The Art and Science of Gratitude

The Art and Science of Gratitude

It’s encouraging to hear rigorously attained research findings about gratitude that validate what we would hope would be true about any practice that brings us out of fear, stress and negativity into trust, connection, and well-being.

Last Friday, another cutting-edge confluence of relational psychology, neuroscience and mindfulness practice. Building Gratitude, the latest seminar in the Greater Good Science Center’s series on The Science of a Meaningful Life. Bob Emmons, PhD, psychology professor at U.C. Davis, the pioneering researcher on the power of gratitude to heal, energize and transform our lives. (His research findings on the impact of gratitude on physical, mental and relational well-being are in Reflections below; his empirically-validated tools to cultivate gratitude as a way of life in Exercises below.) Rick Hanson, PhD, neuropsychologist, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, offered tools for self-directed neuroplasticity, including how awareness of “taking in the good” turbo-charges brain change in a wholesome direction. Following Pema Chodron’s Smiling at Fear retreat the previous weekend, an abundance of practices of opening the heart that keep us grateful, even in the hardest of circumstances.

May these reflections and tools be useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on The Art and Science of Gratitude

The most important message of the day on Building Gratitude was that gratitude practices quickly move us beyond a “feel good” affirmation for the blessings of life, as important as that first step is. Gratitude practice rests in the awareness and appreciation that the gifts of life are a gift, that the sources of these gifts are largely beyond ourselves, coming to us through other people, from life itself, and so the awareness and appreciation of our gratitude practice opens us up to a fundamental approach to life that guide us toward healing and awakening, being grateful even more potent than feeling grateful.

I am, therefore I thank.
-Cindy Lubar Bishop

Steps in the arc of gratitude

1. Recognizing that a gift, benefit, blessing, has even happened. Literally, re-cog-nizing – knowing anew. Registering in our consciousness that something positive, beneficial, helpful has just occurred, even “waking up” years later to the benefit of something we didn’t notice at the time.

2 Recognizing the gift AS a gift, taking things AS granted rather than FOR granted. The insight that we have indeed been blessed, that we didn’t have to earn or deserve this gift. Contemplating the miraculousness of every breath sustaining our very existence is a good place to start with this step, let alone that our eyes see and/or our ears hear. The quivering of the heart in gratitude for the gratuitousness – the grace – of the blessings of life, begins right here.

There are many things to be grateful “for” but, as I ripen with the seasons of life, the many reasons blend into a sacred mystery. And, most deeply, I realize that living gratefully is its own blessing.
– Michael Mahoney

3 Recognizing that the ongoing process of giving and receiving is, by definition, relational. We receive gifts, every moment, through other people. Bob suggested two practices that really illustrate this wisdom.

a.Unpack any achievement

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.
– Albert Einstein

Reflect on anything you have accomplished that you feel deservedly proud of. As you begin to reflect on the people, known and unknown, that have contributed to your achievement, you begin to see the cycle of giving and receiving itself. The first grade teacher who taught you to read and write, and the newspaper columnist whose ideas shaped your perceptions of the world last week. The fourth grade teacher who taught you long division, the friend in college who taught you to balance your checkbook, and the car dealer who helped you find a used car within your budget last month. Everything that happens in our living rests in this cycle of giving and receiving. Our gratitude rests in awareness and appreciation of that cycle.

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
– Albert Schweitzer

b.Unpack any day. Similarly, we open our awareness and appreciation to how many people keep our world going as we move through it. If I think about the day I spent learning about gratitude, I begin to open up to the farmer who raised the chickens who laid the eggs that I ate for breakfast that morning. (Let alone all the harvesters, transporters, packagers, distributors, stockers and clerks at the grocery store along the way, or folks who invented the electric stove and manufactured stainless steel frying pans, etc.) The person taking the toll on the bridge or the man who parked my car for me because I couldn’t fit it into the space myself. The person I sat next to who told me of a We Theater production of Hamlet on Alcatraz (for real, the National Park Service sponsoring in vivo Shakespeare in the formal federal prison.) Becoming aware of the cycles of giving and receiving expands our awareness of the real world wide web of inter-connectedness.

