The Spiritual Disciplines: Gratitude


The Spiritual Disciplines: Gratitude

Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.

“[Gratitude] is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” –Cicero

Gratitude is arguably the spiritual discipline we think we understand best.

It’s been the most scientifically studied. It’s been the fodder for plenty of books and articles, presented as a feel-good tool for personal development and happiness, a method for achieving your best life now. It’s often trotted out around Thanksgiving as a seasonal interest, and then put away for another year.

As a result of this familiarity, gratitude lacks the mysterious allure of a discipline like solitude, or even the inner adventure-evoking asceticism of fasting.

But what if gratitude has been cheapened into something commonplace – what’s been called “gratitude lite” – that obscures its true nature?

What if gratitude was really a discipline rather than a feeling, a moral virtue rather a mood enhancer?

What if it was made not of the soft sentimentality of greeting cards, but the sterner stuff of Stoicism, the rawness of marrow sucking, the severity of even death itself?

In this final installment of our series on the spiritual disciplines, we’d like to introduce you to this forgotten side of gratitude. Read on – you’ll be thankful you did.

What Is the Definition and Purpose of the Spiritual Discipline of Gratitude?

The leading scientific expert on gratitude, Dr. Robert A. Emmons, defines gratitude as having two parts: “(1) affirming goodness in one’s life and (2) recognizing that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.”

At this most basic, gratitude is something nearly everyone experiences (particularly in the first stage), and this experience can be practically involuntary. That is, most people will recognize and feel warmed by good things that happen in their lives, even without intentionally trying to do so.

Indeed, basic gratitude is more automatic and “feel-good” than the basic states of all the other practices we’ve talked about in this series. Even when you’re not studying or trying to get some alone time for spiritual purposes, or are only fasting for health reasons, these exercises still take a good deal of effort to initiate and often remain difficult and uncomfortable throughout. On the other hand, everyone experiences tinges of gratitude without really thinking about it, and enjoys the squeeze of uplift it lends the heart.

Yet, when elevated and practiced as a spiritual discipline, gratitude can in fact be just as strenuous and demanding as the others we’ve discussed.

While basic gratitude is passively evoked by external events, of the exclusively positive variety, the spiritual discipline of gratitude is intentionally chosen, deliberately trained, and exercised in all circumstances. It is not dependent on changing conditions, but on mindset. It is not waited for, but pursued.

While basic gratitude is a set of fleeting and fluctuating feelings, the spiritual discipline of gratitude is an action. It is not just experienced, but expressed. The spiritual discipline of gratitude is practiced not just because it feels good, but because it’s the right thing to do — not just for one’s own good, but for the good of one’s family, community, and society. The discipline of gratitude is in fact not a feeling at all, but a moral virtue.

In short, the spiritual discipline of gratitude leaves behind the realm of simple emotion and instead becomes an attitude, a stance, a way. One that necessitates great effort to develop and maintain – the offering of a sacrifice of thanksgiving on the altar of life.

What Is the Purpose of the Spiritual Discipline of Gratitude?

“Epicurus says, ‘gratitude is a virtue that commonly has profit annexed to it.’ And where is the virtue that has not? But still the virtue is to be valued for itself, and not for the profit that attends it.” –Seneca

The practice of gratitude begets myriad number of very practical, tangible benefits to body and mind. Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically vetted than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being.

As with fasting, it’s impossible to untangle the mental and physical benefits of gratitude from its spiritual effects; what is good for the body and mind, is good for the soul, and vice versa. At the same time, the reasons to intentionally practice the spiritual discipline of gratitude radiate beyond these more corporeal effects, to those that more centrally touch one’s inner life, moral character, and even the larger community.

Opens Your Eyes

“One of the most important—and most neglected—elements in the beginnings of the interior life is the ability to respond to reality, to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us.” –Thomas Merton

A primary purpose of all spiritual practices is to gain a fresh perspective on life — to discover new dimensions that can’t be accessed when one’s mind is consumed by material distractions and simple busyness.

In this, gratitude serves as a singularly effective portal.

Becoming more grateful does not involve a denial of the reality of life’s hard edges and sharp sorrows. Rather, while gratitude recognizes the dark corners of existence which readily attract our attention, it also notices all the Beauty, Joy, Goodness, and Truth that is typically overlooked. In this, gratitude in fact opens one’s eyes to a more expansive view of reality. It is like putting on a pair of long-needed glasses for the first time: “Oh, wow, here’s what I’ve been missing.” Through the lens of gratitude, you come to better recognize the good, to see the many gifts, benefits, and mercies that are present in your life that might otherwise remain hidden and ignored.

The discipline of gratitude is one which seeks for greater mindfulness and awareness, that calls you to be more present in the moment, to sharpen your powers of observation, to notice what others miss, and thus to discover more layers in “ordinary” life. It is an invitation to not only gnaw on the bone of existence, but to suck out its marrow. It is a gateway to greater wonder, awe, and magic, and to living life more fully alive.

