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Gratitude Comes From Noticing Your Life, Not From Thinking About It

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Every gratitude exercise I’ve ever done asks you to think about what you have to be grateful for. In other words, you brainstorm reasons you ought to feel grateful, whether or not you do.

You’ve probably done one of these before: writing five things you’re grateful for every night, recalling past good luck during difficult moments, or trying to remember, as often as possible, your privileges and advantages in life.

These exercises might be worthwhile on some level, but most of the time they don’t create much of a real-time, felt sense of gratitude. They just remind you of certain encouraging rote facts: on paper, your situation is pretty good; many parts of your life would be enviable to others; things could be worse.

As you might have noticed, simply making the case to ourselves that we have reasons to feel grateful doesn’t necessarily make us feel grateful.

Gratitude, when we do genuinely feel it, arises from experiences we are currently having, not from evaluating our lives in our heads. When you feel lonely, for example, simply remembering that you have friends is a dull, nominal comfort compared to how wonderful it feels when one of those friends calls you out of the blue. Reflecting on the good fortune of having a fixed address is nice, but stepping inside your front door after a cold and rainy walk home is sublime. 

The experience, not the idea, is what matters. So if you want to feel grateful, forget the thinking exercises. Look for your good fortune not in some abstract assessment of your life situation, but in your experience right in this moment. What can you see, feel, hear, or sense, right here in the present, that’s helpful, pleasant, or beautiful?

There’s always something, any time you look. Any interesting sensory experience or pleasant feeling will do: the warmth of a space heater, the cat on your lap, the play of sunlight on the table.

That’s the other important part: we don’t need to reserve our gratitude for the big, lifetime-scale conditions, such as health, economic class, or loved ones. In every moment, regardless of your problems, your experience is being improved and beautified by all sorts of small, often haphazard pleasures: the color of the sky, the embrace of this sweater, the protective shelter of this building, the peacefulness of this neighborhood, the taste of this coffee, the softness of this chair, the chirping of these birds, the alertness of your mind right now.

Of course, all the abstract, big-picture life conditions have their own corresponding present-moment pleasures, and they are what matter. Consider the world of difference between trying to appreciate the notion that you aren’t homeless, and appreciating the real-time experience of getting into bed in your own bedroom. That’s where your good fortune truly resides—in your experiences, not your thoughts.

Cultivating gratitude this way creates a completely different relationship to the good in your life than simply revisiting in your mind the logical reasons you ought to feel grateful. You’ll appreciate so much more of every day, even bad days, when you look for the small pleasures of present moment experience instead.

As I pour my coffee, steam billows out into the sunlight, creating a luminous, three-dimensional plume that would please anybody, as long as they were paying attention. When we seek our gratitude only by thinking and remembering, something as obscure as the beauty of sunlight passing through steam would never occur to us.

This sort of spontaneous gratitude is a natural side-effect of any mindfulness practice, because of the emphasis on noticing present-moment experience, but it’s well worth practicing on its own. It’s so simple. At any moment, you can ask yourself: what is happening here and now that’s pleasant, beautiful or helpful? Don’t just identify it—find the experience itself, the actual sight, sound or feeling, and enjoy it.

For me, at this moment, it’s wonderful that I have this warm drink. This hoodie feels great on my shoulders. This laptop is so quick; it doesn’t lag like the old one. The sky is pale and picturesque. My houseplants are doing well. This chair is comfortable. My neighbor is singing downstairs. I’m enjoying all of these details despite every unresolved big-picture problem I have.

My list of tiny pleasures might not sound so thrilling to you, and that’s fine. Again, it doesn’t matter how it feels to think about it. This practice creates many private experiences of gratitude you couldn’t easily explain to another person. I love the little triangle of sun in the corner of the table, how it’s almost equilateral by chance. I love the youthful green stem of my geranium, and its fuzz of infinitesimal white hairs. The pleasure of these sights is already mine; I don’t need to convince myself that they constitute a good reason to be grateful, and certainly no one else needs to understand.