Or behind the scenes, someone testing water quality at the municipal reservoir so that when I stop at the water fountain on a break, I have drinkable water to drink. Medical staff at the local hospital, right now, in case I slip on the steps outside on a rainy day on my way back to the parking garage, break a bone in my foot or wrist, and have to be rushed to the emergency room. People working at the local gas station ready to help me fill up my gas tank on the way home. Or my friend Eric on call 4 days a week to clean up a hazardous waste spill that might occur on a public highway on the way home. So many people staffing airports, grocery stores, fire stations, people growing our food and recycling our garbage, the web of life that keeps our life going, moment to moment to moment.

Our stream of thought has been working to create an impression of an isolated “self,” set apart from all others, which appears real, substantial, and thereby seemingly safe. Although we have all believed such thoughts of “self” as something isolated from and over against others, we have never existed in that way. Therefore, we can never become happy or fulfilled by pretending to exist in that way. Rather, we have always existed in much deeper relationship to all others, who in their innate nature of goodness and their self-centered habits of thought are like alternative versions of ourselves. That is the reality of our existence.
– John Makransky

c.Unpack any complaint.

I’m interweaving here how gratitude for the gifts of life, for life itself, is the bottom line of any misfortune or difficulty.

Two thirds of the way into writing this newsletter – I’m not making this up – my sister-in-law phoned to tell me my 60 year old brother had been rushed to the hospital with shortness of breath and pain in his chest. Turns out he has a blood clot in his right lung and several clots in both legs. When Mary handed the phone to Barry to talk with me directly, I dove right into telling him how much I loved him, of course, and was glad he was still alive, of course. And then, in the midst of all the uncertainty and dreadful possibilities, I began to feel my own gratitude for our connection in that very moment, 2,000 miles apart. The presence of him still in my life. With his life balancing on an intravenous drip of blood thinner, I suggested he try a gratitude practice. (I’m a nerd immersed in the science of gratitude, I know, but I’m a quick-thinking nerd.) To my surprise, he readily went along with the practice, right there on the phone, that Mary was right there by his side, that the doctors clearly cared and seemed to know what they were doing, that his beloved poodles were safe at home, that the nurse brought him a drink of water as soon as he asked for it. A full 5-minute litany of all there was to be grateful for, even at death’s door.

The many objective benefits of a gratitude practice are listed below. In the moment of the phone call with my brother, and now as I enter the story into the computer, there was also the palpable blessing of relational presence, honoring the gift of life as a gift.

4. Honoring the sources of the gifts we are grateful for. As we focus our awareness and appreciation on the cycles of giving and receiving, every gift becomes a symbol of that cycle. The umbrella lent us just when we needed it, the vase that holds new flowers season after season, the towel we relish after every morning shower, objects that remind us, every time we use them, of the person who gave them to us, and more deeply, the goodness of that person’s intentions. Honoring the sources of our blessings opens us to the web of inter-connectedness of all of life, to life itself as the ultimate Source.

This is how gratitude practice becomes a fundamental approach to life. According to Bob Emmons, grateful people tend to see the world through a lens of abundance rather than scarcity, see what life is offering rather than what life is denying, see life as a gift rather than as a burden, have a sense of satisfaction rather than a sense of deprivation. We are so indebted to all there is for all of who we are.

Impact of Gratitude on Health and Well-Being

Bob Emmons’s research on gratitude began with a fairly simple experiment, asking one group of students to write down three “benefits” a day for 10 weeks – i.e, enjoying a haircut or a car stopping for them at an intersection. He asked another group to write down three “burdens” a day – a roommate overcooking dinner or not removing the lint from the dryer. A third group wrote down three neutral things a day – describing the living room furniture – for ten weeks.