Develops Character and the Virtuous Life

“He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.” –Seneca

“a humble mind is the soil out of which thanks naturally grow.” –Henry Ward Beecher

Gratitude is arguably the foundation of good character, or as Cicero puts it, gratitude is the “parent” of all the other virtues. Conversely, ingratitude is the root of all vice; St. Ignatius called ingratitude the “most abominable of sins” as it is “the cause, the beginning and origin of all sins and misfortunes.”

Why do the two sides of thankfulness function as the respective fonts of both good and evil?

First, because the presence of gratitude counteracts the negative vices — envy, resentment, and greed — that its absence begets. When you are grateful for what you have, you spend less time comparing yourself to others, and less time making poor, fruitless decisions based on those comparisons.

Second, recognizing that the good in one’s life comes at least partially from outside the self develops a vital sense of humility, as well as the motivation to reciprocate these gifts and return goodness for goodness by practicing the positive virtues. Striving to do the right thing out of simple duty can be laudable, but duty is at best a mere back-up motivation to a superior and more spontaneous source: joy and thankfulness. You can grind out living the virtues, but such service will feel dry and unsatisfying to you, and dry, if not embittered, to others. Gratitude is the grease in the gears of well-doing; a fuel that sparks and animates one’s courage, generosity, industry, and honor.

Puts Us in Right Relationship With Others

Gratitude turns our gaze outward instead of inward, helping us recognize realities outside ourselves. We recognize that we are not completely self-sufficient and independent and instead exist in a web of interconnected relationships. We recognize the help (human and divine) that’s gotten us to where we are today, and the help we continue to rely on to sustain our lives. In this, gratitude allows us to appreciate and affirm the worth and value of the people, structures, and supernatural powers around us rather than taking them for granted.

Conversely, it’s worth pointing out again that the flip side is equally true; ingratitude leads to bitterness, envy, and negativity – vices that absolutely destroy our bonds with others.

Unsurprisingly then, research has found that gratitude has a huge effect on improving relationships. Studies show that grateful people experience greater feelings of connection and closeness with others and with God, and are more compassionate, forgiving, generous, and supportive than the ungrateful.

While researching her book on gratitude, Dr. Brent Atkinson, a professor of marriage and family therapy, told Janice Kaplan that “When people share positive emotions [like gratitude] with each other, scans show their brains sync up and show similar activity. You increase your natural capacity for love.” Sounds kind of groovy, but again, gratitude acts as the grease in the gears of goodness, so that serving each other becomes more natural and spontaneous and less of a grind. Studies show that when you thank someone for doing something for you, they’re more likely to help you again; rather than cajoling and demanding friends, loved ones, and co-workers do what you want, thankfulness makes the things you appreciate naturally keep happening. That’s good for you, obviously, but also good for your relationships.

Leads to Service and a Chain of Goodness

As already stated, when you realize what you’ve been given, you’re motivated to give back: the more you recognize what others have done for you, the more you want to do for them; the more you appreciate the world, the more you want to make it better. But the virtuous effect of gratitude ripples out further still.

Research shows that when you thank someone for what they’ve done for you, they not only are more likely to help you again, they are more likely to help other people, period. Cultivating and then expressing gratitude thus starts a web of virtue; it spreads goodness like a very positive contagion that can literally transform families, workplaces, communities, and the world at large. That’s an idea based not on a woo-woo hippie platitude, but a concrete, empirically proven effect.

The potential of “paying it forward” is real, and it starts with a simple “Thank you.”

What Are the Obstacles to Practicing Gratitude?

“Gratitude is a virtue most deified and yet most deserted: it is the ornament of rhetoric and the libel of practical life.” –J.W Forney

Given the very real benefits and positive effects of practicing gratitude both generally and as a spiritual discipline, why do we so often struggle to develop and express this virtue? To wit: in a survey done by Kaplan, she found that while “more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life . . . less than half regularly express gratitude.” What then accounts for this gap between what we know is good for us (and the world), and how we actually behave?

There are several obstacles to getting in a gratitude-driven mindset; while they can perhaps be inferred from the purposes outlined above, it’s instructive to call them out for more explicit examination.

The first obstacle to greater gratitude is simple busyness and distraction. We may feel a sense of thankfulness for someone or something, but it quickly evaporates as our phone pings, our kid cries, or another thought simply intrudes on the moment. We may feel the impulse to say thank you, but it gets buried under a bunch of other to-dos.

The second obstacle to gratitude is an ingrained penchant for noticing the negative over the positive. This phenomenon is likely the result of an evolutionary adaption; in primitive times, people had to pay attention to any potential threats in the environment in order to survive. In modern times, it means that if ten things go very right in your day, but one thing goes wrong, you’ll forget all the positive stuff and spend all your time ruminating on it.

A third obstacle is the phenomenon of adaptation. While novel pleasures give us a rush of satisfaction and gratitude, we soon become habituated to them. After a while, your once new love/car/home/job stops making your heart spontaneously swell with thankfulness; you stop registering all the ways the things already in your life add to it, and stop noticing all the qualities you admire and cherish in your family and friends.  

The fourth obstacle is envy. It’s hard to be happy with what you have, when it seems like other people have better things. Envy destroys gratitude, and it’s harder than ever to avoid when everyone can show off the highlight reel of their lives on social media.