Those pleasant little details may be small, but they’re not insignificant. They contribute to your well-being, and well-being is all that matters ultimately. Every moment contains so many pleasant, helpful or beautiful details, most of which we didn’t earn, aren’t entitled to, and may not be there next time we look. The shine of this bank’s polished floor. The solidity of this vehicle. The way the last of the water disappears down the sink.

Then, when you bring this same grateful awareness to the truly consequential conditions of your life—this steaming dinner in front of you, the warmth and safety of this kitchen, the presence of your loved ones around this very table, right in this moment—the heart overflows with thankfulness.

***
This post is adapted from one of the daily lessons in Camp Calm, a straightforward mindfulness course we hold a few times a year. We’re starting again soon. Join us this time! [More info]

Photo by Manu Franco

 

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Rose Pearson February 19, 2018 at 2:04 am

This was lovely. I have given the same advice, which of course made reading this particularly delightful. It’s a rare pleasure to be poetically validated. Once I was chirping away about what I call “active gratitude” as oppose to “passive gratitude” and my friend said that her gratitude journal saved her life. Ah, humble moments. I think the one does not substitute the other but that they serve different purposes. The writing exercises can be grounding, clarifying and generative of positive feelings especially when one is feeling down. While in the moment appreciation can be a way to be more fully present with coffee and other miracles.

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 8:59 am

Yes. And there are so many objects of gratitude that are almost impossible to describe. Just a feeling of abundance at the end of the day, a certain mood, the way a certain color makes you feel. It’s limitless, unlike the number of gratitude objects we can list when we sit down to think about it.

Zoe February 19, 2018 at 2:13 am

Beautifully put, David. Just the reminder I needed. Thank you.

Marie-Louise Dreyer February 19, 2018 at 2:39 am

Thank you David,

It is quite uncanny how often, as I become aware of certain lessons life is teaching me, you confirm them by your writings.

In Cape Town, we are currently experiencing a devastating drought, with the real risk of taps running dry by May this year. This would result in 3 million people having to que for 25 liters of water every day. Right now we are capped at 50 liters per person per day.

This might sound like a very negative experience, but it has resulted in a complete mind switch in our home.

We have come to the realisation that we have been taking so many things for granted.
Our relationship with water has become one of constant gratitude. Every drop is recycled, re-used and carefully measured. Our mindset has changed from fear of the unknown to gratitutude of having water in the taps today.
We celebrate the weather, regardless of whether it is blistering hot or blisfully overcast. On sunny days, we soak up the sun, drink some wine and enjoy the company of friends around a fire. On days where the is a possiblility of rain, we carry out buckets, connect flow tanks to our gutters and dance in the rain when it arrives.
We have become aware of the needs of our neighbours, as not everybody has the bodily strenght or means to collect and carry 25 liters of water from the collection points. We notice our abundance in all aspects of our lives, a full tank of fuel, fruit in the bowl, the sound of the kids laughing as they bathe in a bucket. Life has become an adventure, and a grateful one at it.
We could have succumbed to fear and doubt if we chose to. We decided that it takes up too much energy. No amount of fear is going to change the reality of what is right now.
A sense of adventure and gratitude, however, keeps us in the moment and allows us to stay focused on what is really real. This moment. This lesson. This growth experience that nothing can ever take away from us.

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 9:07 am

Thanks for this anecdote. One time we do really notice the value of our real-time conditions is when they change. When something value appears or leaves, we can more easily see its value. But everything that’s always there is easy to overlook.

Two years ago my city had a very minor E.Coli scare in our water supply, for about 24 hours. By afternoon store shelves were emptied of bottled water. It doesn’t take very much of an upset to the status quo to put our blessings in perspective.

Ron February 19, 2018 at 2:49 am

“The pleasure of these sights is already mine; I don’t need to convince myself that they constitute a good reason to be grateful, and certainly no one else needs to understand.”

One of many great statements in this excellent post, David.

It’s all too easy to live the majority of our waking hours in the meandering tunnels and elaborate structures of our own thoughts, sucking up our attention and blinding us to the multidimensionally creative moment continuously presenting itself to us – as you describe so beautifully.

