The grateful life
Harvard experts say gratitude is not only beneficial for individual health, but also for the wellbeing of society.
To my father, whose left leg was afflicted with polio: Thank you for teaching me what it means to be a man and to walk with dignity.”
I want to thank my mom and my grandmothers, who have taught me that women are powerful."
Mommy, I want you to know I have the privilege of putting on this white coat and feeling like a superhero because of you."
LaShyra “Lash” Nolen
What are you grateful for?
Join members of the Harvard community and share something you’re thankful for this year.
Living gratefully during a pandemic
Finding gratitude in challenging times
On the “Harvard EdCast” podcast, Kristi Nelson says we should determine what things are essential and stay connected to those, while figuring out how to let the rest go.
Kristi Nelson: The big challenge right now is how not to take anything for granted. Because I think this is what we’re learning is, there’s so much uncertain. There’s so much that we used to have that we don’t have anymore, so much is unpredictable. And I think this whole idea of returning to what really matters, remembering what matters the most to us. I think that’s how we live gratefully during a pandemic, is knowing what’s essential, being connected to those things and figuring out how to bless and release the rest of it. Just for now, knowing that we have to learn to adapt to changing circumstances and cultivate the interior approach to life, that will give us the gratification we’re looking for, not look for it from outside circumstances.
Jill Anderson: So I imagine a lot of people have been asking about, how you actually do that and put that into action during this year.
Kristi Nelson: Well, I really consider every moment a grateful living practice, right? So it’s not just gratitude as we’ve typically known it, which tends to be super fleeting and very conditional and transactional for the most part, right. So how do we get gratitude? It’s Oh, well I’ve got exactly what I want. So I feel grateful. I got what I needed, I feel grateful. And I think it’s something else which is really to appreciate the most basic things. And I’ve been talking a lot with people about if we can become rooted literally in being grateful for the breath, just our very basic ability to breathe and not take that for granted, because we know that it could be otherwise and around us, a lot of people who used to be able to breathe on their own can no longer breathe on their own, right?
So COVID is a huge teaching about what we can lose. And so how do we take the most basic simple things in our lives, and wrap those things in our gratitude, wrap those things. So having the ability to walk, having the ability to get outdoors at all, having technology, having electricity. Just seeing all of the ordinary things in our lives as extraordinary, that’s the sure-fire way to feeling grateful all the time, is see everything as an amazing gift that you didn’t use to have some people don’t have. You might never have at some point again, and we can’t count on things. So when we have them savor them, treasure them, relish them.
Jill Anderson: Why do people seem to have such a hard time doing that?
Kristi Nelson: That’s the million dollar question. I really honestly think it has to do with the culture that we live in and the messages that we get. And especially in economic systems that rely on commerce, we become consumers and we have this idea that if we only had more or better or different than we would be happier and we’d be more grateful. But the truth is, I think the people who are happiest if you travel around the world, it’s not always more that makes us happy. And yet we forget that. We get caught in the trance of consumption. We get caught in that hamster wheel of everything, more status, more degrees, more stuff. And I think it takes us away really from what matters. So I do think it’s quite culturally bound. And I also think that we can therefore unlearn it.
We can cultivate something different by being conscious of the ways that those messages are impacting us all the time, and the ways that we are being subjected to images and messages that make us envious covetous. And we want more and we want something different and there’s this new thing. And even in the pandemic that hasn’t shifted, having things is still pitched as something to aspire to. And yet what we know really matters is being close to the people we love, staying connected to our hearts. The things that really, really matter. Our values, those things are unconditional and those things we can access any time.
Jill Anderson: This may seem like a silly question to ask, but I keep thinking, are there people out there who are just good at gratitude other cultures? That type of thing. Is this something you really need to learn how to do?
Kristi Nelson: Some of us are raised by parents who have a much higher degree of being grateful for what they have. And so that’s inculcated in us, that’s a benefit to grow up that way. And to be taught that the simple things really matter. That it’s who you are, not what you have that matters and how you are that matters. Those are really beneficial. And then also of course, culturally, it’s something that we can learn and we can practice all the time, for sure. And lucky are the people who know that being grateful is the path to happiness. That happiness doesn’t make us grateful, right. So that’s something we say all the time, if you’re not grateful for what you have and you don’t learn that, and it really is learned to shift your orientation, to change your gaze, to experience things differently.
And that happens often with wake-up calls Jill, right? People… You can have things that happen that absolutely wake you up. So you’re more grateful for everything. And so it is learned, it’s learnable. And sometimes another cultures Buddhism is really about simple living and about appreciating what’s here and now in the moment, much more. We tend to be future-oriented, we kind of lose the moment for the future. I think there’s lots of ways to learn this, but I think being really awake to what matters, which is with COVID is offering us the opportunity to do for sure, this pandemic. Can we be awake all the time much more to what really matters, because we can’t count on anything so much right now. The old things that you could expect are no longer in play in the same way.