While all these obstacles can be significant stumbling blocks to the discipline of gratitude, if this virtue is predicated on humility, then the very biggest barrier to its practice should be obvious: pride.

Such pride is rooted in the inability to admit dependency on anything or anyone. To do so hurts, well, our pride. Even the word “dependency” itself makes us viscerally cringe, while our hearts swell to words like “autonomy,” “independence,” and “self-reliance.” And indeed, these are all good things that should be striven for . . . to the extent possible. But self-sufficiency has its limits. You didn’t create yourself or raise yourself, you didn’t pave the roads you drive on, grow the food you eat, or make the clothes you wear, and, even if you’re the most extreme of introverts, you’d probably go crazy if forced to live forever alone. Even the world’s last true hermit had to steal from other people to live. The truth is, we all rely on others to meet our physical and emotional needs.

Humans are interdependent; sometimes we give and sometimes we receive. You can’t desire to fully know yourself and yet concentrate on one role to the exclusion of the other; a man should strive to be autonomous . . . and a frank realist. Being less grateful doesn’t make you less dependent, it just makes you more delusional — while robbing you of the benefits gratitude brings.

Of the different “flavors” the pride that blocks gratitude takes, a sense of entitlement is undeniably the most significant. This sense of entitlement says: “Whatever I’ve got, I’ve earned. I deserve this. I had it coming.”

Just as we’d all like to believe we’re 100% self-sufficient, we’d all like to think we got where we are today entirely on our own steam — that we earned everything we have by ourselves. Yet we didn’t earn the technology and myriad inventions we use on a day-to-day basis, didn’t earn the democracy we live under, didn’t earn a shot at existence in the first place.

While we assuredly should take a healthy satisfaction in the things we have largely earned on our own, we should also recognize that the very possibility of achieving those things at all was foundationally premised on a whole lot of factors outside ourselves and our control.

The fact that your life exists at all is because your ancestors sailed over here from the Old World, and started farms, and ranches, and businesses, and fought in the Big One, and worked, and raised families, and kept themselves alive so you could take a breath in the 21st century. We all stand upon an edifice built by those who came before.

So much of what we have was placed in our laps by sheer dint of happening to be born in a certain time and place. So much of what we have is due to simple luck and serendipity. We didn’t, couldn’t, do anything to deserve it.  

Research shows that surprise is a key ingredient in experiencing gratitude, and you can’t be surprised, if you perennially expect, nigh near demand, good things to happen to you. This accounts for the fact that while our standard of living is higher than ever, we are seemingly more discontented and depressed; our expectations have simply risen in line with our conveniences. We have more, but feel entitled to a life that’s even better still, and thus see more negative than positive in the world and complain more than we appreciate. 

Expectations aren’t bad in and of themselves (if you keep them modest and reasonable). It’s not wrong to expect that a spouse or a friend treat you in a certain way; by virtue of the fact you have a mutually invested-in relationship, you rightly should expect certain things from each other. Nor is it wrong to expect that when you pay for a good or service, you will receive something commensurate in exchange. But having these expectations, doesn’t mean you’re entitled to their fulfillment, nor does it preclude you from being tickled with delight when they’re gratified.

Certainly, one is under no obligation to say thank you for acts and services that fall below what would normally be expected. But even when an expectation is fulfilled in a basic, average way – even when it does not go above and beyond — we ought to still feel gratitude for the act, and in fact, experience it as a gift.

Let’s say you and your wife share household chores, and you each do an equal number of tasks. Must you still thank her for making dinner, even though it happens routinely every night, and is just part of the responsibilities of running a household you both mutually agreed to take on? The answer is yes: the virtue of gratitude obliges you to do so.

No matter how routine and expected her effort is, it’s still a gift: not only could your wife have potentially thrown out the idea of pitching in as soon as you got hitched, she receives no direct reward in return for her service. You may have previously done the same number of chores and offered ample emotional/financial support, but there are simply no direct exchanges, no strict tit-for-tat in relationships; e.g., is mowing the lawn exactly equal to making X number of meals? Every effort made in a marriage is a gift to one’s partner that cannot be precisely enumerated nor reciprocated.

Further, the dinner is a gift in that it is made with the hands of a woman who you don’t wholly deserve. Sure, you wooed her, won her love, continue to treat her right. But you had nothing to do with the forces that brought a boy from Tallahassee and a girl from Oakland to go to the same college, to take the same English class, to sit in the same row. You didn’t create her. She is a reality to which you are not entirely entitled. Not to mention that even since you two were married, she could have died in a tragic accident or been laid low by a terrible disease. And yet here she is in the kitchen, chopping carrots.

When you say, “Thank you for dinner,” the simple phrase encapsulates all those meanings and dimensions of gratitude — all the ways your wife’s act can simultaneously be routinely expected and a wondrous, surprising, unearned gift.