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 9:13 am

Our thoughts are so much less interesting than the actual experiences we think about. And of course they are — we can’t even come close to getting our words and concepts around the richness of experiences. Try describing a sunset for example, or a scent, or the feeling of being in a room with a particular person. We can’t even scratch the surface of it with thoughts and words, but we can very easily experience it.

Antonio Bastos February 19, 2018 at 2:58 am

Gratitude is the first step to happiness and yes, it should be a feeling of gratefulness rather than a thought. It has such a liberating quality!

However, you may have a memory of something that has made you feel happy in the past and that you may want to replicate, such as swimming in the sea. The feel-good thought would remind you how good it feels when you immerse yourself in the ocean. Now, you are grateful that you live on the coast and that you can swim in the sea. From thought to reality.

In addition to asking yourself, “What am I grateful for in my life, right now?”, Tara Brach suggests that you also ask yourself the following question: “Please tell me, what do you love?”.

I find the latter very helpful because it may be difficult to know what we are grateful for but it is easier to know what we love, what gives us pleasure.

The happy memory is a trigger for something that you have experienced and if you can bring the experience back into your reality, that is something else to be grateful about.

I totally agree that gratitude can only be experienced in the “now”, this moment which is the only reality in your life. The past is just a thought and your future may or may not happen the way that you imagine.

Thank you for the great post.

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 9:15 am

There’s certainly nothing wrong with fond memories. But they are limited in their ability to generate gratitude compared to noticing blessings in real time. But when you’re far from the ocean your options are limited if you’re looking for a particular feeling.

Ashland February 19, 2018 at 3:05 am

It seems like a weird coincidence to see this email today. I have been deeply frustrated lately by my own inability to rationalize happiness and the disappointment it brings others. I think what bothers me is that it requires this huge leap – from one’s dark corner to a vista of grand perspective. And this article explains how to build the bridge – how to at least shape the first step, and bricolage from there. Just before I read this, I was sort of replaying the song Future Starts Slow by The Kills in my head and I had a fuzzy sense that it held a gem of advice for me, but the thought floated away as I weighed the options of opening this email vs. continuing to work. I think it’s like that… feeling better is a process, and no one ever tells you how to start. Thank you.

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 9:19 am

I don’t know if it takes a grand leap in perspective. I think feeling better is a matter of gradually learning better and better ways to relate to your experience in life, and all of that happens now. We talk about the present moment as though it’s a sliver of our lives, but it’s the whole thing. Nothing happens that isn’t in the present moment, even our memories and expectations. In my experience perspective comes in bits and pieces and it can take a while to internalize any given insight.

Bozena February 19, 2018 at 3:25 am

To me, practicing gratitude exercises (listing 5 things blah blah blah) was always frustrating – rather than feeling grateful I felt frustrated that despite having all the things to be happy, I was still miserable. That was depressing. Your method seems to be what I need. Thanks David.

Krisztina February 19, 2018 at 3:50 am

I was just going to write the same – this “think of 5 things to be grateful for” felt so “fake” all the time. Yes, it made me acknowledge the fact that I am/we are living a very privileged life, but it felt so forced and contrary to my intention of generating the sensation of gratitude inside.
I’ve always been “the weird one” in our family, the one who notices the wonderful shade of the sky or the funny shape of the clouds, or ask other people around whether they are also enjoying the delightful bird-songs (which they haven’t even noticed at that point) – I’ve been the butt of good-natured jokes since I was kid, but I never did mind: I enjoyed noticing these things. And that usually leads to “genuine”, organic gratitude.
Thank you for the wonderful article!

Cara February 19, 2018 at 5:19 am

Thank you for the reminder. I kept my daily meditation up for a solid month after Camp Calm ended and I didn’t realize it until now, but the mindfulness and gratitude of what’s in my present moment went with it. I’m looking forward to re-starting both. The nice thing about the present-moment awareness is that I can start again right here and now (which is the whole point), from the warmth of this cozy bed while the winds whip down off the mountains outside my door. Thank you.

