Why Is Gratitude so Hard for Some of Us to Express?

It seems that life without appreciation is like a meal without flavour, or living in a world without colour or one without music. We set aside one day of the year for Thanksgiving, but mostly spend it eating too much. 

So why is gratitude so hard for many of us? Is it because it’s a bitter pill to swallow, humbling us to be less self-sufficient? Gratitude is often defined as a feeling of obligation and indebtedness toward those who give us a gift or help us out in some way. Consider how often many of us use the phrase, “I owe you a debt of gratitude,” or “One good turn deserves another.” According to a leading contemporary expert on gratitude, UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons, “To be grateful means to allow oneself to be placed in the position of recipient – to feel indebted and aware of one’s dependence on others.” 

Is it our modern life that leaves little time to feel grateful or awed? 

I believe that gratitude begins in the heart, an act of will. To acknowledge a gift is to admit dependence on the giver, to acknowledge an obligation to the giver. Our gratefulness has the power to diminish alienation. Saying thanks is to say we belong together –  the giver and the receiver –  a bond that has the potential to free us from feelings of alienation. I know that feeling gratitude changes my mood with the pulse of something beyond myself. 

I’d like to share a personal story about gratitude. On December 24th, 1970 I was driving to Quebec City with three friends. We found ourselves in a blizzard and driving conditions were becoming treacherous on a rural two-lane road. After one hour of white knuckle navigating, we heard a loud thud and realized we had a flat tire. We soon discovered the spare tire in the trunk of our borrowed car was also flat. Now, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, in a raging snowstorm, with no means of communicating our dilemma, and it was Christmas Eve. An hour passed without a car in sight, until a pickup truck approached us on that snowy road. Responding to our frantic waves for help, the driver pulled over and offered his help.  Although he had just finished his shift at the local fire-station and was going home for Christmas dinner with his family, he kindly drove us to the nearest garage, just five miles ahead. Three hours later, after driving us both ways, and insisting on changing the tire for us, we offered to pay him for his considerable time and effort. He refused. Instead, he said, “pass it on”!  At that moment, the four of us felt gratitude beyond anything we had known before. We also learned that real gratitude means entering into a relationship and we accepted this stranger’s kindness along with our obligation to pass it on. 

Many years later this is a memory that remains top of mind. Many years later I know from experience that gratitude requires mindfulness, a practice which cannot be forced. While the practice of gratitude may remain challenging to someone who lacks compassion, I found that when I began to practice gratitude, it eventually became a habit. It’s about focusing on what is good in our lives and being thankful for the things we have. Gratitude is pausing to notice and appreciate the things that we often take for granted, like having a place to live, food, clean water, friends, family, or even computer access. The result for me is that gratitude elevates, energizes, inspires and even transforms my day. I started to see good things as “gifts”.  Thinking of the good things in my life as gifts helps me guard against taking them for granted. 

It may be summed up best by author, Melody Beattie:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.”

by David L. Cooper, Grief Facilitator, Toronto Distress Centre and Founder of Eli’s Place Residential Treatment and Transition Centre

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