The same dynamic runs through every relationship and exchange, no matter how shallow or financially premised. When the check-out guy at the grocery store swipes and bags your groceries with even an average level of efficacy and friendliness, you say “Thanks”: “Thanks for not confronting me with dead-eyed rudeness when you could have; thanks for not working at a snail’s pace; thanks for doing your job up to standard when so many don’t. Thanks to our ancestors who cleared this land, and set up general stores, that became giant stores where you work and I shop, and where I can get Pumpkin Spice Oreos, and run them down this little conveyer belt, and pay with this handy chip reader machine. Thanks to the forces of the universe that brought us together in this moment for this small exchange in which we both get something we need. Thanks for giving up your time, and perhaps even a bit of your soul, to work this job that helps make the world go round.”

Once you start practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude, you come to see that while you can expect things of people with whom you enter into a relationship or exchange, you’re never wholly entitled to the material and emotional goods they produce; each interaction represents an opportunity that you can never entirely earn or deserve.

Once you realize life doesn’t owe you anything, everything in it becomes a gift.

How Do You Practice the Spiritual Discipline of Gratitude?

For some people, added to the universal obstacles to greater gratitude outlined above, is yet another set: it seems that a grateful disposition is partly genetic, that some people are just naturally more or less thankful than others. At the same time, how you were raised plays a role as well; if you were reared by one or more parents who are complaint-centric, glass-half-empty types, that’ll dampen your own orientation towards gratitude as well.

That there are many obstacles both universal and particular pitted against practicing gratitude is the bad news. The good news, fortunately, is that despite these barriers, anyone can intentionally cultivate gratitude as a spiritual discipline. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t often feel spontaneously thankful, it’s an ability that can be trained; you can deliberately become, as Emmons puts it, “good at gratitude.”

The exercises below are broken into ways to experience more gratitude yourself, and ways to express more gratitude to others, and both sets can help you overcome the common obstacles to practicing this virtue. The exercises are both research-backed and age-old; practices first recommended by philosophers thousands of years ago, and refined for maximum efficacy in the modern day. By regularly training your gratitude “muscle” with them, you can make gratitude a matter of steady discipline rather than fluctuating mood and changing circumstances.

As you embark on this gratitude training program, here’s another bit of good news: while becoming more grateful takes significant intentional effort at first, over time it will become easier; what begins as consciously chosen behavior will eventually become an ingrained attitude — your default response to the world. A wonderfully positive cycle will in fact develop: the more good in your life you recognize to be thankful for, the more your mood, health, work, and relationships will change for the better, and the more good things will happen to you to be thankful for!

How to Experience Greater Gratitude

“There is no neutrality between gratitude and ingratitude. Those who are not grateful soon begin to complain of everything. Those who do not love, hate. In the spiritual life there is no such thing as an indifference to love or hate. That is why tepidity (which seems to be indifferent) is so detestable. It is hate disguised as love.” –Thomas Merton

“In noble hearts the feeling of gratitude has all the ardor of a passion.” –Achilles Poincelot

“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” –French proverb

A grateful heart is the epicenter of virtue, and you can keep its fire stoked by engaging in practices that enhance your powers of awareness and observation – your ability to see the same old things in a fresh way, and to recognize the abundance you have, rather than always focusing on what you lack.

A thread that runs through all of these practices is memory. Ingratitude is a matter of forgetfulness – we forget what others have done for us days, weeks, years, and centuries ago; we forget the moment of joy we experienced just one minute back; we forget all the good we have in our lives, and how we’re not entitled to it. We forget that memory is moral.

“Do you want to be a grateful person?” Emmons thus asks, “Then remember to remember.”

Savor the Good

“Happiness does not consist in things themselves but in the relish we have of them.” –Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Psychologist Rick Hanson compares humanity’s universal penchant for concentrating on the negative over the positive (which can be even more acute for those born with gloomy genes) to Velcro and Teflon: the bad sticks with us, while the good just glides right on by our consciousness. But if we can’t fully recognize and appreciate the good in our lives, we can’t be fully grateful for it.

To keep the good things that happen in your day-to-day life from slipping through your mind, you’ve got to put a kind of net in place to catch them. You do that by intentionally savoring and relishing positive moments. When something good happens to you, whether big or small – a hug from your child, a tasty meal, a beautiful sunset – instead of letting it quickly flit in and out of your awareness, take ten seconds or so to really soak in the pleasure/beauty/joy of it.

As you let the good penetrate more deeply, your feelings of gratitude will increase, and your brain will literally be rewired – creating sticky grooves that latch on to the positive things that are happening to you every single day.


“You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” –Viktor Frankl

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the views they take of them.” –Epictetus

Another way to deal with our natural focus on the negative is to try to examine a less-than-ideal situation from another perspective — to reframe it in a better light.

Reframing doesn’t mean completely ignoring the downsides of situations or being naively Pollyanna-ish in looking for silver linings that don’t exist; it doesn’t require a denial of reality. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement that reality is, in fact, somewhat subjective. Things really do objectively happen, but the meaning of those things is open to interpretation, and this interpretation changes how you experience them, which changes your reality.

You can be devastated when you’re laid off from work, or grateful for the chance at a fresh start in your career. You can be bitter that your girlfriend cheated on you, or grateful you don’t have to waste any more time believing she’s someone she’s not. You can be frustrated that your flight was canceled, or grateful you get to spend one more day with old friends. You can be annoyed to be attending a boring meeting, or grateful for the chance to recalibrate your attention span and let your mind wander.

