Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love The Life You Have

Excerpted from James Autry's new book, Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love the Life You Have.

choosing gratitude

Gratitude doesn’t come naturally. We have to learn it.

You’d think we’d be born grateful, helpless as we are coming into the world depending on someone else for everything. Instead, from the first moment, we demand what we need. Then, within a few years, our needs are taken for granted and we turn our attention to the things we want, whether we need them or not. We learn that we can no longer demand, so we beg, wheedle, and cajole until we get what we want.

The first tiny step toward gratitude is when our parents teach us to say, “Thank you.”

Some of us never get past that. Some of us simply grow up to be well-behaved children, only older. Give us something or do something for us, and we say, “Thank you” or, in some parts of the country, “Appreciate it” or “Much obliged.” Polite, conditioned responses, but not gratitude.

Don’t misunderstand; I appreciate polite expressions. They help to lubricate the gears of social concourse and are part of what we consider civilized behavior.

But gratitude is something altogether different. Learning gratitude is a spiritual, not a social, process. Not only is it not conditioned behavior; it’s not behavior at all. It’s a deeply ingrained aspect of our consciousness, an attitude, a condition that, when learned and practiced, becomes fundamental to our being. No doubt it is made evident as behavior, but it is not behavior itself. We can be polite, courteous, respectful, helpful, and all the attributes found in the Boy Scout law, and still not have gratitude.

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This is because gratitude, if we have it at all, exists within ourselves and is measured only by ourselves. Like meditation, it has a singular benefit. We can’t give it to anyone else. And we can never expect anyone else to say, “He sure has gratitude” or “She is a grateful person.” People may say, “He is giving and unselfish” or “She is so courteous and respectful of others,” but they can’t say, “Doesn’t her gratitude give you a good feeling?”

You are the only one who knows that gratitude is fundamental to who you are. To paraphrase an old saying, gratitude is its own reward.

But doesn’t gratitude affect behavior? Of course. If gratitude is essential to who you are, then you will always be quick to express appreciation for someone’s help and to respond in kind. That becomes second nature, but let’s go a little deeper. It’s easy enough to say “Thank you” or “I appreciate your help,” but it’s not so easy to feel gratitude when someone has disappointed you, has failed to help, has withheld good will, or has deliberately been obstructive. When you have learned gratitude and fully internalized it so that it becomes who you are, your response is not resentment or ill feelings in return. Instead, it is gratitude that you are not diminished by the other’s attitudes or actions and that you have the knowledge and emotional resources to take the next step. The next step may be an assertive response, but whatever it is, do it without ill will or an attitude of revenge.

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