In many ways, my research has not only taught me new ways to think about how I want to live and love, it’s taught me about the relationship between my experiences and choices. One of the most profound changes in my life happened when I got my head around the relationship between gratitude and joy. I always thought that joyful people were grateful people. I mean, why wouldn’t they be? They have all of that goodness to be grateful for. But after spending countless hours collecting stories about joy and gratitude, three powerful patterns emerged:
- Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.
- Both joy and gratitude were described as spiritual practices that were bound to a belief in human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
- People were quick to point out the differences between happiness and joy as the difference between a human emotion that’s connected to circumstances and a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.
When it comes to gratitude, the word that jumped out at me throughout this research process is practice. I don’t necessarily think another researcher would have been so taken aback, but as someone who thought that knowledge was more important than practice, I found these words to be a call to action. In fact, it’s safe to say that reluctantly recognizing the importance of practice sparked the 2007 Breakdown Spiritual Awakening that changed my life.
For years, I subscribed to the notion of an “attitude of gratitude.” I’ve since learned that an attitude is an orientation or a way of thinking and that “having an attitude” doesn’t always translate to a behavior. For example, it would be reasonable to say that I have a yoga attitude. The ideals and beliefs that guide my life are very in line with the ideas and beliefs that I associate with yoga. I value mindfulness, breathing, and the body-mind-spirit connection. I even have yoga outfits. But, let me assure you, my yoga attitude and outfits don’t mean jack if you put me on a yoga mat and ask me to stand on my head or strike a pose. Where it really matters—on the mat—my yoga attitude doesn’t count for much.
So, what does a gratitude practice look like? The folks I interviewed talked about keeping gratitude journals, doing daily gratitude meditations or prayers, creating gratitude art, and even stopping during their stressful, busy days to actually say these words out loud: “I am grateful for . . .” When the Wholehearted talk about gratitude, there are a whole bunch of verbs involved. It seems that gratitude without practice may be a little like faith without works—it’s not alive.