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 9:22 am

It’s interesting how this happens. Mindfulness builds up gradually as we practice, and it stays with us for a while even after you slip away from it. But at a certain point you realize “Wow, I have certainly lost something since I stopped meditating.” Peace and gratitude don’t announce their exit, they just kind of slip away quietly. I wrote a post called “When peace goes away it doesn’t make a sound” to describe that phenomenon.

Rocky February 19, 2018 at 6:00 am

I awoke feeling pretty well rested. Grateful to see your beautiful art in my inbox. Many thanks David !

julie February 19, 2018 at 7:34 am

David, This. My god you’ve put my thoughts into the most eloquently worded post. Something I just could not do. I almost feel like crying from relief. Thank you, thank you. Cheers

Ginny February 19, 2018 at 8:18 am

David, this is one of your all-time greats. Beautifully put.

Jeff February 19, 2018 at 8:22 am

Thanks for this, David. You have such a way with words. I could never imagine describing those small moments of peace, appreciation and joy as well as you did in this post.

And also, thank you for a tangible reminder why I should keep sticking with my daily meditation habit :) “Small” benefits like those mentioned in the article are so beautiful, and can only be experienced, like you said.

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 9:26 am

Right, and meditation allows this to happen automatically, because you’re conditioning yourself to keep returning to present moment experience. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the only way to do it consistently. Otherwise we so easily get swept away by the mental narrative from moment to moment, and only notice our experience openly when something right there and then reminds us, and that doesn’t happen often enough to create a habit.

Lizzie February 19, 2018 at 8:33 am

Epiphany! As I read this article, I experienced one of those shifts in perspective and experience, similar to a tumbler sliding when a key is turning in a lock. As I’ve practiced daily gratitude writings, there has always been a hollowness or unease…almost a sense of hypocrisy. This aspect of mindful attentiveness in gratitude you have written of just shifted my universe. Thank you.

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 9:35 am

<3

Pietro February 19, 2018 at 8:46 am

I actually think there’s some value to practicing gratitude in an “analytic” way.
When I started writing in my gratitute journal I was kind of feeling down in the dumps, so I needed that momentum to turn my life around and prime my brain to look for things in my life that actually make it worth living (I was not suicidal or anything, I was just going through a difficult moment).
I wrote in my journal every day for about a year until I started noticing something: more and more often I’d feel appreciative of something/someone around me in the present moment and it felt really good.
Now I only write in my journal once a week, just to keep the momentum going, but I do agree with you that I tend to be more present and, as a result of it, more appreciative of what’s happening around me right here, right now.

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 9:38 am

There’s certainly room for logical assessments of our position in life, and in fact I don’t think we can avoid doing that, such as when we’re doing some life planning or strategizing. But as you said yourself, one of the great benefits of listing reasons to be grateful is that it makes you more likely to notice objects of gratitude in your experience as they happen. We can cultivate that habit directly, whether or not there are additional benefits from doing it analytically.

Mary February 21, 2018 at 8:57 am

I found the daily gratitude journal exercise to be the first step in living a more grateful life. After a while when I became aware of a great moment during the day I would think, “I’ll be writing this down!”. I no longer keep the journal, but think the initial exercise was instrumental in my living more in the present. Now I just say a thank you to the universe and take a moment to feel the gratitude.

Tracy February 25, 2018 at 10:11 am

Yes, Pietro. I agree the author missed the point of gratitude journals. Recording what we’re grateful for helps us to see more instances in each day (changes our brain and the lens through which we see the world), eliciting more of the experiential gratitude that author advocates. Having a written record also helps when a person cannot seem to drum up positive thoughts — just leaf through the journal to remember all the wonderful moments. Finally, the 2 can go hand in hand: feel gratitude throughout the day, all the special moments, and then savor them each night by writing them down.

Stubblejumpers Cafe February 19, 2018 at 8:56 am

I kept a 5 Things gratitude journal for a while, but it became repetitive. I was always grateful for the same things, every day! I didn’t need to remind myself.

Good post.

