It's World Gratitude Day on 21st September - a day established in 1977 by the United Nations Meditation Group to encourage us to be more thankful for what we have. The world could certainly do with a nudge towards being more appreciative. Despite having so much more opportunity, more stuff and more potential to flourish, modern society is reportedly less happy than 50 years ago. This downward spiral is partly due to a modern-day default focus on lack, coupled with increasingly higher expectations. We expect more and thus feel inadequate when our excessive expectations are not met. And that feeling of lacking wealth or health creates more sadness than being wealthy or healthy creates happiness. Sad yet true. Could regularly counting our blessings be the answer?
A stack of scientific studies have been carried out on the topic of gratitude, revealing how gratitude is good for health and well-being. These studies have revealed that counting your blessings and focusing on what you are grateful for makes you a better friend, student, partner and even parent. Appreciation is good for the heart, according to the American Journal of Cardiology and the immune system too.
I can remember the first time I felt a proper sense of gratitude. Not just grateful for toys or mum's smile or my friendships, but for being able to walk, something my mother couldn't do.
Herself a sporty child, she had been confined to a wheelchair in her twenties due to suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. I remember being told by a teacher, "there's no such word as 'can't". And so I recited this to my incredibly patient mother. "Mummy, there's no such thing as can't. So you CAN walk. Please, let's just try. Let's walk up the hallway, we can do it together." She humoured me. But of course she couldn't. She had a crippling disease. I remember her smiling and telling me, "I may not be able to walk, but there's lots that I can do, and I can watch you hop, skip and jump through life." I realised then, aged six, that if you couldn't do something, you could at least focus on the stuff you could do instead of what you couldn't. At that moment, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude, for having my strong, positive and always-smiling mother as my mother, and for being fortunate enough to be able to walk myself. But I wished for her sake that she could walk too. Each time I blew out my birthday candles I wished that one day she'd walk again.
That childhood introduction to gratitude set me in good stead for the loss I would experience later in life. Studies have shown that gratitude enables you to cope better with loss. A WebMD survey even revealed that feelings of gratitude were at high levels after 9/11.
Having an attitude of gratitude has certainly enabled me to cope with loss of my parents, as have my daily gratitude walks. My mother sadly passed away when I was 17 and my father sadly passed away on Fathers' Day this year while I was writing the final pages of The Flourish Handbook. And yet, while obviously devastated, I have found my daily gratitude walk incredibly helpful as I still have so much to be grateful for, including the fact that I had THEM as my parents, albeit for a short while. For that I feel blessed.
Ultimately, focusing on lack won't bring my parents back. My regular gratitude walk has boosted my resilience and strength. It gives me time to remember fond memories and reflect. During tough times it has made me consider how lucky I am to have such supportive friends, an amazing other half and incredible daughter of my own. And, importantly, gratitude helps me to focus my attention away from what I lack, and shine a light onto what I have now.
Now I feel grateful for everyday small moments which make life big and wonderful. From the sight of a butterfly or luxuriating in an almost too-hot bath. As well as intense gratitude for good health, family and friends, I feel gratitude for having the time, space and inclination to go on these daily walks in this amazing place with all of this sky stretching out before me. Gratitude empowers me and heals me. It bolsters resilience.
Expressing gratitude is the most promising path to sustainable happiness that I have discovered, even amongst the sadness. Sometimes you need to face adversity, have something taken from you or almost taken from you to truly appreciate what you do have; to realise that what you have now is enough; to focus on the good stuff and see what matters most to you.
The "I want" culture that we currently live in has a tendency to do the opposite, to focus on lack which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of never having enough.
And yet, if you are "thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough", as Oprah Winfrey says. Leading authors, from Eckhart Tolle to Louise Hay agree that being grateful attracts more to be grateful about. Getting what you want is a bonus by-product of gratitude. Indeed, the process of counting blessings is profoundly powerful.
It's a no-brainer that, instead of focusing on lack, we should focus on and be grateful for all that we have. Because there is truly always something to be grateful for. Life is a gift. Today, let's celebrate that fact. Say thank you to someone; start a daily or weekly gratitude journal; go on regular gratitude walks and/or create a gratitude jar filled with scribbled notes or a gratitude board packed with photos that showcase all which you are grateful for.
I have learned that when life knocks you down, there are plenty of reasons to get back up again and be thankful. Thank you.
Cheryl Rickman is author of The Flourish Handbook.