It seems popular these days to speak of gratitude as an almost magical inner experience. As if feeling thankful is, quite literally, some sort of magnet, a means of attracting the good life and all it affords. That is, love, abundance, freedom, and general life satisfaction. I emphatically disagree with this viewpoint.
Of course, I’ve written previously—and at some length—defending my belief that gratitude is, in fact, a key to the good life, even a gateway to freedom. But I’m not sure I did an effective job at explaining why I think that. Indeed, if I’m going to be honest, I don’t know that I quite grasped it myself until recently. Not until I started thinking in terms of personal responsibility, specifically Rollo May’s assertion that we have a duty to ourselves to be alive. For being active, decisive, creative, and engaged. For really living during the moments of our lives. (Or at least, that’s how I choose to interpret him.)
When looked at through this lens, it becomes crystal clear to me why gratitude is a path to the good life, to personal freedom, to becoming a fully-functioning human being. And why there’s nothing magical or otherworldly about it.
It’s a thought that struck me this afternoon, as I was riding my bike: you cannot be grateful for what you do not use. You cannot appreciate what you do not see, hear, taste, smell, touch. You cannot be thankful for all that your body can do if you do not use it. That is, if you are sedentary. You cannot appreciate the birds singing in your backyard if you don’t take the time to look at and listen to them. You cannot truly appreciate the food you eat unless you learn how to prepare it with care, with a bit of creativity, and then savor it. You cannot be thankful for your home if you do not care for and maintain it, and you cannot be thankful for the people in your life if you do not tend to your relationships.
You cannot be grateful for what you do not use. If you want to be grateful, first be responsible. Be active. Be fully, sensorially alive and engaged. Be creative with the stuff of everyday life, and it will transform before your eyes. It will become miraculous, rather than dull or routine. This isn’t the stuff of magic. It’s the difference between being fully alive and being inert. Indeed, it is in this sense that I would link gratitude to inner freedom: combatting inertia. Passivity. Conformity. Drudgery. It is the difference between choosing to be active, to make something of the moment or letting it pass you by, letting it imprison you, or numbing your responses to it.
If, in fact, there’s an alchemical aspect to this equation, I think it would have to be this: you cannot help but feel grateful when you are fully alive. It is the natural byproduct of living creatively, actively, genuinely, of being responsible for your existence. You cannot be grateful for what you do not use. Use the life within you, and you will live a grateful life.