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Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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November 22nd, 2011

What Works: The Gratitude List

A helpful tool to encourage a more grateful attitude towards life


leaf image © 2009 Phil Fox Rose

leaf photo: ©2009 Phil Fox Rose

This is the last What Works column to run before Thanksgiving, so I want to talk to you about gratitude. I could write a dozen columns about gratitude in various forms; for this column, I’m going to focus on one simple tool: the gratitude list.

When you find yourself feeling particularly ungrateful about your life — or your spiritual director or friend points out to you that you are — stop and remind yourself of all the things for which you can be grateful.

There are some obvious things. You often hear people say, “at least I’ve got my health.” That might sound trite, but if you have experienced a serious loss of your own good health and then gotten it back, or if someone close to you is deprived permanently of good health, you will know that good health is a great blessing. Another common item is family — partners, parents, children, whoever loves you unconditionally and gives you sustenance and support.

Not half full or half empty — just half full

Gratitude list items can also be seemingly trivial things — or at least things that might seem trivial to someone else. Sometimes, an item can be seen as a blessing or a negative. For example, I do not live with anyone else. I could focus on and feed feelings of loneliness. But I can also be grateful for the control I have over my environment and how easy it is to meditate and have silence whenever I want it. (Ask anyone with a big family about how precious that is!)

It’s important, even though this is a list, to not fall into thinking of it as a two-sided ledger. It’s not “I’m alone but at least I have peace and quiet”; it’s “I can have peace and quiet whenever I want in my home.”

And it’s not about seeing our cup as half full versus half empty. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has things they can be grateful for and things they wish were different. It’s about paying attention to the part that’s full.

Who cares about what you don’t have? Seriously. Think about that for a moment.

Focusing on what we don’t have, on expectations of things that have not materialized for us, only leads to anxiety and self-pity. It’s fine to want a more abundant life, but paradoxically — and great spiritual principles often are paradoxical — it is by being content with what we have that we can be open to seeing clearly what is around us, and seeing new opportunities.

Blessed are the poor in spirit

If you’ve ever been really close to someone who has a lot in the material realm, or if you are such a person, you already know that those with a lot of possessions experience as much trouble with gratitude as materially poor people.

I’d even go so far as to say that, often, people with fewer material things are more grateful. First of all, they are more aware of how close they are to losing those things. And secondly, those with a lot of things probably are that way because they have been driven by more attachment to things in the past. And even if that’s not the case, the pull of those things is powerful.

The beatitude says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3), because those who are poor are more easily focused on the spiritual, more naturally unattached, by the simple fact that they have fewer things to be attached to, fewer things pulling their attention away from God. This is why Jesus said it was nearly impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I’m not saying that if you are poor you should put that on the list. But, you know… you could. At least be grateful that you’ve been given the opportunity to see the true value of things more clearly.

Being truly thankful this Thanksgiving

This tool and others that encourage gratitude can be particularly helpful as we head into the holiday season. Because for those of us who feel short-changed on family love or God’s bounty, the very focus on thankfulness can quickly slip into feeling sorry for ourselves.

What can you be grateful for? Well, anything. There are absolutely no rules with a gratitude list. This is something you are doing for yourself. A gift to yourself. You can write down people, like family and loved ones, and facts, like good health. But also places, things, ideas, qualities, feelings — you name it, literally.

Doing a gratitude list can shift your perspective in an instant. So use this holiday not to reflect on how your Thanksgiving isn’t perfect, but rather as an opportunity to celebrate all that you have to be thankful for. If you need a little help with that, try doing a gratitude list. (And if you have a tradition at Thanksgiving dinner of going around and saying something you’re grateful for, think of this as prep work.)

Here’s a very partial list for myself. I am grateful for:

  • God, and the fact that I have been given some awareness
  • my health
  • my friends and loved ones
  • my sobriety
  • the opportunity I have to share God’s love with others one-on-one, and the exquisite gift of occasionally seeing the light go on in another’s eyes
  • whatever talent I have as a writer that perhaps lets me help a few people glimpse the love of God in their own life more clearly through my words
  • the opportunity to write this column
  • the insane overabundant beauty of nature, especially birds
  • a place to get away to nature regularly
  • a roof over my head and food on my table
  • an inquisitive mind that is easily amused and delighted by the glory of creation
  • my surrogate family, with whom I spend many holidays, including this upcoming Thanksgiving
  • my love of music of almost all types, which entertains me and, often, brings me closer to God

Is the gratitude list a spiritual tool you already use? If not, give it a try. Share your experiences and thoughts about the gratitude list tool, gratitude in general and feeling grateful in the holiday season. You can comment below.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Nancy

    For those who can use technical devices for spiritual purposes
    There is a Gratitude Journal app where you can list blessings daily. You can also insert a photo or drawing to go along with it.

