual and world transformation, revealing our true nature, binding us to each other, and to the Divine.