The following is an excerpt from an early draft of Kathryn Haydon's upcoming book. We couldn't let Thanksgiving pass without sharing these thoughts on how gratitude supports a strengths mindset. Copyright 2017 Sparkitivity, LLC. All rights reserved.
We live in a striving, fast-paced world where we’re under constant pressure to do more, faster, better. We have access to every material item we could want at the touch of a pay button, and we are barraged with a constant stream of what everyone else has and what everyone else is doing. Yet, more than ever, we feel dissatisfied with life. A myriad of forces churn us forward like white water current, stripping us of our balance. Gratitude can help us right the scale, pause to “be” in the midst of doing, and think outside of ourselves.
In 2015, Scott Barry Kaufman reported on a study he ran with Susan Cain and Spencer Greenberg that investigated the relationships among character strengths and well-being. The researchers found that gratitude, along with love of learning, were the top two of 24 character strengths that are most predictive of well-being. In other words, gratitude leads to a healthier, happier life. It’s always refreshing when modern science confirms long-standing ideas. Gratitude is a virtue that has been hallowed for centuries by all of the major religions worldwide, and by philosophers like Cicero and Marcus Aurelius.
Gratitude helps us develop and maintain a mindset of strengths. When we are grateful, we are more open to seeing what is good. Gratitude is another side of the coin, like curiosity, that opens the door to possibility, which the expression of creative strengths ignites. Gratitude helps us understand and accept who we are. With gratitude, we gain perspective and with perspective, we gain freedom, and with freedom, we gain power.
When we’re accustomed to living in an achievement mentality, it can feel almost impossible to step off the treadmill. But if we don’t, we can begin to feel threadbare. A dear friend of mine is the most grateful person I know. He has a peaceful presence and I, feeling like I’m in a perpetual footrace, wondered one day how he came to be that way. In grade school, he kept a journal, writing a “grateful for” every night for at least a couple of years. This set him up with a lifelong mental framework of gratitude.
I recently came across a tattered notebook from high school that was perhaps a halfway step toward gratitude. My friends and I titled the notebook Sonrisas, Spanish for "smiles," a false cognate for sunrise, and my favorite word in that language. It was a running list of things that made us smile. The 2,390 entries include inside jokes, insights, and things that only children of the 20th century can appreciate like “stamps that stick without having to lick them” and “Mr. Rogers’ sandbox when he’d go out and play.” It was silly but it was also actively appreciating the little things around us enough to take the time to write them down. It was definitely fun and made us happy.
When I’m feeling frazzled, I know that I’ve neglected gratitude. An easy fix is to hand write a note to someone in my life for whom I am grateful. Email works, too, but I’m a holdout on putting pencil to actual paper. However you do it —note, text, email, phone call, coffee talk—specifically appreciating someone for something they did, said, or the way they are is not only kind but improves your own well-being.
To go a step beyond people, we can be grateful to a higher power for the good in our lives and even for the challenges that cause us to grow. It helps to write down thoughts until this thinking becomes natural. A friend gave me a tool that is helpful and fun—the Gratipad designed by R. Nichols. With colorfully designed birds at the top, there are five words printed on each sheet: “Today I am grateful for” followed by numbers one through five and just enough space to write. The back of the pad reads, “Fill out one sheet today. Tear off and put in your pocket. Read often. Repeat tomorrow.”
Gratitude comes in many forms and can be expressed through the work that we do—how we care for a loved one, the food we cook, the way we trim our plants, or even how we design an Excel spreadsheet. Many of Mary Oliver’s poems, to me, seem like little notes of gratitude:
by Mary Oliver
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety—
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light—
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
Gratitude helps us maintain a strengths-based mentality. And, when we are in a strengths-based mentality, it is easier to be grateful. We have already flipped the paradigm to a new mental position, a position of autonomy versus victimhood, of strengths versus weakness, of love versus fear. A place to begin is to appreciate the creative strengths themselves and to appreciate each opportunity to use them.