Power of Gratitude

(image via Milada Vigerova)

(image via Milada Vigerova)

Wilma Mankiller, former chief of the Cherokee Nation, wore a choker around her neck with the face of two wolves. The press once asked her what they stood for. "This one," she said, pointing to one face, "represents the voice of my self-sufficiency and self-esteem, what we call “the good, true and beautiful”. And this one represents the voice of self-diminishment and criticality, or what my people call “the monsters and demons”. They are always in battle and always in struggle with each other. My choker is a reminder that every day in my life this struggle goes on."

"Which one is winning?" a reporter asked.

Her response was quite profound: "The one I feed the most."

We choose our inner world based on the attention we give it. It seems so many people these days are chasing “happiness” and yet so few of us are actually there. In fact, a landmark study called “The World Values Survey”, looked at the fascinating and fundamental question, “Are you happy?” This study was a massive multi-year undertaking involving 65 societies in six continents representing 80 percent of the world’s population. Nigeria, one of the poorest countries on the planet was first. The others after that were Mexico, Venezuela and El Salvador. Not a G-8 in the bunch. The richest country in the world, the United States, ranked sixteenth!

I believe the best way to start to promote greater inner happiness is through gratitude. The word comes from the Latin root gratia, meaning “to lend grace” or “to be in God’s favor” and Mankiller reminds us that we can choose gratitude, in every day, moment and breath.

The problem is we are so used to feeding the negative wolf our knee-jerk response to any stressful situation is to focus on what is not working. As a consequence our heard turns to the shadow and away from the light, and we migrate away from the potential for joy and into pain.

But we can change our inner happiness if we follow a few gratitude steps.

First, begin by tracking the habits that diminish your gratefulness--your negativity and addiction to what is not working. To get a sense of this, try raising your hand for one day, every time you have a negative judgment or feeling about someone or something. Do this without fail (even for instance if reading this). Do you think you’ll be raising your hands once a day? Twice a day? Some of you will look like those little wooden ducks at the lake when a Noreaster’ comes rolling in you will be flapping so fast.

Second, start to raise your level of gratitude through awareness. Keep a simple journal every day that you write in about what you are grateful for. Research shows that this is one of the very best ways. Study after study shows journal writers are healthier, happier and more self-aware. The act of awareness shapes and informs us in ways that help define the paths of our lives. Or try what anthropologist Angeles Arrien calls “The Blessing Way”. Every day take a few minutes in silence and gratitude, and then set an intention that will take you forward through positive action.

Finally, share your internal awareness with the outer world. Said another way, don’t make your gratitude a secret. I love what Steven Levine, says; “If you were going to die soon, and you only had one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?”

This is not just New Age gibberish. It is in our self-interest to deepen our gratitude. Recent studies have shown that people who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others and something larger (you define) tend to have better health, more optimism, exercise more regularly, suffer less stress, and experience less clinical depression than the population as a whole—even when you factor in age and income. Grateful people tend to be less materialistic and suffer less anxiety about status or the accumulation of possessions. Thus, they are more likely to describe themselves as happy or satisfied, as reflected in the World Values Study.

Here’s the good part. You can start now in this exact moment—picking up your phone or going home and saying what needs to be said, to whom you need to say it. Why are you waiting?

Remember, as the great theologian Meister Eckhart compelled, “If the only prayer you ever said, was ‘Thank you”, that would be enough.”