What Is Gratitude and Why Does It Matter?

We all know we're supposed to be in a thankful mood at this time of year.  And of course we know – in an academic sort of way – that we have plenty to be thankful for.  But as we look around the world, at our own cities and neighborhoods, or maybe even into our own homes and relationships, we see things that don't make us happy.

The world is far from perfect.  Many horrible things are undeniably real.  It would be easy to just give up in despair, and believe me, I'm sometimes tempted.

But darkness is not all that exists.  Our world also contains so much beauty, and human beings can be brilliant and kind.

The feeling of gratitude doesn't require blindness to reality, but it is a choice.

women in an autumn orchard

Sometimes gratitude is easy.

Did you know Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti was a survivor of tetanus?

Just after WWII, as a boy of 12, Pavarotti was hospitalized with the disease.  He was in a coma for two weeks and given last rites twice.

This is what it's like to nearly die and then learn that you will live.  Pavarotti said,

It was the reason that I am an optimistic person, because when you come out from something like that, you are definitely a survivor.  Somebody would just say to himself in this dramatic moment, "I am going to make it.  I will enjoy life.  I will enjoy the sun, the sky, the trees, everything."

We all feel grateful when something good happens.  When our prayers are answered, we feel that God is with us.  It takes no effort to feel joyful in such a situation.

But many years later, when Pavarotti's second wife Nicoletta Mantovani was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he said,

You have to watch your sickness now like an opportunity, not like something bad that happened to you....  Now when you see a sunset, you really feel the sunset inside of you....  Even the perception of the important things in life changes.  You stop making drama for little things, you know?  Because you know that the real drama is something else.  You understand that you need to feel it and to live it.

Maestro Pavarotti is preaching me a sermon.

I've had a couple of hard things happen in my life, and I can tell you my first reaction was NOT to see them as opportunities.  I definitely felt that something bad was happening to me.

Gratitude is not our default behavior.

I often write about gratitude.  It's the name of this blog!  But it's far, far easier to give thanks when your life is going well than when you're going through a hard time.

In fact, even when almost everything is on the up and up, most of us (including me) make "drama for little things."  We may know that the real drama is something else, but we still bellyache about all of the little everyday annoyances.  We do it a lot.

  • We complain that gas went up again.
  • We whine about our neighbor and his dog.
  • We moan that we're so busy.
  • We gripe about slow service.
  • We scream about the idiot politician.

The 16th century Spanish priest St. John of the Cross understood this very well.  He wrote,

One act of thanksgiving made when things go wrong is worth a thousand when things go well.

That one act of thanksgiving shows patience.  It shows faith.  It helps us begin to cope with reality as we become emotionally and spiritually stronger.  In fact, without the ability to see something good and valuable in the middle of badness and despair, we would give up.  We would cease trying to do anything worthwhile, because what would be the point?

And after we all give up, what do you think the world will become?

This is why a gratitude practice is so important.  It changes your perspective and your life for the better.  It forces you to pay attention and focus on what's good.  Thankfulness enables you to keep bringing your best to the world.

Pavarotti is telling us to find some joy in life.  To notice the beauty all around us – the sun, the sky, the trees.  The birds and wildflowers.  The children – the ones who smile and wave as well as the ones who are shy.  The voice of someone who loves you.

Pay attention to goodness and you will feel more gratitude.  It will well up inside you.  It's how to "feel the sunset inside you."

Just as you can gain skill at maintaining your home, schedule, and budget, you can also get better at maintaining inner serenity and peace.  We can't control all the circumstances of our lives, but we have some control over our responses to them.  And we can mold our habits and even our brains toward positivity and happiness.

My book Simply Happy will show you how to change the way you look at the world, and help you pursue your joy.  Get a copy for yourself or a friend today.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

Even if you don't know anything about opera, I think you'll enjoy Ron Howard's documentary Pavarotti.  I dare you to listen to that man sing and not either cry or smile.


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