Either side of these coins is just as “real” as the other. Which side you choose to focus on is up to you. You can concentrate on what’s gone wrong, or put your attention on what’s still right. You can see only the obstacle, or look for how the obstacle is in fact the way.

Even in times of acute hardship, while it is unlikely that you will feel grateful for the suffering, you can still feel grateful in the suffering. That is, you can still find small mercies and points of light even in your darkest hour. If you’re going to be walking through hell anyway, why do it without gratitude, and make the trial even harder than it has to be?

Later, from the distant vantage point provided by the passage of time, you may in fact grow to become grateful for the suffering; for the way it refined you, or changed the path of your life, or brought you to closer to friends. Research shows that writing about a hard experience from the frame of gratefulness can in fact help you see the good that came from it, and find a greater sense of meaning, hope, and purpose in past pain.

Gratitude ultimately depends not on circumstances you can’t control, but on the perspective and attitude you decide to take; you can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how to respond. 

Keep a Gratitude Journal

“If one should give me a dish of sand, and tell me there were particles of iron in it, I might look for them with my clumsy fingers, and be unable to detect them; but let me take a magnet and sweep through it, and how would it draw to itself the almost invisible particles by the mere power of attraction.—The unthankful heart, like my finger in the sand, discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day, and as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.” –Henry Ward Beecher 

Keeping a gratitude journal is the most famous of gratitude practices, and with good reason. It’s very simple, and it’s highly effective. It’s been shown to produce the benefits to body and mind mentioned above, and all you’ve got to do is regularly write down a few things for which you’re thankful.  

There are several ways to especially enhance the efficacy and meaningfulness of this practice:

Write in the journal just twice a week, instead of every day. While you might think that the more often you wrote in a gratitude journal, the better the effect would be, research has shown the practice actually has a point of diminishing returns. Journaling just twice a week can in fact be more effective than doing it every day. Why? Because making daily entries seems to induce what Emmons calls “gratitude fatigue” — it becomes too routine, and thus doesn’t elicit as stimulating a response.

Good news for us: who doesn’t have time to write in a journal just twice a week?

Be as specific and detailed as possible. Gratitude journaling works because writing down the amorphous thoughts that flit through your mind makes them more concrete and real. It naturally follows then, that the more detailed you make your entries, the more this effect is amplified. So instead of writing, “I’m grateful for 1) my wife, 2) my kids, 3) dinner tonight,” write “I’m grateful for the way my wife’s eyes twinkle when she laughs, 2) the softness of my daughter’s cheek when I give her a kiss goodnight, 3) tonight’s burger — the juiciness and savoriness of the meat, the crispness of the lettuce, and the tang of the sauce.” Really relive the things you’re thankful for in your imagination; the more you bring them to life, the deeper your visceral reaction will be, and the more profoundly you’ll experience gratitude. 

Think not just of big and obvious things, but small and surprising things. Sticking just to big/obvious things – family/job/house/health – will quickly induce gratitude fatigue and make it hard to keep your entries as fresh as possible (while it’s fine to duplicate things, the more diversity you can being to your entries, the better).

So think about anything and everything that brings you pleasure, adds something to your life in even the smallest of ways, and ought not to be taken for granted: technology (the internet, your phone, capabilities like FaceTime, apps like Uber); food (the existence of Oreos, that you can get strawberries in the middle of winter, that there are restaurants serving the native cuisine of 30 different countries in your city); modern conveniences/aids/tools (bars of soap, contacts, barbells); anything that tickles your senses (the smell after rain, the softness of your sheets, the sound of your favorite music).

“Don’t only journal about people who helped you but also about those who have helped people whom you love.” This is a great piece of advice from Emmons, who notes that “We may overlook these sources of gratitude.” Be grateful for your child’s teacher, the nurse who tends your ailing parent, your girlfriend’s ever loyal and loving stepdad.

“Get started wherever you are.” Another recommendation from Emmons, who says you can still begin a gratitude journal even if you’re in a negative place in life, and “even if the only item on your list is ‘nothing bad happened today.’”

Harness the George Bailey Effect

“It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” –Brother David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk

Even though the power of gratitude journals has gotten a lot of attention, they don’t in fact work for everyone. Part of the problem is that even when you recognize and record the good things in your life, you’ve probably gotten used to these “everyday” things, so that the act fails to evoke the element of uncertainty and surprise so central to experiencing gratitude on a deeper, more emotionally transformative level.

To inject a little more “surprise” into your gratitude journal, try harnessing your inner George Bailey. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Bailey has to experience a world in which he’d never been born to really understand how rich and blessed his life really was. You can benefit from similarly conjuring up an alternative universe, no guardian angel required: rather than writing about something you’re thankful for, write how that thing might not have happened. How might you and your wife have never met? How might you have never landed the great job you’re currently in? What would your life be like if you and your best friend had never crossed paths?

Research shows that this exercise, by challenging your secure, complacent sense that something good in your life was always bound to happen, heightens your feeling of gratitude beyond simply writing about that blessing. When you reflect on how something might never have occurred after all, you stop taking it for granted, and your once-dulled sense of thankfulness returns. 

