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The psychology of extraordinariness: gratitude
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I'm reading
The psychology of extraordinariness: gratitude
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I'm reading
The psychology of extraordinariness: gratitude
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Articles
28 November 2013

The psychology of extraordinariness: gratitude

When grateful the experience, pain becomes less about suffering and more about living.

Written by Anna Box

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

To be grateful sounds so simple.  Why then, does it at times elude us?

In a world where the pursuit of happiness is feverishly sought in business, art, and science, gratitude is discussed front and centre.  We often talk about gratitude when we talk about other positive emotions like hope and optimism. The experience of gratitude is central to a good life.  So what exactly is it?  And where can it be found?

According to science, gratitude is a commonly recognised emotion, but it remains difficult to nail down.  The word itself derives from the Latin gratia, meaning grace, graciousness, or gratefulness.  However it’s the various ways in which gratitude comes to life that make it equally obtainable and elusive.  It’s been described as an emotion, a coping mechanism, a personality trait, a habit, and an attitude.  Certainly the latter seems to define those people who appear to light up from within.

Many describe gratitude as noticing, appreciating and being thankful for the good things that happen.  And this is exactly where gratitude can become a little confusing.  After all, who decides whether something is a “good thing”?  Being thankful for a moment in time that brings pleasure or enjoyment is a simple enough idea.  Being thankful for a moment in time that brings challenge and pain is somewhat more difficult, at least upon initial consideration.  However, this latter ability to see growth in pain is often what it takes to live a rich and meaningful life.  The true nature of gratitude is to see the benefit in all that life throws up.  The good, the bad, the unexpected, the difficult, and the painful.

Take one of DF’s recent profiles, Zainab Saibi, for example. Zainab is a humanitarian and the founder of Women for Women International—an organisation dedicated to helping women in war. She is a change maker and a curator of stories otherwise untold. But most of all, she is grateful. “I find myself at an age where I am grateful that I have gone through all of this,” Zainab explains, “Grateful to have known fear and to have known a dictator; grateful to have known violence, displacement, poverty, richness, love and abandonment. When I sit with women in wars and they tell me what they have gone through, I find myself very grateful to have known these feelings because it helps me connect with them.”

Like many other fascinating people we get to know at Dumbo Feather, Zainab is not a woman who shies away from pain. Beyond acceptance even, pain is embraced as a way to thrive and connect. This is where the magic happens. When grateful for the experience, pain becomes less about suffering and more about living. That doesn’t mean it ceases to hurt. But it no longer travels alone, instead delivering some form of meaning or purpose, along the way. Because gratitude stems from the belief that one has received a gift, or a benefit, from another or from life. Regardless of how that gift was wrapped and presented, somewhere amongst the chaos there is something to be thankful for.

From science we’re learning that grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and hope. They also report lower levels of depression and stress, with ongoing research exploring the relationship between gratitude and resilience. So perhaps the best news is that gratitude can be cultivated, or practiced, by us all. And it’s as simple as stopping to consciously ponder or count your blessings. To be mindful of what brings joy, meaning and purpose to your life, and to be thankful for it. And importantly, to be open, if only in hindsight, to the specific type of growth that only ever comes from when life hurts.

Anna Box

Anna Box is a psychologist, consultant and writer who mashes the art of story with the science of thriving.

Feature image by Anna Wolf

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