Hundreds of replicated studies, with diverse populations, and a hundred published articles later, Bob and other researchers have identified the following benefits to a daily gratitude practice. (These make sense. We could take this good news about gratitude for granted, but we can also be grateful for the many dedicated folks who have put gratitude – and even happiness – on the research radar.)

People who have a daily gratitude practice:

* consistently experience more positive emotions
* feel more alert, energetic, enthused, alive
* sleep better
* have lower blood pressure
* are more likely to accomplish personal goals
* more likely to exercise and stick with a self-improvement program like losing weight.

Gratitude practice

*helps block toxic emotions like envy, resentment, regret, hostility, depression,
* re-focuses attention away from stress and worry
* brings closure to unresolved traumatic memories
* improves longevity (by 7-9 years)
* strengthens social ties (people feel more connected to people, less lonely and isolated)
* improves a sense of self-worth.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, corroborates these findings in her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. She asserts that gratitude:

*Helps us savor positive life experiences
*Bolsters self-worth and self-esteem
*Helps us cope with stress and trauma
*Encourage moral behavior
*Strengthens relationship
*Inhibits comparing with others
*Diminishes negative emotions
*Keeps us from taking joys for granted and thus extends our joy.

Gratitude, in other words, optimizes our functioning as human beings, and provides an essential foundation to our personal well-being.

You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life.
– Sarah Ban Breathnach

The Neuroscience of Gratitude

fMRI imaging is not yet sophisticated enough to scan a complex emotional behavior like gratitude. I.e., gratitude is not one basic emotion like anger or sadness or shame, with its own discrete physiological markers of identifiable facial expressions or scannable neural firing patterns.

But neuropsychologist Rick Hanson led us through the basic self-directed neuroplasticity – training the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better – of stimulating and strengthening the neural substrates of a practice like gratitude.

1. Attention: neuroplasticity is heightened for what’s in the field of focused awareness. “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Therefore, sustained attention on what we are grateful for, on the process of giving and receiving itself, strengthens the circuits in the brain for gratitude. “Directing attention skillfully is therefore a fundamental way to shape the brain – and one’s life – over time.” In a conversation just two days prior to this seminar, I heard Rick suggest “making your receiving of the giving the object of your attention” as an excellent way to deepen one’s experience of gratitude.

2. Negativity bias There are lots of good reasons why “taking in the good” is counter-intuitive to how our brains have evolved for the survival of our species; why, in Rick’s phrase, our brains have a bias like Velcro for the negative, Teflon for the positive. Please see Rick’s Taking in the Good in Exercises below for more details about the negativity bias.

3. Let be, let go, let in

Mindfulness is a great aid in simply being with any negativity that is arising, letting it go without taking it personally, and then letting is the good that is already there, ready to be recognized.

4. Taking in the good When we intentionally take in the good we are building resources in our neural circuitry to act as a buffer against stress, negativity, trauma, and to promote our brain’s (thus mind’s) flexibility and resilience.

a. seek out positive experiences or the recognition of them; let positive facts become positive experiences;
b. savor the positive experience for 10-20-30 seconds; let it register in your awareness and encode in your neural circuitry;
c. soak the sensations of the positive experience into your body so that they can register deeply in implicit emotional memory.

Taking in the good then becomes the neural substrate for
a) Personal gratitude as part of our character, a personal virtue that is foundational for a meaningful life.

Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues; it is the parent of all others.
– Marcus Tullius Cicero

b) Gratitude that motivates us to give back, to re-pay in some way all that we have received. Gratitude is thus a key component of the altruism that sustains a compassionate society.

The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy. I mean that if your are happy, you will be good.
– Bertrand Russell

c) Gratitude that, as any practice that opens the heart, acts as a gateway to the sacred. Awe, reverence, wonder, so naturally opens our hearts to gratitude – whether in the vastness of nature, the magic of a resonant conversation, the benevolence of Being itself.

Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.
– Rabbi Abraham Herschel

I’ve mentioned James Baraz’s Awakening Joy course in this newsletter many times. The third of the ten steps in awakening joy is gratitude, right after setting intention and mindfulness of what is. From leading Deepening Joy groups in support of the Awakening Joy course, I’ve seen many times gratitude practice can be the most reliable access we have to the goodness of our true nature and the goodness of the true nature of others. Gratitude practices taps us into the energy field of life itself, from which comes all joy, compassion, forgiveness, etc.

Bob Emmons did point out that when life is hard, gratitude can be hard. In the face of difficult circumstances, we can succumb to a pervasive negativity. We can succumb to a sense of entitlement. We can become busy, distracted, forgetful. We can have a hard time surrendering to the dependency and inter-dependency we have with others. We can be traumatized by life events and not have the inner resources to cope.

Even so, gratitude can be the practice that lifts us out of all of that. James Baraz writes in Awakening Joy: “Gratitude in our darkest times is more than a matter of remembering our blessings so we can hold the hard stuff in a bigger perspective. With understanding, we see that often it is the suffering itself that deepens us, maturing our perspective on life, making us more compassionate and wise than we would have been without it. How many times have we been inspired by those who embody a wisdom that could only come from dealing with adversity? And how many valuable lessons have we ourselves learned because life has given us unwanted challenges? With a grateful heart, we’re not only willing to face our difficulties, we can realize while we’re going through them that they are a part of our ripening into wisdom and nobility.”


Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.
– Melodie Beattie

* * * * *

When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.
– Maya Angelou

* * * * *

For all that has been thanks; to all that will be, yes.
– Dag Hammarskjold

* * * * *

From experience we know that whenever we are truly awake and alive, we are also truly grateful.
– David Steindl-Rast

* * * * *

A thankful person is thankful under all circumstances. A complaining soul complains even in paradise.
– Baha’u’llah

* * * * *

If you look to others for fulfillment,
You will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
You will never by happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
Rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
The whole world belongs to you.
-Lao Tzu


A practice of gratitude, like all practices, can be a refuge in times of trouble, a resource to help us keep going, a way to come into loving presence in the moment, an antidote to the complaining mind, a way to shift focus away from a funk, a way to open the heart as well as to clear the mind. When we pause to notice what we usually take for granted, we change how we perceive and respond to experience in life We see what is filling and fueling our lives rather than what is missing. As we cultivate the habit of being grateful, the mind naturally comes to rest on the goodness of our lives. If you have the intention to awaken gratitude, over time it will gradually become the natural rhythm of your heart. Gratitude becomes a whole new way of being, strong enough to hold even suffering. When we’re faced with challenges, gratitude opens us to a larger perspective that helps us more effectively address them. And that way of being further shapes how we perceive and respond to life with greater and greater acceptance, ease and joy.

In a gathering last month of good folks to study the neurodharma of gratitude, many of the stories people shared focused on the power of illness or death to crack us open to the heart of what matters most, and how we can find moments of gratitude even under the most strained of circumstances.

I’ve shared these excerpts of e-mails from my friend Bonnie Jonsson before (May 2008 e-newsletter on Equanimity); I offer them here again as an eloquent example of how gratitude practice can carry us through our deepest troubles, even battling breast cancer:

#1. FINALLY I got the result of the test I’ve been waiting for and it shows an intermediate risk for recurrence. That has helped me to decide to have chemo. I start next Tuesday. I will have just 4 treatments with 3 weeks in between. Then there will be a rest time and I’ll start 4 weeks of radiation at high dose.

I feel positive about this. Just sad that we’ll miss Sweden this summer.

I consider this a powerful retreat coming up – a spring retreat.

#2. Just a few words to let you know I’m doing well now. The first chemo was pretty rough – I took all the anti-nausea drugs, was disgusted with sweets and craved protein, then had a few not so bad days followed by severe white blood cell drop. Those days were hard. I had daily shots, went on an anti-biotic, was told to stay away from groups of people and not eat salads, had severe back pain – one night like labor pain, and was totally wiped out. This week has been almost normal.

