So far I've written over 100 entries for the Encyclopedia of Gratitude, a wide-ranging compendium of things to be grateful for. Over the course of this project, I've learned a bit about gratitude.
Asking "What is gratitude?" is not that different from asking "What is love?" It's a deceptively simple question, and hard to put into words. However, at this point I can definitely tell you what gratitude is not.
Gratitude is not "just a flesh wound!"
Most of the stuff written about gratitude mistakes it for extreme positive thinking. It looks like the scene in Monty Python's Holy Grail where the knight gets his arms hacked off and says, "Tis but a scratch."
Gratitude does not mean denying reality, sadness, grief or loss. On the contrary, it's about acknowledging all those things. In fact, feelings of sadness and loss can often lead you to greater feelings of gratitude.
For example, contemplating how alone we appear to be in a vast universe devoid of any signs of life might make you grateful for this precious life-sustaining blue planet. On the other hand, maybe it just makes you want to go shopping, which brings us to...
Gratitude is not "OMG, I'm so grateful for my BMW!"
Gratitude is not a cover for self-congratulatory materialism. It is not a way to easily transform wrong livelihood into right livelihood. (Maybe driving a BMW doesn't automatically make you such a person, but it does pair nicely with OMG.) And speaking of OMG...
Gratitude is not necessarily "Thank God!"
Gratitude is a human emotion that can be felt by anyone regardless of religion. If you believe in a personified God, gratitude is a feeling you can direct toward God. If you believe in God, but not in a personified God, then gratitude is a feeling you may connect with God, but not necessarily one you direct to a personified God. In any case, we can all definitely direct gratitude toward people, nature, inventions, music, food, the present moment, feelings of awe, existence, family. (Not coincidentally, these categories form the navigation in the Encyclopedia of Gratitude.)
Gratitude is not regret.
In many ways, the present moment is all we have. When you're grateful for the present moment, you see past regrets as necessary steps that brought you here.
Incidentally, part of what makes Colbert's impersonation of a pompous professional idiot so hilarious is that the character is completely ungrateful to anyone and routinely sees his success as purely self-earned.
Gratitude is not an end-zone dance.
We spend so much energy striving and grasping for the brass ring. We want to prove that we alone can do it. So when we achieve our goals, we celebrate our victory. We have asserted ourselves! Yeah! Awesome!
To feel gratitude is to step outside of asserting the self. Gratitude acknowledges interconnectedness. No one reaches the mountaintop alone.
Now you might think, "I don't want to stop striving." Don't worry, you won't. Gratitude is a state and as with any state, you can't stay in it forever. But getting in that state more often can counterbalance the drive for pure self-glorification. You might remain as driven as ever--but what you're striving for could change.
There, I've said what gratitude isn't. As with love, you have to experience gratitude to know what it is.
Thanks for reading this. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have a voice (for something other than placing my order at the drive thru).