Kate

Klarita February 19, 2018 at 9:23 am

This is so on point, and such a joy for me to read. I try to do this every day and try to explain to others how doing it makes me content and at peace with myself and the world… it’s difficult. But thanks for the post, which for me was in itself the thing is spoke about – I experienced a conscious few minutes of gratitude, possibly most of all for being able to feel gratitude :)

David Cain February 19, 2018 at 9:41 am

Explaining isn’t always possible. I have struggled for years to communicate that I absolutely love the sensation of noticing the change in the feel of the air as I pass through a door, and I have no idea if anyone ever got it. But it is so clear to me whenever I do it, and maybe I’ll never get anyone else to appreciate it :)

eema February 19, 2018 at 10:00 am

lovely writtings, sitting here so happy and blessed. (not my usual state of being).
thank you

Sharon February 19, 2018 at 10:04 am

Thank you for this, David. Perfect for first thing this morning. A few weeks ago I was washing out a bottle (big deal, right?) but the soap suds made bubbles inside and some were pointy and beautiful shapes – it was an intricate universe right there. I had to tell a neighbour about it and show her, it was so exciting. It’s right on….the list of five things never worked and felt contrived. Also got to say you have some pretty great folks who are responding to your posts here….what they say makes a difference to me as well.

Chris Kuderka February 19, 2018 at 10:10 am

I looked up after reading this and spied my cat – asleep on the couch. He rose, stretched grandly, and then lazily curled back into a ball for the rest of his nap. It was glorious to watch and I probably would have missed it if I hadn’t just read this. Thank you.

Ani Castillo February 19, 2018 at 11:40 am

Dear David,

I loved this post, as usual!

The gratitude journal has been used for a couple of years within our family and it’s been transformative. Really! my kids started expressing gratitude for things I do, which they never did before.

Recently though, just like you, I came to the realization that we need something to help us feel grateful more in the moment to moment, so the gratitude is not relegated to be just another bed time ritual. I came up with a technique, which I illustrated with cartoons here, in case you wanna take a look:

https://www.instagram.com/p/BeRcUTbjzmp/?taken-by=anicastillo

I love when I see you’re thinking about things I was thinking about as well. For some reason I feel validated!

Thank you and all my best David,

Ani

Anne February 19, 2018 at 12:19 pm

Beautiful. I so often struggle with the “abstract” gratitude when things feel hard. Then I beat myself up because I “ought” to be grateful for all the blessings in my life, even if, at this moment I feel lonely or sad or whatever. Much more helpful to stay in the present moment and notice, say, the glorious daffodils in the vase in front of me. Thankyou.

Welmoet Glover February 19, 2018 at 1:12 pm

Thank you David so much for articulating this beautifully.
Settling my mind (enough to notice the moments in front of me) is the source of my every waking moment these days along with switching out of my mind into more of a feeling type of awareness. It’s beyond humbling to accept that I’m miserable at it despite years of walking this path.

Adam K February 19, 2018 at 4:42 pm

This is really an interesting way to look at it. The other way, i.e. essentially forcing myself to feel gratitude, makes me feel guilty that I didn’t feel it already.

Abhijeet Kumar February 19, 2018 at 6:45 pm

I haven’t had a lot of success writing a gratitude journal. It can help in the moment, but the effect is not as pronounced, as say when something real is felt. Loving attention on the moment is an irreplaceable practice. A lot of rephrasing that we all promote by sharing our little insights, are more real when they come from within. My ego is what it is. Fighting it, by attempting to rephrase can only work so much. But holding it with loving attention, and allowing moments to pass through, reality shows and rephrasing is spontaneous (often in ways I hadn’t predicted).

CARLA HEISTEN February 19, 2018 at 7:35 pm

Ah, so that explains it!…I do that, but hadn’t put it together with the explanation. I am alone a lot and friends wonder why I am not lonely or depressed. Sure, I get down a bit sometimes, but I see that bit of sun through the trees and how it shines in my window or how the energy is so softly peaceful and quiet as my dog snores, I watch how the fire in the stove burns, and how the lights turn on when I simply flip a switch. I live this and I am fullfilled. face palm moment. thanks!

Skip Sargent February 19, 2018 at 8:20 pm

Aw, David — how lovely, how true! Spiritual practice as instead just living naturally, the way we yearn to. Taking a single step in that direction, coming closer to the way we know we are. You speak it so well, inspiring that attainable one step at a time. Thank you, thank you!