Next week I postponed my second chemo to celebrate my birthday and have my head shaved (my hair is now beginning to fall out) by a Tibetan Rinpoche at a ceremony at the community where I teach.

Emotionally I’ve been well. My heart broke open the second week, being at the cancer center with so many people with cancer. I felt very much a part of it and very much a part of life that can be difficult for us people. My heart breaking was a good thing.

Mostly I’ve been with what’s happening – not wishing it away and not wanting it to be over. It’s my practice. My intention for this year is to be mindful – really being with what is. I already know everything is impermanent – just trying to live it.

#3. Life has become more of a practice than ever. The 2nd round of chemo has been difficult but “I” don’t add to it. What I feel most is gratitude. I cry now just feeling this. I’m perhaps more than ever aware of dukkha – of politics and why there are rice shortages, of complicity and abuse. Yet when I woke up the other day and looked at the full moon through the skylights – clouds surrounding it then moving to cover it, AHHHHHHHH. Life.

I am now bald. I feel like a turtle out of its shell – vulnerable. I am grateful for this. It gives me the chance to have new imprints. I choose to let-go. I choose to give and receive without the habitual lens that covers. When the clouds move in again, as they do, they pass away. Its ok.

This chemo retreat requires everything. What I’m finding at its core is: everything is everything.

#4. This last treatment was quite difficult. There is a cumulative affect that affects energy levels. I can’t walk hills, but this week I can walk. I love going to Point Isabel and being with dogs and people who love dogs – quite an uplifting bunch.

I’ve not been wishing this experience away or wanting time to pass – that would mean I’d miss the real benefit of doing very little. Mostly I sit in my yard and read. Often I don’t have the concentration or physical strength to “sit” – and my yard and all the sights and sounds are a wonderful meditation of being with what is. I’m very grateful for the beautiful spring days.

Last week I realized, when energy returned, that I am over the top of the wave of chemo treatments. One more with no more to follow. AHHHHH Chemo is poison and this body feels it. The addition of Chinese medicine, supplements, acupuncture and massage helps to bring balance to this toxic environment.

This week we decided to go to our little summer house in Sweden after all. I am so grateful.

Wishing you mindfulness of the preciousness of this life.
– Bonnie

[Bonnie and I hiked together in her beloved Point Isabel just a few weeks ago. Two years in remission, Bonnie is healthy, vibrant, radiant, vigorous, and whole.]

EXERCISES TO PRACTICE The Art and Science of Gratitude

I’ve included the tools and techniques taught by Bob and Rick in the Greater Good seminar below, with some commentary. Below that, I’ve included exercises I’ve used in the Deepening Joy groups, with deep gratitude for several of them to M.J. Ryan (Attitudes of Gratitude) and James Baraz (Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Put You on the Road to Real Happiness).

Top Ten Tips for Building Gratitude by Robert Emmons [and my commentary]

1. Make a vow to practice gratitude:

[Setting an intention is one of most powerful tools we have to re-focus our attention in a new direction, thus create new experiences and thus new circuits in our brains, thus change our brains and thus our patterns of thinking and behaving. Setting intentions to do any of these practices below greatly increases the likelihood you will actually do them. Being accountable to a “gratitude buddy” also creates an accountability to our gratitude practice that can be mutually beneficial.]

2. Keep a Gratitude Journal:

Establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy. Set aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life. You are creating the potential to interweave in your life a sustainable theme of gratefulness.

[to extend this highly effective “gratitude intervention”:

a. share your daily gratitude with others; e-mailing or voice-mailing a friend, sharing gratitudes with family members at dinner or bedtime.

b. ask yourself: What did I enjoy today? What brought me satisfaction or contentment? What did I experience today that was new? What life lessons did I learn today? What brought me delight or surprise?

c. develop your own research project, as Bob had his students do. As you write down the blessings you are grateful for, also notice your moods, your thoughts and stories and belief systems, your behaviors, notice any changes as you pursue your gratitude practice.

