For much of my life, gratitude has been problematic for me. Not that I’ve never felt it. On my wedding day and then again when each one of my children were born, I felt so filled up with appreciation, amazement, and awe that my whole system sputtered and gushed like a pipe being used for the first time after a winter freeze and spring thaw.
But from a very early age in my own childhood, gratitude became both a currency and an obligation — something I supposedly had that was of great value to others, so I was obligated to give it to them “on demand”. Whether it was because I resented having to give away something I seemed to have so little of or just plain stubbornness I’ll leave to the speculations of armchair psychologists everywhere. Suffice it to say that “Thank you for the yucky present” was a phrase that was highlighted enough in our family lore that it became part of my self-identity.
As I grew older, what began to feel like a battle between social mores and personal integrity increased, and my attempts to work on being more grateful predictably backfired. Every “thank you” became such a big deal that some felt like having teeth pulled and others felt like winning Olympic gold. Worse still, I began to drip fear into the mix, worrying that if I wasn’t grateful enough it would affect my physical health and financial prosperity. On the other hand, if I was too grateful it would alert the gods and lead to the demise of the very things I was genuinely appreciative of.
About a dozen years ago, I had an epiphany about the nature of thought and wellbeing. I realized at a very deep level that despite decades of dealing with depression and anxiety, I was still innately mentally healthy and well. I came to see that what I was up against wasn’t my intrinsic nature — it was a misunderstanding of the mind that made it seem like my feelings were being caused by things “out there” in the world, and unless and until the world changed I had little choice but to suffer.
In my books, I often sum up this epiphany with the phrase:
We are living in the feeling of our thinking, not the feeling of our circumstances.
Gaining this inside-out understanding of my own mental health helped me immeasurably in countless ways. No longer needing to attempt to control people or circumstances to preserve my own wellbeing, I found myself with much more mental bandwidth than I was used to. My inner world grew quieter and more contemplative; my outer life remained filled with activity, but more and more of that activity was effortlessly productive instead of endlessly recursive.
Yet gratitude seemed an exception to the rule, neither a part of my intrinsic wellbeing nor wholly subject to the inside-out understanding. Ultimately, my relationship with gratitude got better not because I got better thinking about it, but rather because I stopped thinking about it at all. More and more moments of spontaneous gratitude and appreciation arose inside me, and while the feeling didn’t always find its way to my mouth, it filled my body more and more of the time.
Recently, I read a simple sentence from a colleague, Dr. Judith Sedgeman, that summed up my experience and put words to what I have been noticing for myself.
Here’s what I read:
[There is] a difference between gratitude as a deep non-contingent feeling and gratitude as thankfulness “to” or “for”.
In other words, what if deep feelings of gratitude and appreciation begin inside me and are then projected onto objects in the world?
This feeling of “non-contingent gratitude” is expansive, and there’s something I find both healing and hopeful about resting in it. When I no longer need to attribute the feeling to a specific source outside of me, I no longer need to fear the loss of that source. And when I look out into the world from this feeling space inside me, the world itself seems to come alive with beauty, promise, and kindness.
Einstein famously said “I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.”
When I attempt to answer that question in relation to a universe that is leading me around by the nose, “making” me feel sadness, despair, loneliness, and fear, the answer seems a bitterly obvious “no”. But when I allow myself to fill up with unconditional, non-contingent gratitude and look again, the answer is an equally obvious and quietly beautiful “of course”.
Will I ever be as skilled at expressing appreciation as I’d like to be? No idea. But in the meantime, I can deeply appreciate and benefit from the gift of gratitude as an unconditional, non-contingent feeling that is always available and never more than one thought away.
Michael Neill is an international thought leader and master coach, challenging the cultural mythology that stress and struggle are a prerequisite to creativity, happiness, and success. As the founder and CEO of Genius Catalyst Inc., Michael’s mission is to unleash the human potential with intelligence, humor, and heart.
To learn more about Michael and his work, visit www.michaelneill.org or join the nearly two million people who have enjoyed his TEDx talks Why Aren’t We Awesomer? and Can a TEDx Talk Really Change the World?