In her book the Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown makes a distinction between the act of feeling grateful and the act of practicing gratitude. I will confirm after several years of practicing gratitude that there is indeed a difference in feeling versus practicing. Practicing gratitude leads to happiness, feeling grateful is in the end, rather hollow. Similarly, I have found that being of service to others provides a deeper quality of happiness than waiting for people to do things for you.
Selfish and unsatisfied people feel grateful. I know, because I have been one. I have never exactly been a narcissistic materialistic brat, but I have been very self-centered in my life. This is a difficult lesson to learn. Brene Brown made the distinction clear for me, but I was open to it, because of two people in my life, a cousin and my husband.
My cousin has been living with cancer for nearly a decade now. When she was first diagnosed it sounded rather grim and she was very concerned about the possibility even seeing her son graduate from high school, let alone university. Certainly, her pain and suffering were more complicated than that, but from my outsider’s view and as a mother to a young boy, this is what caught my attention. The next thing that caught my attention was my cousin’s external demonstration of gratitude and appreciation. Her awareness that she was not alone in her suffering. She could have thrown in the towel and cried “poor me” and she must have had moments in private, where she wanted to do that, but from the outside, what I saw, is that she started to provide service to those who also suffered. She took on organizing an annual Relay for Life fundraiser, she defined herself not as a victim or a survivor and she participated in other events to raise both money and awareness for cancer. And she learned to ask for support versus cry “victim.”
Several years into my cousin’s experience, I experienced a different succession of turning points in my life. Most significant of which was a divorce followed by a remarriage. A year after I remarried, I also moved across the Atlantic to join my new husband in France. On one level I was very happy, I had taken risks and I knew I was alive and living with potential. At the same time, I had an underlying feeling of dissatisfaction.
One day my husband and I had an argument, I couldn’t tell you the subject of our disagreement, but during the argument, my husband told me I was selfish. At first, I was aghast that he could think that I who had given up so much, worked for nonprofits and put other people first, could be called selfish. And then I was indignant.
I was indignant for a few days, maybe even a week. My husband slept on the couch. And then I realized that maybe he had a point. My vision was selfish. My first thought was me. If I do X, how will it affect ME? If he does Y, how will it affect me? Indeed, I was unsatisfied, because I was overly focused on how just about everything had an influence on ME. I felt grateful, but I did not practice gratitude. I had a new appreciation for my husband and for my life.
And so, watching my cousin, listening to my husband and following the advice of Brene Brown, in the fall of 2015, I started to practice gratitude. I started to look at how I could be of service to others. And I discovered a much deeper level of happiness. Today, I would say that when I think of certain people (my mother, my father, my husband, for example), the first emotion I have is a great welling up of gratitude, followed by a deep feeling of unconditional love. It is a very different feeling than simply “being grateful.”
I am going to share the definition of indignant with you, because prior to the shift in my practices, I felt grateful, while I practiced being indignant.
- feeling or showing anger or annoyance at what is perceived as unfair treatment.
- “he was indignant at being the object of suspicion”
I want to go into this in more detail because I get the sense when I go out in the world that I am not the only one who has felt grateful, while practicing being indignant. Here are some examples:
- When I worked in Denver, I regularly felt indignant when another driver cut me off or gestured to me rudely. I felt indignant when the bus driver didn’t wait for me as I ran up to the stop right as the bus left (it was I who was late, not the driver).
- I was indignant when people gave me helpful and useful advice.
- I was indignant when somebody else received a gift or went on a vacation or generally received something that I had never received.
- I was indignant when my mother gave me advice at age 30 that I thought was more appropriate for someone at age 20.
- I was indignant that I had to pay off school loans, that I had to work in customer service that I didn’t live in a palace…you get my drift.
- I was indignant when people didn’t mail me Christmas cards after my divorce or when I moved overseas.
- I was indignant when the grocery store clerk made a mistake…
- You get my drift…
When I first realized the difference between feeling and practicing gratitude, I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling of love, not just for myself and my close family and friends, but for everyone in the world. At the time I was pregnant and so I thought that perhaps my hormones were promoting an overabundance of love and gratitude. However, several years into the practice, when I am grounded and centered, I still feel this some outpouring of love for everyone and everything. My gratitude and my love run deep.
It is an ongoing practice and sometimes I fall off the bandwagon and return to a state of indignance, but each day and each week, it is easier to recenter and find my gratitude practice. The joy it brings is particularly motivating.
Come back tomorrow and I will try and demonstrate how to practice gratitude because I realize that today I have told you about my experience, but I haven’t quite given you the key to unlocking your own gratitude practice. I want to share this joy with you because I love you.