“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” – Cicero
It is discontent that opens up our heart to many of the unhealthy habits in our lives.
Materialism is, after all, the natural behavior born out of discontent with the possessions that we own. We live in a society that breeds discontent by defining the American Dream as owning bigger homes, nicer cars, and fuller closets. Advertisers foster this sense of dissatisfaction by promising greater happiness with their products. And too often, we foolishly fall into their trap without realizing it.
But there are other unhealthy habits in our lives born out of discontent. For example, dishonesty is born out of discontent with the truth. Greed is born out of discontent with our current supply. Substance abuse is born out of displeasure with the current state of our lives. Even many of the feuds in our families are born out of discontent with our closest relationships.
If discontent is the cause of many of our unhealthy habits, contentment is the cure.
And if contentment is the cure, gratitude is the pathway to it.
Gratitude provides proper understanding of our place in the world. Gratitude is the feeling and expression of thankfulness for the actions of others that are costly to them and beneficial to us. By definition, gratitude requires humility. It requires us to admit we have been the recipient of something we did not deserve. And it calls us to admit there are no entirely self-made men or women.
Gratitude assigns worth to those who rightly deserve it. Whether I am thanking a parent, a spouse, a veteran, a teacher, a policeman, or a mentor who has invested into my life, my response of gratitude to their action gives the praise and worth to those who rightly deserve it.
Gratitude directs attention to what we already have. Gratitude always requires our attention to be focused on the good things we already possess. It calls us to notice our blessings and take greater appreciation of them. As a result, our eyes are turned away from the things that are fostering the discontent in our hearts.
Gratitude improves our overall well-being. Scientific studies over and over again confirm what we already know to be true: Grateful people are happier people. Grateful people routinely report increased well-being, better health, healthier lifestyles, increased optimism, and a more positive outlook on life (source). Additionally, those who display a high level of gratitude are much more likely to have below-average levels of materialism (source).
Gratitude is not a result of our circumstances. I have lived my entire life inside the United States, but have led numerous groups of people to third-world countries. I can attest first-hand that gratitude is not a result of circumstances. I have met grateful people in some of the poorest neighborhoods in our world and I have met grateful people in some of the richest neighborhoods in our country. I have also met ungrateful people in both. Gratitude is a decision and a discipline–not a response.
Gratitude opens the door to contentment. Gratitude helps us better understand our place in the world. It pushes our praise to those who rightly deserve it. It causes us to focus on the good things we already have regardless of our present circumstances. It improves our well-being in almost every regard. As a result, it is the surest pathway to contentment.
And that being the case, maybe more gratitude is the only thing we really need.