So it’s a good idea to be awake and not need a wake up call. I love saying that because wake up calls are scary and wake up calls can be hard, and we don’t want to have to lose or almost lose the things that matter most to us to know that they matter.
Jill Anderson: Right. But that often seems like what happens, right?
Kristi Nelson: It is.
Jill Anderson: I’m wondering if there’s a way to cultivate gratitude through education and what that might look like?
Kristi Nelson: Well, we have a lot of teachers who are really interested in teaching from a grateful place. And certainly if you’re a professor or a teacher, it helps to ground yourself in your own practice. So boy, there’s so much about education that we can appreciate. And it’s so easy to take it for granted. I think part of it is the mindset that we go into teaching with and that we go into learning with. And we can start classes and start our learning experiences, really registering what a privilege it is to have education, what an extraordinary gift it is. And how precious it is to have these moments where we’re learning and to create a construct around a learning experience, that really values learning and values teaching. And recognizes that in a relative frame of things, we’re incredibly lucky to have access to education period. And there’s lots of ways to help teach students about that.
Jill Anderson: How about teaching young children gratitude? Why is that important and how do you do that?
Kristi Nelson: The reason it’s important is because the absolutely most content joyful, generous people are the most grateful people. If you look around, it’s pretty verifiable that if you see people who are really grateful for everything that they have, grateful to be alive, grateful for a roof over their heads, grateful for food on their table, grateful for family, for friends, for love, grateful for every… you just see that all and wonder, and that’s the pathway to happiness. So it’s important to teach it because if you raise children from an early age, having that framework for happiness is really about being grateful for what you have and not being always caught by covetousness and consumption. You’re going to have happier kids and they’re going to be more generous. They’re going to be more… There’s so much research about gratitude now, more altruistic behaviors and more compassionate behaviors.
And how we do that, I think is as parents making sure that our way of going through our life is not taking what we have for granted. And watching our own behavior because of course, what do kids learn? They learn from what they see and hear not from what they’re told. So how do we, ourselves as parents model that contentment, that simplicity is enough rather than being run by scarcity and insatiability in some way. So we can teach a lot, taking moments to stop to really recognize the gift of a beautiful meal, to understand it, to deconstruct it a little bit, to talk about it, to start our days with gratitude, with kids, to end our days with gratitude with kids. And to punctuate moments throughout the day, where you really ask kids about what they’re grateful for and about what they could lift up in their awareness, that they could be more grateful for.
What do you want to be more grateful for? Teaching them about tending and appreciating what they have rather than wanting more. And I think that’s a really powerful lesson for all of us, honestly.
Jill Anderson: Yeah. I think a lot of adults, myself included struggle with this. I’m wondering what’s a simple, accessible exercise that people can do to help cultivate gratitude and gratefulness that is easy to stick with?
Kristi Nelson: Yeah, absolutely. So there’s this practice that our founder Brother David Steindl-Rast, he kind of came up with kids, it’s stop, look, go and which we do when we’re crossing the streets and all that stuff, so they kids know that. But it really is about stopping and learning to notice. So I’ll tell you a teeny bit about this and then I’ll tell you a very simple practice that I think really helps with perspective enhancement, but stop is really slowing down pausing awareness. So like literally so many families at Thanksgiving say grace before their meal, or just appreciate the food and talk about whether it’s an indigenous blessing or some kind of cultural blessing from your past or… It’s not about being religious. It’s about seeing the act of being able to eat and having food as sacred, as profound as a gift, not something to be taking for granted because a lot of people don’t have the food that we do. And we could have those moments of stopping and appreciating before we do things way more.
So stop look go is kind of stop, pause, become aware, notice, notice what you’re grateful for and notice the opportunity and then do something with it. So before you take a bath, before you brush your teeth, just take a second and pause and notice when you turn on the water that water comes out, notice that there’s hot water and cold water. Literally. I mean, these are not small things and it’s not just about saying, Oh, you know, some people somewhere don’t have it. It’s like if we lose power, we’re so grateful for electricity. The rest of the time we forget it, we completely forget it and we take it for granted. Lose power for four days and then get it back. You’ll appreciate electricity a lot more. And you won’t take it for granted for about a day. And then you can take it for granted again.
So here’s one little exercise that I think people of all ages can do. And this is I think a really important one and it’s about changing our language, and therefore changing our experience of our lives. And it’s something that we call seeing our responsibilities instead of burdensome as privileges and as opportunities. So when I’m doing workshops or I’m working with people, I have people write down, think of five things you have to do before you go to bed tonight. And I can usually write a list of 20 things. And I have lists all around me right now on my desk, all the things I have to do and it’s a Friday. So it’s all the things I want to do before the weekend I have to do, I have to do. And I feel that as a burden. And then cross those words I have to out and put, I get to.