Practice the Examen

We discussed the Examen – a daily five-part prayer developed by St. Ignatius Loyola — in our exploration of the spiritual discipline of self-examination. But it’s also a practice that can provide tremendous support to the discipline of gratitude, as the first step of the prayer is to reflect on things that happened that day for which you are grateful, and to then express thanks for them.


If gratitude is sabotaged by the fact that we adapt to the good things that are consistently in our lives so that they become yawn-inducingly routine, then a natural way to counteract this effect is to temporarily remove that good thing, i.e., to fast from it.

Spend a day without eating food, or using technology, and you’ll be less likely to take these benefits for granted. The scales of “blessing blindness” fall away from your eyes, and you realize how fortunate you are to have a full fridge, and how downright magical your phone really is.

Scarcity sharpens gratitude, and in a time in which we are glutted with every pleasure and convenience, sometimes we must create this scarcity ourselves.

Memento Mori

“What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily?” –Seneca

Research shows that when people are reminded that an experience will soon come to an end, they feel more grateful for the time they have left, and take more action to make the most of it.

When it comes to situations that have a definite expiration date – college, vacations, deployments – reminding yourself that they won’t last can spur you to engage the experience more fully – to stay present and really savor, and feel thankful for, each moment you have left. For example, Kate and I will often say to each other in regards to our kids: “They’ll never be as young/small as they are right now.” It’s a reminder that they’re in a special phase of life that will pass away sooner than we can fathom – that though they may drive us crazy sometimes, one day their tiny footfalls will disappear and leave our house empty and quiet. It helps us savor and cherish our truly precious time with them.

While this technique works when applied to specific “limited-time” situations, it can also be applied to life in general, which, though its expiration date is uncertain, will definitely come to an end one day. That end could be fifty years from now, or it could be tomorrow. The practice of memento mori – of remembering that you will die, of reflecting, as Marcus Aurelius did, that “You could leave life right now” – can make you more grateful for each additional day, and moment, you get.

How to Express Greater Gratitude

“Gratitude is a duty none can be excused from, because it is always at our own disposal.” –Pierre Charron

Engaging in practices like journaling and reflection is great. But gratitude isn’t primarily an individual exercise, but a relational one. It’s not just a private feeling, but a public action. Thus, at the heart of gratitude is not the experience of thankfulness, but its expression; once we’ve cultivated gratitude in our hearts, we must share it with others.

Outwardly acknowledging the gifts we receive checks our pride, humbles our souls, and forges a link that will expand beyond ourselves to become an ever-widening chain of service and virtue.

Say Thank You to Just About Everyone, for Just About Everything 

“You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.” –Anthony de Mello           

Expressing gratitude is as simple as saying “Thank you.”

Even though those two words are so easy to say, most people don’t express them often enough. In Kaplan’s survey on gratitude, for example, she found that in the workplace, only “7 percent of people regularly said thanks to their bosses and 10 percent to colleagues.” We get in that mode where we don’t feel like we should be grateful for people just doing what’s expected of them – just doing their job. We forget that life doesn’t ultimately owe us anything, that nothing is guaranteed, that we’re not wholly entitled to the good things we get. We forget that everything is a gift.

But it is.

So say thank you to everyone, for just about everything. Not just when someone went above and beyond, but when someone simply did what they were “supposed” to – heaven knows that even when something “should” happen a certain way it often doesn’t! Be grateful to anyone who holds up even the basic end of the bargain, who doesn’t follow the path of least resistance. Be grateful that someone was willing to meet your needs, just as they are hopefully grateful for the opportunity to meet those needs.

If it isn’t already, start making a simple “thank you” a frequent, fundamental part of your daily language. Thank your wife, cashier, doctor, pharmacist, car mechanic, mailman, waiter — everyone who makes an effort on your behalf. Don’t forget to thank the people who serve those you love, too.

And while you’re at it, thank the pilot and flight attendants when you get off the plane. No matter how routine aerial flight has become, there’s nothing truly routine about shepherding a hunk of metal through the sky and bringing it safely down to earth. It’s really a stunning, gratifying accomplishment.

There are lots of wondrous gifts like that “hidden” in ordinary life. Let “thank you” serve as a magical incantation that materializes their reality right before your eyes.

Write Thank You Notes Early and Often

“He who acknowledges a kindness has it still, and he who has a grateful sense of it has requited it.” –Cicero

Saying thank you is a worthy gesture, but sometimes when someone does go above and beyond for you (and when you have modest, humble expectations, this happens quite a lot!), a verbal acknowledgment of your gratitude is simply not enough. You ought to put your gratitude in writing.

Penning thank you notes enhances the power of gratitude for both the writer and the recipient; the former benefits from the effect of putting nebulous thoughts to paper, while the latter enjoys a gesture of appreciation, which, because it requires more effort than an oral “Thanks!”, carries more meaning. Indeed, thank you notes are incredibly impactful, because they are so relatively rare.