  • Gwen

    I’m up to 90 on my gratitude list. I try to think of a few more things every day. I tend to notice the things I don’t like about my life first. I think that’s just my temperament. So I have to work hard to focus on the good things.

  • Go’e Cove

    Mary Ann: I know how you feel and I’ve absolutely been there. I don’t know your story and it’d details, but I’ve said the exact things you said. I’ve lost almost everything,from material to physical to emotional, usually due to the selfishness and greed and maliciousess and sneakiness of others, including family. Something about my personality makes people believe at first impression I am a very young, very flakey individual, and I have to FIGHT for a fair chance, which in and of itself makes EVERYTHING that much harder, from finding somewhere to live, to getting a job, to making a friend, to being treated with respect in almost ANY situation. Yes, we humans DO judge books by their covers and do fall for stereotypes, and woe be the person who truly IS how they’ve been perceived, let alone been mis-perceived such as I always am. (And when I tell people this common problem they never believe me til they witness it for themselves I’ve even been apologized to by people who misjudged me when if they didn’t apologize I’d never have known!).

    Fortunately, I ususally (but not always) overcome pre-conceived notions, and if one more person tells me “someday I’ll be grateful to look so young” I’ll lose it! I’m 48 and my youthfulness has cost me FAR more than it ever was a benefit.

    I’ve had amazingly bizarre and horrible illnesses, been abandoned by my family (due to THEIR issues: alcoholism, jealousy, “my not playing the game”). I’ve been hospitalized for depression, and have had dozens of surgeries for ailments that for years were explained as “being in my head”. Until very recently, I lived in daily fear of homelessness and would literally go hungry for weeks at a time as my employer/s didn’t or couldn’t pay me. My husband, completely out of the blue, left me, and as we worked at the same company, went over my head and used the “it would hurt morale for us both to work here” to have me “not fired but let go”, so suddenly I am without a job just as the job market plummeted. Car accidents, weird illnesses, abusive family and friends, sudden poverty, mental illness on top of plenty of “environmental factors explaining reactionary depression and anxiety”.

    Then one day, at the suggestion of someone else who I trusted, perhaps the ONLY person I trusted at that time, (and believe me I scoffed BIG TIME at her idead at the time), I eventually allowed myself, with her guidance, to be grateful that RIGHT NOW (right then), that very instant, I was NOT in excruciating pain, had a roof (albeit leaking) over my head, and had eaten. It had been years since I’d been abused and/or exploited and had had wonderful people devoting their time to helping me heal, so I wasn’t curled up hiding in a closet, under a bed, in my bathtub. And, even though I wasn’t sure from day to week how I’d feed him (the church and neighbors increasingly helped out as I increasingly allowed them to) I had (and still have) a magnificent dog. Suddenly I was SUFFUSED with gratitude. Just for that instant in time. Not about all the things I’d lost (including my house due to my sister squatting there and not paying rent), cars (due to friends of friends taking advantage of me in my dire illness with bogus bartering), decades of my life, reputation, self-esteem, privacy, confidence, to con-people, users, manipulators and addicts preying on my vulnerability, etc.). In that moment I was not thinking that next week the city might take my leaking house (for which I’d paid to have repaired by the carpenters who never finished and just disappeared), not thinking about that I might be hungry for four or five more days as any food I got gobble up or I’d give to my dog, not even thinking that the RIGHT thing to do would be to give UP my dog.

