Cultivating Gratitude: Practicing Thanksgiving in Daily Life

By Jim Van Huysse, HBI’s Executive Director

Gratitude Is the Parent of all Other Virtues

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Its underlying spirit is largely free of the materialism and commercialism that tend to creep into other celebrations in the United States. Additionally, the emphasis on gratitude helps shine a light on what Roman philosopher Cicero called “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others” over 2,000 years ago. 

Image by Deborah Hudson from Pixabay

Numerous studies have shown the varied benefits of a consistent practice of gratitude, including:

  • improved physical health (Krause & Hayward, 2014)
  • enhanced coping abilities (e.g. positive reframing), fostering positive emotions and resilience, perseverance, and social bonds (Kurian, 2023)
  • improved relationships with significant others (Algoe, 2013)
  • deeper/stronger friendships (Lambert, 2011)
  • increased likelihood to participate in healthy activities (Hill, 2013)
  • better cardiovascular health, including decreased likelihood of heart attacks (Leavy, 2023)
  • mitigation of stress and fatigue in the workplace (Kurian, 2023)
  • decreased anxiety and depression (Senf, 2013)
  • enhanced generosity and sharing, even with strangers and without personal benefit (DeSteno, 2010)
  • higher levels of psychological well-being, including more satisfaction with life (McCullough, 2002)
  • decreased levels of burnout across a number of professions (Chan, 2011)
  • better sleep quality (Jackowska, 2016)

Key Questions: how can we bring gratitude into our daily experience? What can be done to deepen our experience of gratitude? 

First things first: heartfelt vs. “brainfelt” gratitude. All expressions of gratitude are helpful, as evidenced by the list above and hundreds of additional studies. But in our experience teaching hundreds of workshops at Heart Based Institute, there is a distinct difference between cognitively experiencing gratitude versus feeling it from the spiritual heart. We guide participants in the “Open Heart for Everyone” series to do just that, and those that experience it consistently report a deeper expression of gratitude than they’ve had with practices such as gratitude journals. To get a sense of gratitude from the heart, we invite you to first experience the Open Heart Meditation. Afterwards, you can simply let your heart be grateful to True Source (or whatever terminology is most comfortable for you for the Source of Love).

Where to Start…
  1. Begin with the positives in our life. Expanding our gratitude for the aspects of our lives that are obvious is an easy way to begin strengthening our “gratitude muscle”. Over time, recognizing and appreciating these clear positive gifts on a daily basis deepens our capacity for gratefulness and opens the doorway to be thankful for other elements of our lives. 
  2. Next, allow yourself to be grateful from the heart for the things that you might typically consider “everyday” or “ordinary.” This practice can be especially helpful in strengthening feelings of moment-to-moment gratitude. For example, I’m not the biggest “morning person.” Oftentimes, I would wake up a bit bleary-eyed, grumpy, and stuck in autopilot. But I realized I’d be a whole lot grumpier if my morning shower wasn’t a hot one. Hot water is something I’d typically take for granted but being grateful for a “little thing” like this helped me shake off that inner grump and be more present in my morning routine. 
  3. Being grateful for things *everyone* has access to can bring the experience of heartfelt gratitude even deeper. While there’s a lot of disparity in our society, being grateful for things that everyone has access to (such as the air we breathe and nature’s beauty all around us) can help us to remember that it’s not about “us” or what “we” have, but that there are gifts that can be enjoyed by all of us. In doing so we’re not only cultivating gratitude, but we’re also enhancing our empathy and sense of interconnection in the process. 
  4. Finding the “bright side” in any given situation. This last one might be challenging, at least from a conceptual perspective, but it allows us to reframe what we perceive as negatives into a positive light. This shift in attitude can be hugely beneficial in our outlook and relationships, and even help to change the trajectory of our life. For example, in the Fall of 2020, not only was my community in Northern California dealing with the early day challenges of COVID, but also the worst wildfires on record, literally turning the sky an apocalyptic orange. Frankly, it was hard not to despair, not just for the imminent danger we and others faced, but what it might mean for our future. But I was able to pause, get heart-centered, and experience gratitude for the firefighters (many of whom were volunteers) who put their lives on the line to contain these fires. And this choice to change my perspective really helped me to focus on the positive rather than dwell on the negative.
Photo I took on September 9, 2020, at 10 AM

Experiencing these different qualities of gratitude at the heart level can really extend “gratitude season” to the entire year. It also improves the depth of our gratitude and helps naturally bring some of the benefits mentioned above into our lives more often. And while I’m at it, thank you for taking the time to read this post and for being open to experiencing gratitude in a different way. On behalf of HBI, wishing you a happy, healthy and heartful Thanksgiving!