Kimberly February 19, 2018 at 10:39 pm

hmmmm, if I didnt know better…. I might think you are simply trying to trick us into…..being …. happy ??? lol… LOVE this post and am living it!

Ms ZiYou February 20, 2018 at 4:30 am

I’ve done the gratitude exercise you describe, writing down thoughts and found it actually decreased my well-being and state of mind.

But once I was far less prescriptive and free, I became more naturally grateful. I went for a long run on Sunday, and found so many things that sparked joy….crocuses coming up, the water against the rocks, birds wading in the sand, and I was grateful that I am able bodied and could actually run.

Luise February 20, 2018 at 8:20 am

Love it, so true, thanks for the beautiful reminder that made me notice the warm sunlight that enters my window at this exact moment.

Maureen February 20, 2018 at 9:41 am

David, this was so life-affirming for me to read this today! I am not someone who is comfortable writing things down in a Gratitude Journal. It always felt fake and forced to me and after a short while, I have difficulty thinking of things to write down. I DO though very often notice little things like others have described, the play of light and shadow as the sun hits the curtains in late afternoon, the peacefulness of my sleeping cat, the warmth of the covers when having a lie-in bed to read a book…. but I always thought this was not enough! I am glad to see that you and others are like-minded and it gives me permission to enjoy my life like this without the pressure of feeling I am not grateful enough. I do keep a daily journal and am thinking of adding something to it called “What I Learned Today” (WILT) to just jot down new things that I learned that day – it might be fun to look back and see what I made note of.

lida February 20, 2018 at 2:07 pm

Love this article, David and somehow perfectly timed as I’ve been realizing the exact same sentiment these days. I even wrote a post about it here in my personal journal that I started recently. http://embersofjoy.com/2018/02/03/full-of-gratitude/#more-326

Simple things like the sun on my face and hot water magically appearing with the turn of a faucet makes me feel so immensely grateful these days. I find along with this feeling of noticing life and being thankful brings along more empathy for others than I ever felt before too. Do you notice that? It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking sometimes.

Mary-Anne February 21, 2018 at 1:26 am

I related to every word in this post, often reading some sentences twice over because this article in itself was one of those exact moments. Thank you David.

Cookie February 22, 2018 at 9:05 am

I do this daily as well. I call it looking for small signs of beauty. After doing the gratitude journal, I, too, find this form of daily meditation on small beauty and small daily things to be thankful for much more life changing.

chichi February 23, 2018 at 9:11 am

This post resonates with me 100%, i always felt so but could never decipher so beautifully! The magic truly lies in the small details.
http://www.thestyletune.com

Sudhir February 24, 2018 at 2:21 am

For many years, I have been writing 3 things that have happened in the last 24 hours, that I am grateful for. Though I do find that I am repeating myself, I also realise that there are so many nice things that are happening to me/around me. When I am writing this, I feel grateful to my family members, friends, external circumstances, etc. on a regular basis and, it really makes me feel nice.

Md Nayeem February 28, 2018 at 7:49 am

Hey David!! I’m pretty late to mention about your post- “If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly”, it was great!! And, off course this one is also good. Actually, Gratitude from heart or mind, have a pure beauty. We should exercise this behavior more & more to make our mind broader…..

Eric March 1, 2018 at 12:17 pm

This may be your best post ever! Hyperbolically speaking.

Eva Alanis March 2, 2018 at 1:34 pm

You are so right David “The experience not the idea”
When I read that I could only thought about how grateful you feel to find a bathroom (or get home to yours) when you need one badly….sorry that’s not as romantic or poetic as other comments but it’s so tangible to women, especially the ones who had been pregnant at some point of their lives.

Katie March 3, 2018 at 6:08 am

This reminded me a little of how small children see the world. They may not be feeling the gratitude we feel as they are not yet old enough to understand the concept perhaps, but the wonder and awe they get from the every day minutia…is that something that gets lost as we grow into adults? We have to work to keep it. It’s like “play” – not many adults have “play” in their lives anymore…

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