A quarter-century ago, a middle-aged pastor and writer named William Stidger was reflecting on his gratitude for a teacher he had in his youth who’d introduced him to great literature and sparked a love for the written word that had helped prepare him for his future vocations. Realizing he had never thanked her for the way she had touched his life, he decided to “atone” for this omission, and that very night penned her a handwritten letter of thanks.

Just a few days later, he received a reply; written in shaky scrawl, it read:

“My Dear Willie,

I am now an old lady in my 80’s, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and seemingly like the last leaf of fall left behind. You will be interested to know, Willie, that I taught school for 50 years and, in all that time, yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered my lonely old heart as nothing has cheered me in many years.”

Thank you notes ought to be written whenever someone does something that especially warms your heart. They can be penned to recognize kindnesses both big and small. They can be written in response to someone’s specific, significant act, or upon reaching a realization of how an accumulation of their little gestures has influenced your life for good. Write them to your family members and friends, to both supervisors and subordinates, to service people who will be surprised you even recognize their work. Write them to people you know well, and to strangers – authors, musicians, athletes, politicians, pastors – who you don’t know personally, but have impacted your life. Write them to anyone and everyone who has ever made your life easier, safer, healthier, more interesting, more joyful.

So too, write thank you notes not only in the form of an immediate response to a service or gift, but as a follow-up months or years later; e.g., “I was thinking today of how amazing our trip was last summer, and wanted to thank you again for showing me such a good time.” “Three years after you gave me that piece of advice, I want you to know the impact it’s continued to have on my life.”

Remember to remember.


“The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth. It is obvious that man is himself a traveler; that the purpose of this world is not ‘to have and to hold’ but ‘to give and serve.’ There can be no other meaning.” –Sir Wilfred Grenfell

“We can be thankful to a friend for a few acres or a little money; and yet for the freedom and command of the whole earth, and for the great benefits of our being, our life, health, and reason, we look upon ourselves as under no obligation.” –Seneca

One of the greatest ways to express gratitude is to not just thank others for what they’ve given to you, but to try to pay it forward by striving to give back to the world. Service is in fact a spiritual discipline in and of itself, and springs from the conviction that in light of all you’ve been blessed with, how else could you respond? You’ve taken from the pot of the universe, and thus feel moved to put something back in.

Service is the attempt to meet the physical, emotional, relational, and/or financial needs of others. Or as Adele A. Calhoun puts it: “Service is a way of offering resources, time, treasure, influence, and expertise for the care, protection, justice, and nurture of others.”

Service can take bigger and more structured forms: volunteering to be a Big Brother, or to staff a soup kitchen, or to build houses, but it’s also needed in smaller, more sporadic doses: providing someone with rides to church or doctors’ appointments, cleaning up an elderly woman’s yard, shoveling snow for a disabled neighbor, fixing someone’s faucet.

Service can take more obvious forms, as well as manifest in acts we may not think of as acts of service, but decidedly are. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster lists several examples in this vein:

“Guarding the reputation of others is a deep and lasting service.”

“There is the service of being served.”

“There is the service of common courtesy.”

“There is the service of hospitality.”

“There is the service of listening.”

To find the service you were called to do, seek to match your personal gifts with the world’s needs; in fact, you can best show gratitude for the gifts you’ve been bestowed, by using them not only to benefit your own life but the lives of others. Everyone’s talents are needed in some way; as Paul says in the New Testament, communities are like physical bodies, and each part has a role to play. If you have a more “showy” gift for, say, singing, or teaching, or speaking, that’s great. But if you’re adept as administration, or budgeting, or organizing — at working behind the scenes — your service is just as valuable. Everyone has an important personal ministry to fulfill.

If you’re not sure what that ministry is, just jump in anywhere and experiment with offering your help in different areas. As Donald S. Whitney notes, “the best way to discover and confirm which spiritual gift is yours is through serving.”

Keep in mind that even when your service is aligned with your gifts, it won’t always be easy and will quite often be difficult. It’s called a discipline for a reason.

Ironically enough, one of the hardest parts of engaging in gratitude-driven service, is not feeling appreciated for your efforts! Even though you may seek to lead a life of thankfulness, doesn’t mean that everyone will return the favor. The ego naturally cries out against laboring in the absence of affirmation, recognition, status. You have to have the courage to face ingratitude, and to serve not for any credit, but simply because it’s the right thing to do. As Seneca says, “It is another’s fault if he be ungrateful, but it is mine if I do not give.”

One way to stay motivated to perform unheralded acts of service is to remember that, as Foster observes, your act isn’t “only for the sake of the person served”:

“Hidden, anonymous ministries affect even people who know nothing of them. They sense a deeper love and compassion among people though they cannot account for the feeling. If a secret service is done on their behalf, they are inspired to deeper devotion, for they know that the well of service is far deeper than they can see. It is a ministry that can be engaged in frequently by all people. It sends ripples of joy and celebration through any community of people.”

