‘A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts itself to great things’ – Plato
The traditional Japanese tea ceremony etiquette (Chado, or the Way of the Tea), calls for those who take part in the ceremony to express gratitude in words and actions for the environment in which they are drinking, for the beverage they are sipping and for their host. They may admire the design of the tea cup, compliment the taste of the tea and bow in respect to the host to focus the ceremony’s participants on appreciating the ceremony and all that surrounds them. The Tea Ceremony captures all the essential elements of Japanese philosophy and artistic beauty, weaving in the four principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity. Since deep respect and sincere gratitude are fundamental principles of the Tea Ceremony, the host is keenly conscious of this relationship, even in this simple process of preparing tea for his or her guest.
In Japan, this traditional tea drinking ceremony and Buddhist beliefs developed alongside each other. The ceremony, called Sado, involves a precise pattern of behaviour designed to create a quiet and inner peace. It is very much like the description that Kakuzo Okakura wrote in his Book of Tea in 1906. In it, he stated ‘Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order’. This interlude with tea can help an individual learn to live in the moment, to take time to enjoy the beauty of simple objects and to express gratitude.
Until quite recently, in contemporary society, gratitude and its benefits were rarely discussed, often overlooked and usually dismissed. Instead, we tended to scrutinise other emotions such as anger, resentment, happiness and romantic love. Gratitude is a deep, complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in human happiness. It can be defined as the quality of being thankful, and involves a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. Robert Emmons, arguably the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, reasons that gratitude has two key components. First, it can be seen as an affirmation of goodness; the recognition that good things exist in the world—the gifts and benefits that we have received. We then recognise that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. Gratitude involves a humble dependence on others. Interpersonal relationships and rich experiences often afford us the goodness we are grateful for in the first place. This social dimension is a relationship-strengthening emotion that requires us to see how we have been supported and affirmed by other people. This does not mean that life is perfect, without burdens and hassles, but when we view life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify the goodness in our life, to appreciate these gifts and also to pay them forward. Because so much of human life is centred on giving, receiving and repaying, gratitude is a pivotal concept for our social interactions. Famed sociologist, Georg Simmel declared that gratitude is ‘the moral memory of mankind’ (Simmel, 2015). Without gratitude, society would crumble.
The practice of gratitude provides the antidote for two core woes that pervade our human experience. The feeling of ‘insufficiency’—of not having enough or being enough—is a fundamental sense of self-dissatisfaction that often leads to an incessant busyness, in an attempt to get more or be more, to somehow fill this inner feeling of discontentment and lack. Living with an inner attitude of scarcity invokes in us a sense that happiness and satisfaction will only be achieved if we seek inner satisfaction from external forces. This can keep us on a never-ending merry-go-round of pursuits and distractions, always waiting for and expecting happiness to come to us from the outside. The practice of gratitude reverses this pattern of looking outward for satisfaction, and instantly puts us in touch with all the many gifts and blessings already present in our life. ‘We shift from spinning in perpetual motion on the wheel of seeking happiness from the outside-in, to generating happiness from the inside-out’ (Levey, 2011).
Gratitude suffers from seeming simple—so simple that some of us might be tempted to discard it as trifling, unimportant nonsense (Lythcott-Haims, 2015). Research on the practice of gratitude over the past 15 years has shown that it has many benefits—physically, mentally and emotionally, and that these benefits are available to anyone who practises gratitude, even in the midst of adversity. Gratitude brings us happiness and boosts feelings of optimism while lowering anxiety and depression. Gratitude has benefits for our bodies—it strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, encourages us to exercise more and to take greater care of our health. Grateful people can boast better sleeping patterns. Resilience and relationships are enhanced. Gratitude promotes forgiveness and engenders feelings of altruism and compassion. For adolescents, gratitude offers rich rewards—greater life satisfaction, more positive emotions and an enhanced connection to family and to the wider community.
The science of gratitude is linked to the release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which plays a role in regulating the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, and specifically boosts our bonds with other people. Feelings of gratitude directly activate brain regions associated with dopamine. Dopamine assists in regulating movement and emotional responses. It enables us not only to see rewards but to take action to move towards them. Subjects who showed more gratitude overall had higher levels of dopamine in the hypothalamus. This is particularly important as the hypothalamus controls a wide array of essential bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping. It also influences metabolic function and stress levels. This evidence of brain activity provides a plausible link as to how gratitude can exert such wide-ranging effects, from improved sleep to decreased depression.
In 2008, artist and photographer Hailey Bartholomew designed the 365grateful project to explore the premise that the secret to happiness is based on reflection and gratitude. Her personal story about the extraordinary power of gratitude is uplifting. Each day for one full year, Bartholomew took a photograph of something in her day that she was thankful for and used these artworks to create a gratitude journal. Bartholomew credits her daily photoshoot with a reprogramming of her emotional perspective. Reflecting on the good around her on a daily basis restored her happiness and wellbeing and enhanced her relationships with others around her.
Simple acts, factored into our daily routines, can build positive momentum. Gratitude journals, gratitude letters, savouring the good in life and taking time to pause, reflect and recognise the positive in each day can cultivate an attitude of gratitude. And the good news is that the benefits we can receive through gratitude are not only available to people with a naturally grateful disposition. Feeling grateful is a skill that can be developed with time and practice, and we can reap its rich rewards along the way.
Bartholemew, H. (2008). 365grateful project [E-Reader version]. Retrieved from http://365grateful.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/10-projects-ebook-2013.pdf
Emmons, R. (2016). What is gratitude? Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/gratitude/definition
Levey, J. (2011, August 31). Understanding the science of gratitude [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-michelle-levey/understanding-gratitude_b_888208.html
Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015). How to raise an adult. London, UK: Pan Macmillan.
Okakura, K. (1906). Book of tea. Clarendon, USA: Tuttle Publishing.