3. Come to your senses:

Through our senses – the ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear – we gain an appreciation of what it means to be human and of what an incredible miracle it is to be alive. Seen through the lens of gratitude, the human body is not only a miraculous construction, but also a gift.

[Patricia Ellsberg elaborated on this beautifully in her Open in Gratitude meditation for the Awakening Joy course:

Open in gratitude:

…for the breath that nourishes every cell in your body and has sustained you from the moment you were born.
…for the miracle of your body that, despite whatever weaknesses or limitations, serves you and allows you to sense the wonders of the world.
…for your brain that coordinates all the functions of your body without your even being aware of it.
…for consciousness that allows you to perceive, feel, and be amazed.
…for the eyes that allow you to see the abounding beauty that surrounds you – colors and shapes, the face of a loved one.
…for the ears that enable you to hear birds singing, wind rustling in leaves, words people say to you, and the laughter of children.
…for the sense of smell that allows you to enjoy the fragrance of flowers the scent of fresh air, your favorite food.
…for your mouth and tongue that enables you to taste the fruits of the earth, to enjoy a ripe peach or chocolate melting in your mouth.
…for the skin that protects you and yet allows you to touch and sense the world, feel warmth, coolness, softness, and the touch of a loved one.
…for your heart that beats faithfully your whole life, from even before you were born.

Open to a sense of wonder and gratitude for the amazing gift of being awake and alive in this precious human form. The fact that we exist or that anything exists at all is a wondrous mystery. We all live in the midst of a miracle.]

4. Use visual reminders:

Because the two primary obstacles to gratefulness are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness, visual reminders can serve as cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude. Often times, the best visual reminders are other people. [Bob gave many examples of visual reminders in the daylong ; one I liked best was creating a new e-mail signature that expresses gratitude.]

5. Watch your language:

Grateful people have a particular linguistic style that uses the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, and abundance. In gratitude, you should not focus on how inherently good you are, but rather on the inherently good things that others have done on your behalf.

[Bob’s emphasis on language is corroborated by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, who has found that people using positive language more than negative – “cure” rather than “remission” improve their health and even their longevity. James Baraz instructs his students to change every “I have to…” to “I get to…” and notice the difference in attitude.

There’s a delightful video on YouTube of James suggesting to his 89 year old mother Selma Baraz that after every complaint or whine, she add the phrase “…and my life is truly blessed.” She did. The transformation in attitude is a thorough delight.

6. Think outside the box:

If you want to make the most out of opportunities to flex your gratitude muscles, you must creatively look for new situations and circumstances in which to feel grateful.

[Not even 24 hours after last Friday’s seminar, someone ran into my car in the grocery store parking lot. No real damage to either of us or either car, but in that moment I was very aware of a friend dealing with the aftermath of being rear-ended in town, car totaled, now in serious chiropractic and physical therapy, and took a moment to thank the person who hit me for being so gracious about it all. And felt the difference in my own body, feeling like a thankful person rather than a stressed or complaining person.]

7. Remember the bad:

To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced. When you remember how difficult life used to be and how far you have come, you set up an explicit contrast in your mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness. [In the seminar, Bob quoted Thich Nhat Hanh: “Last week I had a toothache. Today I have no toothache. How wonderful!”] [Besides remembering the bad that no longer is, and remembering how resiliently you coped, I find I can cultivate gratitude by being aware of bad things that didn’t happen.

Last night, unbeknownst to myself, I dropped my cell phone in the rain. When I found it in the driveway in the morning, it had been steadily rained on for 12 hours. Not only was there a tremendous relief that it still worked, but gratitude for an entire cascade of hassles avoided not needing to replace it, not missing messages, etc.

