Talks of gratitude abound this time of year, but most of us feel some measure of gratitude every day, even if we don’t recognize it as such. Gratitude, or being grateful is, by definition, being “appreciative of benefits received,” or, “affording pleasure or contentment.”
So, things as simple as acknowledging nice weather or relishing that first bite of a good meal are, in fact, the pleasing feelings of gratefulness, gratitude or thankfulness.
But I’ve come to believe that gratitude is much more than a feeling: It can also be a tool used for improving counterproductive emotions.
I came to this realization in a recent rereading of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning.” Therein he tells the story of a “young woman whose death (he) witnessed in a concentration camp.” He said that the young woman “knew that she would die in the next few days” and that “she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge.” Frankl revealed the source of her cheer being that she chose to be “grateful” over feelings of bitterness or anger. He concluded: “The state of the prisoner’s inner self was not so much the enumerated psychophysical causes as it was the result of a free decision.”
This discovery changed the way I thought of gratitude; transforming it from a passive feeling to an action verb. If the woman in this story — who, presumably, had already been stripped of her family, home, identity and freedom, and was soon facing death itself — could still decide to be grateful, then how much more should I endeavor to choose gratitude over anger and resentment in my own life?
That thought propelled me to begin making conscious, concerted decisions to replace natural, reactive feelings with a sense of gratitude instead.
When I’d ordinarily become infuriated at the gridlocked traffic in front of me, for example, I tried focusing on the uplifting words of the audiobook I was listening to instead. When I’d normally erupt after the 19th interruption in the space of two minutes from my 3-year-old, I chose to think about how I’ll feel when she’s a teenager and won’t want me around at all. And when I wanted to yell at my television over the latest political divide in Washington, D.C., I remind myself what our country would be like without democracy.
All three examples created the same initial emotional response in me, but in every case the feeling of anger was neutralized by an overwhelming sense of gratitude. In other words, I realized that if anger was my go-to emotion, then gratitude emerged as its ready antidote.
Too mawkishly sentimental or simplistic? Perhaps. But as I’ve repeated this exercise, I’ve tried to remind myself that no feeling has more power over me than the power I give it. Empowering gratitude by using it as a substitute for more natural inclinations has helped me to be the driver of my own emotions, not the passenger.
In so doing, I’ve experienced significantly less stress, appreciated important paradigm shifts, and enjoyed the pleasing and contented feelings that accompany gratitude instead of the negativity and hostility that accompany anger.
Trevor Noah recently revealed that before letting him take over as host for “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart told him “this show deserves a host who is not angry.” Adding that he needed to enjoy the humor he found in anything because “the day will come when you become so angry and frustrated that you won’t think anything is funny anymore.”
That’s an important warning, and it doesn’t apply only to late-night TV hosts. Anger, division and even hatred are far too commonplace in America today. Of course there are many potential countermeasures, but for me, choosing gratitude over anger has made the most measurable difference.
It doesn’t work every time, but it’s worth appreciating when it does.