Service is also difficult because it can be so dull, so lowly; it insults our sense of ourselves as made for only interesting, important work. As Foster observes:

“In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than his word to wash feet. Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. . . . But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”

Despite these obstacles to living the spiritual discipline of service, its pursuit is incredibly worthwhile. While the other disciplines can turn our gaze inward, service defeats our “morbid self-consciousness,” and moves us to look beyond ourselves. Nothing else “matures” the soul in the same way. As Foster argues:

“Of all the classical Spiritual Disciplines, service is the most conducive to the growth of humility. When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirits.”

In losing your life in the service of others, you truly do find it.

Be sure to listen to our podcast with Dr. Emmons about gratitude:

Series Conclusion

“It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the solider performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” –Seneca

“It is only since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that the Christian West made ‘belief’—the acceptance of certain creedal propositions—‘the first postulate’ of religious life. In the West, we have developed a culture that is rational, scientific, and pragmatic; we feel obliged to satisfy ourselves that a proposition is true before we base our lives upon it, and to establish a principle to our satisfaction before we apply it. In the premodern period, however, in all the major world faiths, the main emphasis was not on belief but on behavior. First, you changed your lifestyle and only then could you experience God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the Dao as a living reality.” –Patrick Leigh Fermor

We began this series by exploring the way that training the soul is very similar to training the body. Just like the physical body, spiritual muscles will atrophy if they aren’t regularly, purposely exercised, and such exercise requires effort, pain, discipline. Just like building physical strength improves your day-to-day life, while also preparing you for emergencies, developing spiritual strength expands the possibilities of ordinary existence, while also ensuring you’re ready to grapple with serious moral issues and temptations.

Just like physical training too, with its libraries of different exercises, and the commitment required to perform them, you may be intimidated by the idea of starting a spiritual training program. We’ve covered eight disciplines in this series, and that’s only a portion of all those that exist. Even just incorporating these eight alone into your daily life may seem like a daunting prospect.

But there’s plenty of good news on this score to put your mind at ease.

First, several disciplines act as a “containers” for others, and several can be done at the same time. For example, while you experience a space of solitude and silence, you can also be fasting, and you can use the time to study or practice self-examination (which includes gratitude) as well; in other words, in only 10-20 minutes a day, you can legitimately practice 4 or 5 spiritual disciplines at the same time. The disciplines can also often be practiced without changing your schedule at all; turn off your car stereo, and your commute to work becomes a time of solitude and silence, in which you can reflect on what you’re grateful for, or work your way through the examen. Training the soul is as simple and accessible as utilizing the many possibilities in spare moments.  

Keep in mind as well, that disciplines like gratitude and simplicity do not always need to be trained in specially set-aside sessions, but rather can be exercised in the small decisions you make throughout the day.

Additionally, while each spiritual discipline should be included in your life in some form, they don’t all have to be given the same time and attention. There are likely some that come more naturally to you, and some that are more of a struggle and which need more work. Maybe you’re a naturally grateful person, who loves to serve others, but you struggle with making time to be alone. Maybe you’re diligent about studying the scriptures, but never turn that lens on yourself. Maybe you’re good at working towards almost all the disciplines at once – but struggle with simplicity!

Pay attention not only to what disciplines you feel a lack of in your life, but those you feel magnetically drawn to. These desires can be important signposts. Engaging in these disciplines more deeply may unlock something vital about your gifts and potential, and help crystallize your life’s purpose.

Know that it’s better not to get crazy excited about a discipline, plunge into it hardcore for a week, and then abandon it all together, then it is to aim for slow and steady progress. While it’s good to approach the disciplines with passion and excitement, realize that the excitement you feel will fade, and ebb and flow. Just like there are days you are more or less enthused about hitting the gym, sometimes you’ll be more and or less eager to practice the spiritual disciplines. Just like there are physical workouts that feel harder and easier to get through, expect to find that some sessions with the spiritual disciplines are deeply engrossing and nourishing, while others feel dry and unfruitful. Rather than feeling that resistance means you’re on the wrong track, or are just an undisciplined person who isn’t cut out for these practices, remember that friction is both natural and healthy; whether you’re lifting tangible or metaphorical weights, it’s during the “grind” that you get stronger. Make your commitment to the practice of the spiritual disciplines something that’s clear in both head and heart, and based more on regular habit than mood.

Finally, when your motivation flags, remind yourself that liberation comes through discipline. There are two kinds of freedom in this world: freedom from, and freedom to. When you do hard things – and living strenuously applies to physical, mental, and spiritual pursuits alike – you lose the freedom to follow the status quo, blindly follow your desires, and live an easy, mindless life; but you gain the freedom to master your lower impulses, reach for higher ideals, agilely navigate challenges, and access dimensions of existence that are hidden from the average man’s view.

Train for strength: Strength in body. Strength in mind, Strength in soul.

Series’ Selected Sources and Further Reading

Read the Other Articles in the Series

An Introduction 
Study & Self-Examination 
Solitude & Silence

General Overview of the Spiritual Disciplines

Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster

Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele A. Calhoun

Study and Self-Examination

The Jesuits Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin, SJ 

Silence and Solitude

Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter by Philip Koch

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton


The Simple Life by Charles Wagner


Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites by Lynne M. Baab

The Sacred Art of Fasting by Thomas Ryan, CSP


Gratitude Works! By Robert A. Emmons

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