8. Ask yourself three questions:

Utilize the Japanese mediation technique known as Naikan, which involves reflecting on three questions: “What have I received from….? (Someone particular, today or over a lifetime.) “What have I given to…..? (Someone particular, today, or over a lifetime.) and “What troubles and difficulty have I caused?” (Bob pointed out that usually we are working overtime already listing the troubles and difficulties others have caused us.)

[There are so many questions we could ask ourselves in a self-inquiry to cultivate gratitude. Who contributed to my well-being today? How did I contribute to someone else’s well-being. These questions can evolve over time.]

9. Writing a letter of gratitude: (from Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement)

Select one important person from your past who has made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. Choose someone who is still alive.

Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page. Take your time composing this – several weeks if required. Invite that person to your home or travel to that person’s home. It is important that you do this face to face, not just in writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance.

Bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift. Read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression and eye contact. Then let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you.

[James Baraz suggests writing a similar letter of gratitude to life for all the experiences and lessons that have helped us become who we are.]

10. Learn prayers of gratitude:

In many spiritual traditions, prayers of gratitude are considered to be the most powerful form of prayer, because through these prayers people recognize the ultimate source of all they are and all there is.

[Meister Eckhart says: If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is “thank you’, it will suffice.”]

Taking in the Good by Rick Hanson

Over millions of years of evolution, it was more important for our ancestors to react to threats than to opportunities. Here’s why: if you live in the wild under dangerous conditions and miss out on a “carrot”, you could go get another one later. But if you fail to avoid a “stick”, then WHAP, no more carrots forever. That’s why scientists say the brain has a “negativity bias.” In effect, it’s like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. The unfair and unfortunate result is that negative experiences get captured in emotional memory instead of positive ones, gradually darkening your outlook, mood, and sense of self.

To overcome the negativity bias, and instead, make your brain like Velcro for the good stuff of daily like, take in the good in three simple steps.

1. Let positive facts become positive experiences. Let yourself feel good if you get something done, if someone is nice to you, or if you notice a good quality in yourself.

2. Consciously savor the positive experience for 10-20-30 seconds. Try to let it fill your body, and be as intense as possible. [the more frequently we “light up” the neural networks encoding a positive experience in explicit (conscious) memory, and for longer and longer durations, the more quickly it will install in our neural circuitry as a resource of positivity we can draw on.]

3. Consciously sense the positive experience is soaking into you, like water into a sponge, becoming a part of you. [The new memory does become a part of your neural circuitry, the neural substrate of resilience and well-being.]

Try to “take in the good” several times a day. Any single time won’t make much difference. But over time, you will be weaving new resources into the fabric of your brain and your self. That’s because neurons that fire together wire together. How you use your mind sculpts your brain. It’s like building a muscle: if you get a bunch of neurons firing goether for positive experiences, that will build new neural structures. The more you take in the good the more your brain will change for the better.

Further suggestions:

1. Find What’s Right with What’s Wrong. This is M. J. Ryan’s brilliant practice – to find something particular to appreciate in the moment, even if most of the moment is terribly wrong. A breath without pain. A moment of clarity about how this awfulness actually came to be. The integrity of the person you are in a terrible disagreement with.

2. M.J. Ryan couples this practice with Just in Time: finding something, anything, to appreciate about the person you feel like clobbering with a frying pan. What can I appreciate about this person, right now.

3. Write a taken for granted list. Bob mentioned this research in the seminar, though he didn’t mention it in his top ten. Folks who contemplate the absence of blessings they take for granted became happier than the people who focused only on the presence of what made them happy. He calls this the George Bailey effect. (Remember Jimmy Stewart recovering deep gratitude in the film It’s a Wonderful Life after the angel Clarence showed him what life in Bedord Falls would have been like if he had never been born.)

There are so many things we take for granted – running water, electricity. (The power failed briefly while I was creating this newsletter – yes, being reminded of what we take for granted can jolt us into gratitude immediately.) The ultimate practice of focusing on what we take for granted is Stephen Levine’s A Year To Live, where, through meditations and exercises, the reader is guided to imagine that they know they will die within a year. A powerful process to “wake up” to all that we have in the life we have now.