So, I get to write this email. I get to go to this meeting. I get to have a conversation. I get to complete a project. I get to run an errand. I get to make dinner for my kids. And that one shift is so profound, it can change literally kind of everything, both in how you experience as a parent, the responsibilities of being a parent and how kids experience the responsibilities of being a kid. It’s really profound because then when you say, you know what? You get to do homework. Not everybody gets to do homework, not everybody… And it’s really just putting yourself in a larger frame of reference, a larger vantage point. A higher level perspective. It’s all about perspective enhancement. Everything I’m talking about to me is about perspective enhancement and learning that perspective is something that we are in charge of absolutely almost all the time.
And yet we lose it, we get it back. We lose it, we lose it. We get… So it’s a continual practice of gaining perspective and enriching our perspective. And that’s a very intentional practice.
Jill Anderson: I love that because it does, it automatically just makes you look at everything differently. Nothing feels like a burden and suddenly feels like a privilege, right? If you just start thinking, I get to.
Kristi Nelson: Yeah, it’s pretty stunning because when we really don’t take life for granted, then we know that there are a lot of people who would give anything for what we have. And they’re no longer here. And in COVID a lot of people are losing their lives. A lot of people are in hospitals. There’s people who would give anything to be able to get up out of a bed and walk into another room, but they can’t. So it’s like, how do we forget in our moments what huge privileges and opportunities these are that we have every single day of our lives. And we don’t want to wait for these wake up calls that are so serious, in order to really fully appreciate what’s immediately at our disposal, what’s available to us.
Jill Anderson: In your work, what have you discovered about people that makes it so challenging to kind of stick with this change perspective?
Kristi Nelson: I think one of the biggest things is dividing the world up into wrong and writing good and bad. It sounds so super simplistic, but those of us who are beleaguered by judging our emotional experiences and sorting them into, this is an okay feeling this is a bad feeling as opposed to kind of befriending and embracing whatever we feel, like trying to really create a bigger space for self-acceptance and self-compassion. And the people who have the hardest time, I think are people who are really driven. People who are… The more kind of opinionated we are, the more besieged we are by standards of kind of where we’ve bought into something outside ourselves. And we’re really subject to the external influences around us.
That makes it really harder because the more that we think that it’s all about our circumstances, that happiness is all about our circumstances or gratitude is all a better circumstances. Oh, I’ll be grateful when, or I’ll be happy when, I mean, I think the pursuit of happiness has really put us into some funny thing where it’s like, I’ve got to have that stuff and it’s all out there. And I think people think of gratitude really similarly. And I think of it as really much more of an inside job or an orientation. And so the more that we’ve put those things outside of us that are going to make us happy, the harder it’s going to be to really accept how profoundly it really is an interior orientation to how we go through life.
Jill Anderson: Do you think gratefulness builds resilience?
Kristi Nelson: Oh yeah. If we recognize that we can really cultivate that experience of being grateful in most, every moment of our lives. Not for everything that happens, but all of our moments, then it’s something to return to as a baseline it’s always there. And the truth is all kinds of really hard things can happen. But think about the people who say, wow, it could have been worse. I got a really terrible car accident, but it could have been worse. Or this is a really hard thing, but I’m luckier than a lot of people. Or, wow, I had a really hard day this too shall pass. There’s so much for me to be grateful for. Look, I’m still alive, even though I’m not connected to it. I can feel that there’s love in my life and there’s enough in my life. I can connect with things that are gifts and that I can experience wonder about and appreciation of.
When we have the ability to do those things and those are really learned and gratitude, I think is a deep reinforcement of them. Then resilience is that organic outcome. I think it makes us much more adaptable, much more flexible. We have a returning place. We have a place to keep returning, which is wow, life is a gift. It is precious and it is fleeting. I’m here right now. What am I going to do about that? It could be otherwise it could always be otherwise. And when we forget that it’s not morbid, it’s just really remembering that life is a femoral that it’s unpredictable, that it’s uncertain for all of us. And we’re reminded of that now, but it’s always been true. Always been true.
Jill Anderson: Oh, Kristi. Thank you so much for finding the time to talk to me.
Kristi Nelson: Oh joy. Thank you. It’s been a real pleasure Jill, thank you.
Jill Anderson: Kristi Nelson is the executive director of the Network for Grateful Living and the author of Wake Up Grateful. The transformative practice of taking nothing for granted. I’m Jill Anderson and this is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard graduate school of education. Thanks for listening.