    But just being in a “house” (no electricity, no phone, about to move into a tent, in MAINE;, warm, food in my belly, a patient, wise non-judgemental person nurturing me. I began noticing *things*; nicknacks that’d been my grandmothers, a gorgeous view (that I might not have tomorrow or next week or next year, but I had it Right Then), my talents which I hadn’t had an opportunity to make use of but which Were Mine for when I COULD shake off the “riff-raff”. I experience gratitude, and started a gratitude journal. It was slow and hard at first to come up with anything, like training your brain. I was grateful that it had been a warm sunny day. I was grateful that I’d seen a cardnal. I was grateful that people were friendly to me as I walked down the street. I was grateful that the church gave me a voucher for heating oil. I was grateful that I found bag of dried beans in the back of my cupboard, had the energy to soak’em over night and cook’em up, brown sugar, garlic and onions given to me by a neighbor when I asked. It became easier. Boom, I came down with MISERABLE virus (due to immunosuppressant medicines) and almost died on the way to the ER. For 2 1/2 years I lived with daily migraines and puking and truly don’t know how I survived, but, I knew I WANTED to survive. My pastor visited me, other people visited me, someone washed my hair for me, some people walked my dog, including one woman who turned around and demanded payment–the “evil” is always out there! But just a few months ago the last of the virus left my system, and I can walk and sit up and stand up with out fear of the excruciating pain and projectile (and hours long) vomiting. And, by God, I am grateful! I know how you feel, and I felt it too. But start reaaaallly small, and it will grow, and why push away moments of happiness, if such moments are possible?

    Good luck, Mary Ann. I pray you can have the epiphany I had. Obviously only you know your losses and pains, but there are tiny moments that CAN be beautiful and are worth celebrating….

  • Marinah

    Thank you for reminding us, we all need this reminder sometimes in our lives. just to appreciate our blessings. Thank you

  • Tobias Germano

    People tend always to complicate issues, because of their suposedly right to express their individual opinons. Right. However, I will opt/choose to be everyday be gratefull only just for being alive. What is it to be alive? Who gives very human being (poor, rich, infant, adult and listing goes on) that ability to breath while asleep, dream, snore, wake up in the morning and continue as if nothing has happened? The majority of us are still far away from recognising the true reality “WHY ARE WE HERE?’. My answer is “TO SERVE”.

  • Christine

    Wonderful column, Phil. Just shared it on Twitter, too. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • maryann

    Phil this is such a great idea. I am a reading teacher and every year at this time, my class reads a short story about a boy struggling to create a list of 100 things he is grateful for. Then my students have to create their own lists. It is so interesting to watch the process. I even ask them to prioritize their list. That’s when it gets really interesting.
    Someone commented that we should do this everyday -not just at Thanksgiving. I agree. I recently lost my husband. Reciting my blessings during morning prayer has gotten me through some dark times.
    Now for one item on my gratitude list: Busted Halo and your What Works column.

  • Tanya

    Thank you for this an all your columns! I just wanted to share that whenever I feel anxious or sad, I make a gratitude list in my mind until I feel better. It really transforms our perception of reality.

  • Catherine

    Nicely done, as usual. I’m particularly struck by your ‘two-sided ledger’ idea; because the very first gratitude list I ever wrote was exactly that. I had to laugh at my own unwillingness to let go of self-pity. Re: material realm, what you say rings true. I find I’m far too bogged down in all my objects – and the point was driven home to me when, years ago, I lived briefly in a village where the next-door neighbors had no roof on their home. They were the happiest family I’d ever met – and every other phrase they ever said was, (translated) “Thanks be to God”.

  • Matt from St. Iggy’s

    And I am grateful for Phils’ Phabulous columns!

  • Jan Driscoll

    Hey, thanks so much for that great article! None of us is every thankful enough. I know when I think more often of my gratitude towards God, it helps be less centered on myself too.

  • MBW

    Several of us accepted a FaceBook challenge to post one thing a day for which we are grateful from Nov 1 until Thnaksgiving. I’m enjoying the challenge but emjoying more reading what others post. Shouldn’t we do this daily and not just at Thanksgiving?

  • Mary Ann Farley

    Surely, no one can argue with these thoughts. We all understand the power of positive thinking, the power of affirmations, the law of attraction, etc.

    But I fear sometimes that forcing gratitude when we’re not feeling it can have the dangerous effect of making people feel guilty, which only adds to their pain. Plus, sometimes in a person’s life, the glass is truly nearly, if not entirely, empty, and it can be healthier to just accept the fact that life can often be grossly unfair.

    I suppose for the negative person, this column is great advice. But for the positive person who’s lost profoundly, a gratitude list feels like a cruel exercise. Really really bad things happen to good people all the time, and trust me, a gratitude list only heightens the pain of what has gone terribly awry.

    Well written essay, of course, and all good points, but I wish life could be this easy.

  • Nancy Hall

    Thanks Phil, this is lovely.

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