4. Practice seeing the web of inter-connection.
I first learned this exercise reading the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, though, of course, many wisdom teachers suggest something similar.

At your next meal, focus on one particular piece of food, a chunk of sweet potato or a green bean. Let yourself imagine the potato or bean growing in the ground or on a vine. Imagine the people involved in planting, cultivating, harvesting the potato or bean. You can follow many different strands of the web from here. You can imagine the people who designed or manufactured or sold the tools the farmworkers used to grow the potato or bean you are about to eat. You can imagine the people who brought the harvested potatoes or beans to market, sorters, packers, truck drivers, train engineers. You can remember the store clerk who sold you the potato or bean; you can imagine the store clerk sitting with his or her family to eat a similar meal at this very moment. You can imagine the people involved in that family’s lives, their neighbors, school teachers, car mechanics. You can follow the thread from any particular potato or bean and find yourself becoming aware of the entire web of life.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
– John Muir

5. Include gratitude in a daily mediation practice. As Rick Hanson suggested, focusing attention on our receiving the giving from others is a worthy object of mindfulness practice. We heighten our awareness and appreciation of the loop of connection that sustains our well-being.

6. Express your gratitude directly, in the moment. Gratitude allows us to be present and celebratory in the moment. When you feel a wave of gratitude wishing through you, say “thank you” out loud, to the person you’re relating to, to the energy of life in general. Hearing ourselves express our gratitude, spontaneously, helps us savor and soak the experience in.



Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by Robert A. Emmons, PhD. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

The easily-readable in-depth research behind the tools for building gratitude presented at the Greater Good seminar, including a deeply moving chapter on gratitude in trying times.

Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson, PhD. New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

A thoughtful and comprehensive program for “training the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.” Practical exercises interwoven with the cutting-edge neuroscience; a delightful read that can change how you live your life, profoundly.

Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Put You on the Road to Real Happiness by James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander. Bantam, 2010.

A masterpiece, really, of practices that deepen our experience of joy: setting intention, mindfulness, gratitude, dealing with suffering, letting go, integrity, loving kindness, compassion, equanimity, and simply being. The chapter on Grateful Heart, Joyful Heart, is especially inspiring.

Attitudes of Gratitude by M.J. Ryan. Conari Press, 1999.

A delightful and timeless collection of quotes, poetry and essays on gratitude: the key to living with an open heart. A gift to yourself and for others.

Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer by Br. David Stendl-Rast. Paulist Press, 1984.

A classic text on the gratefulness that comes with love which is at the very center of what it means to be human.

The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD. Penguin Press, 2007.

An exploration of empirically validated tools for cultivating many of the capacities that contribute to happiness: gratitude, optimism, kindness, social relationships, resilient coping, forgiveness, etc.


Greater Good Science Center

The sponsor of the Science of a Meaningful Life series at UC Berkeley. Many resources – e-newsletters, blogs, video and audio podcasts on psychological research of how cultivating pro-social emotions leads to personal well-being and promotes a more compassionate society. Including a free download of the summer 2007 issue of the Greater Good magazine on Building Gratitude, with a feature article by Robert Emmons, Pay It Forward.


A wealth of resources for cultivating happiness, love and wisdom from a gently Buddhist and astonishingly clear neuroscience perspective – articles, podcasts, archives of the monthly Wise Brain Bulletin and the weekly Just One Thing, links to scientific papers, etc. all offered freely. A treasure.


A Network for Grateful Living guided by Brother David Stendl-Rast, the internationally revered Benedictine monk who has spearheaded dialogues about gratitude among various spiritual traditions for the last 30 years. The website offers very practical supports for gratitude practice, including Word of the Day: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” – Robert Louis Stevenson. Grateful News: inspiring stories of people working around the world for civil rights, social justice, environmental protection, spiritual ecumenicism, etc. And specific step-by-step Practices on topics such as grief and gratefulness or deepening a sense of belonging.