I have in a previous blog post written about gratitude as one of 12 scientifically proven strategies to increase our happiness. Gratitude for what we have, gives rise to empathy and makes us happier, more spiritual, more forgiving, less materialistic and less prone to anxiety, envy, depression, anger and bitterness.
The Dalai Lama has often stated that the meaning of life is to be happy, and gratitude (as a key to happiness) has a strong position in Buddhism. But in this tradition, the concept has a slightly different meaning than we are used to. In English we talk about gratitude as a feeling – to feel gratitude. The corresponding concept in pāli (the original language of the Buddhist scriptures) is kataññutā, which can be translated as knowing what has been done for you, i.e. a clear intellectual insight rather than a general feeling.
Since it is easier to arrive at an insight than to evoke a feeling, there is a meaning to this approach. Kataññutā can be cultured through a special meditation (kataññutā bhavana), contemplating what other people have done for us. This is done stepwise, from the care and nurturing we have received from our parents, to everything we have learned from our teachers, to the insight into how all our belongings, the clothes on our body and the food on our table is a result of other people’s work and efforts. So, everything we have, have had and will have in our lives, is the fruit of countless people’s actions.
But if now gratitude leads to happiness (and who does not want to be happy), why does gratitude have such a relatively small place in our lives? There can be many different reasons for this.
Firstly, we may not realise what has been given to us. We are so used to having clothes, food, money to buy things for, friends and a good health that we do not realise the efforts of other people behind all this. Without the realisation of what has been done for us, we cannot feel gratitude.
For various reasons, we may also not appreciate what has been done for us. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to revolt against their parents and decide to be exactly the opposite of what they are. The lifestyle of people around can feel fake and perhaps more like a burden than an asset. It goes without saying that such an approach does not promote harmony and happiness.
A third reason may be that we are so self-centred that we perceive that we deserve and are entitled to everything we have. We may see our work and our assets as a result of our own efforts and our own hard work. What we then forget is how privileged we are to be born in a place and in a time where all this has been possible and that we have always had supportive people (parents, teachers, friends, colleagues) around us.
Finally, and perhaps the most common reason why we do not cultivate our gratitude is simply rut and forgetfulness. Of course, we realise intellectually the importance of others for our own well-being, but we are so engrossed in everything that happens to us every day that we never stop to reflect on everything we can be thankful for.
Tips: A good way to culture your gratitude is to briefly reflect on the past day and everything that happened to you that you have other people to thank for. If someone has done something out of the ordinary it can also be a good habit to write a short letter or e-mail to express your appreciation. This does not take long, and this simple action will bring joy to both the recipient and to yourself, and eventually give you many more friends.