The Sentient Perspective: Gratitude


Gratitude and appreciation, for both your surroundings and yourself, are vital to an optimistic view of life. In the last post in this series, we consider the circumstances in which we feel thankful, as well as how to find and nurture feelings of gratefulness.

In the Cantonese dialect of the Chinese language, there are two ways to say thank you. One is usually used in the context of receiving gifts, as a means of indicating that you accept an item that was freely given to you. For example, if your friend hands over a birthday present, or your grandmother holds out a box of cookies that she baked, you say thank you to acknowledge that you have received it and indicate your gratitude towards them for the gift. On the other hand, a different phrase is used when thanking somebody in response to a polite action. You might say this if a stranger holds open the door, or a co-worker drops off the papers she picked up on her way back from the printer across the hall. In this case, the phrase “thank you” is a reply of courtesy, the same way that someone might exclaim, “Sorry!” or utter, “Pardon.”

Expressions of gratitude constantly weave their way through our daily lives. In many faiths and cultures, meals begin with a phrase or prayer as a way of demonstrating gratitude for the bountiful and abundant supply of food. A purchase at a convenience store might end with the words “thank you, have a good day!” as your transaction concludes and the cashier passes over your bag of candy bars and paper towels. The same probably happens when you receive a menu from a waiter at a restaurant, or a cup of coffee from the barista on the Saturday morning shift at your local café. We might say thank you when a child bounces over, hands grimy but proudly presenting a wilting bouquet of dandelions or daisies, or when another child dutifully takes the toys you’ve just scooped off of the floor and returns them to their bins.

A coffee cup

Expressions of gratitude constantly weave their way through our daily lives. In many faiths and cultures, meals begin with a phrase or prayer as a way of demonstrating gratitude for the bountiful and abundant supply of food. A purchase at a convenience store might end with the words “thank you, have a good day!” as your transaction concludes and the cashier passes over your bag of candy bars and paper towels. The same probably happens when you receive a menu from a waiter at a restaurant, or a cup of coffee from the barista on the Saturday morning shift at your local café. We might say thank you when a child bounces over, hands grimy but proudly presenting a wilting bouquet of dandelions or daisies, or when another child dutifully takes the toys you’ve just scooped off of the floor and returns them to their bins.

However, gratefulness is a feeling that extends beyond circumstances when you have received something from another person. Thankfulness can be expressed towards objects you have possessed for years, memories you have harbored for months, and your immediate surroundings.

One such form of gratitude is the type we exhibit for the things we are privileged enough to maintain possession of. You might be grateful for your wool coat and the comfort it provides in the biting chill of winter, or the knit mittens that protect your fingers and remind you of your sister every time you pull them on. In these cases, you might not be directing your gratitude to a particular person; instead, you merely appreciate that you possess a treasured item that is yours, and yours alone. While such expressions of materialistic gratitude are often brought up in the context of capsule wardrobes or Konmari, you don’t need to be in the middle of purging your possessions to realize a deep thankfulness for the items at your fingertips.

Of course, appreciation exists not only for material luxuries, but also for unique circumstances and experiences. Sometimes, these experiences are probably better in hindsight—think, for example, of the years of piano lessons that had you stuck inside while your friends were running around the park, or the endless swim team practices that kept you away from not one but both of your best friends’ sweet sixteen birthday parties. You might have been glum at the time, but upon reflection, you’re grateful that you can teach a younger cousin how to play a simple tune on a keyboard, or for the tough-it-out character your years of competitive swimming bestowed upon you, which helped you when you spent a year at that grueling job.

Ultimately, one of the most valuable expressions of gratitude is thankfulness towards yourself. Perhaps it is human nature to constantly compare ourselves to others, measuring the height of our achievements against a ruler that seems to stretch longer and longer with time. It is easy to feel out-ranked and out-matched when we see picture-perfect scenes and the newest trends crowding out our own accomplishments every time the screens of our phones and computers and tablets light up. In a world where great value is placed on the ability to build empires from scratch with nothing but willpower and ambition in the face of adversity, it is easy to take ourselves (and the things we have been given) for granted and forget just how fortunate we are to be in the positions we are now. Sometimes, any mistake or unpredictable outcome feels like a personal failure. However, rather than thinking about what you could have done instead or what you should have thought about before, it can be helpful to recall the bits and pieces that did fall into place. Perhaps you bungled up your presentation—rather than blaming yourself for staying up into the wee hours and relying on caffeine to keep you alert when you should have known your mind would be a foggy web, you can be grateful that you had the opportunity at all to present your work to a receptive audience.

Covered tables
Sparrows

Perhaps the easiest way to maintain an optimistic and appreciative point of view is to take a step back every once in a while and survey your life from a different person’s shoes. A thought-provoking conversation with a friend who disagrees with you, whether on a matter big or small, might elucidate a new line of reasoning that helps you realize how other people approach a problem differently. A trip to a new country, where the tongue is foreign and the food a revelation, introduces you to new cultures and can shape your lifestyle. Perhaps you decide to adopt a new breakfast ritual (muesli instead of cornflakes) or incorporate a new break in your work schedule (a siesta with co-workers). At the same time, you might notice subtle differences, which prompt you to appreciate the small habits in your life that you’d barely given a second thought to before.

Of course, it can be fulfilling to take the time and note these instances of gratitude, making them physical and tangible rather than fleeting and forgotten. A stack of simple stationery at hand can be a reminder to pen a few thank you notes when the occasion arises so that you can share your gratitude with others. A small journal to record the events of the day can also be a ritual that inspires appreciation as you mull over the happenings in the past twenty-four hours. Engaging in the process of thanking yourself and others might be just the thing you need to boost your mood and calm your heart.

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