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Gratitude | Issue #12
Practices of gratefulness and of placefulness are two sides of the same coin
Placeful is a weekly newsletter exploring sense of place, sustainability, and the actions we can take to more deeply engage with our communities and wild spaces. Each week covers a new topic. To learn more about the “why” behind Placeful, start here.
There is one overarching theme that connects all aspects of placefulness, and that is gratitude; gratitude sits at the heart of our connection to place. Intentional expressions of gratitude can help retrain our thought patterns and nurture all kinds of relationships.
In today’s issue of Placeful, we will briefly explore the science of gratitude, the role it plays in individual and community health, a Thanksgiving tradition practiced by the Haudenosaunee, and a simple action we can take this week to kick off this time of intentional gratitude.
Thanksgiving, in the dominant U.S. culture, is a time of togetherness and, well, giving thanks. Let’s begin this week with a discussion on gratitude and set the tone for these final few weeks of 2020.
Gratitude, health, and sense of place
Let’s start at the beginning. Below is an explanation of gratitude offered up by Harvard Health’s Heartbeat publication:
Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.
Practices of gratitude have been circulating in the mainstream popular culture for a few years now. Gratitude journals and apps like 365 Gratitude and New Gratitude Journal (formerly Mojo) which gamify practices of gratitude offer themselves up as a way to cultivate a sense of gratitude, with the ultimate goal of improved mental health and happiness. The slogan for New Gratitude Journal is literally “live your best life.”
Fast-track solutions to a life of 100% happiness and prosperity give me pause, but I think for many people introducing a practice of gratitude—in whatever way feels organic to them—can be a very good thing.
We know how gratitude feels in our bodies, and when it is shared by others. Gratitude is a tool of community and family cohesion. It’s a way of recognizing the constant give and take of energy between people, and between us and the natural world.
Research in positive psychology has shown time after time that practices of gratitude are associated with increased health and resilience to adversity, and also helps foster strong relationships with others—which in turn leads to increased health. A group of researchers in Berkeley found that writing letters of gratitude was a beneficial and relatively simple practice with positive results for individuals struggling with mental health concerns, in this case mostly college-age adults.
Gratitude changes our brains by unshackling us from toxic emotions and shifting our attention to more positive experiences and feelings. The benefits for those in the above study were not immediate, but over time the writing activities centered around gratefulness helped the participants improve their mental health. The researchers found evidence in brain scans that, after a few months of gratitude-focused writing, the participants showed more attention to how they expressed gratitude. They also demonstrated more activity in relevant parts of their brain when gratitude was given to them in during the scan, suggesting that intentionally practicing gratitude for a period of time can (possibly) permanently change our brains.
Expanding our practice of gratitude to relationships beyond human-to-human interactions opens up more opportunities for these positive feelings, and (I hypothesize) can lead to a more holistic and mutually beneficial sense of place. When our actions are guided by gratitude, the impact of our actions on others and the environment are likely to be positive and, hopefully, sustainable.
A practice of gratitude for the earth
This fall I had the pleasure of reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I can’t recall at the moment, but I’m sure I have mentioned it before in this newsletter. Elizabeth Gilbert is quoted on the cover, calling the book “a hymn of love to the world,” and I couldn’t agree more. Gratitude is found on every page.
There is one chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass that especially spoke to me, and is the most pointed practice of gratefulness I have come across. She writes about the “Words Before All Else” recited by the Haudenosaunee, also called the “Thanksgiving Address.”
Within the address, the speaker gives thanks for the earth, the people, the water, the animals, the plants, the stars, and so much more. Each passage ends with the (translated) phrase “and now our minds are one,” signifying another important piece of reciting the Thanksgiving address — that it is done together, and from a place of mutual respect, understanding, and continuity with previous and future generations who recited it or have yet to.
In the intro to their beautifully illustrated web version of the Thanksgiving Address, the Naraya Cultural Preservation Council writes,
When one recites the Thanksgiving Address the Natural World is thanked, and in thanking each life-sustaining force, one becomes spiritually tied to each of the forces of the Natural and Spiritual World. The Thanksgiving Address teaches mutual respect, conservation, love, generosity, and the responsibility to understand that what is done to one part of the Web of Life, we do to ourselves.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, as always, does an amazing job of putting the Thanksgiving Address in perspective with practices of modern life, calling attention to the need for an intentional practice of gratitude encompassing all of the seen and unseen forces at work in our world.
You can't listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn't send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That's good medicine for land and people alike.
The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address is long, but I highly suggest reading it—slowly and/or out loud—during this Thanksgiving week. It is beautiful and a bit sad if, like me, you long to feel a deeper connection to the natural world than you currently do.
A practice of gratitude for each other
In this newsletter, I write a lot about ways that we can deepen our connection to the environment around us. Cultivating a holistic sense of place also requires us to deepen our connection to the people around us.
One simple but effective way to do this is by writing a thank you note — preferably handwritten. Letters of gratitude, even if they were never sent, were the main action taken by research participants in the Berkeley study cited earlier that provided a positive mental health benefit over time. Beyond the individual though, I believe something as simple as a thank you note can contribute to community cohesion, a “pay it forward” kind of action that can infuse a small but powerful sense of connection between people within a community that has the potential to gain momentum.
Reflect for a moment on the last time you received a handwritten note, letter, or postcard. How did it make you feel? Did you have a more positive reaction to it than a facebook comment or an email? If you’re like me, the answer to that is yes, definitely. There is something about receving a physical momento, something that you can touch and that carries a part of the person on the other side—their handwriting—that makes it exponentially more meaningful.
Just like handwritten lecture notes in class lead to better grades, handwritten letters to others require a slightly different kind of thought and intention that requires us to slow down and really think about the words and phrases we want to use — especially when writing in pen. When writing a letter, we give ourselves more time and a more tactile connection with the sentiments we are sharing. Ultimately, when it comes to written communication with others, it’s almost always better when it’s handwritten, for us and for the recipient.
This Thanksgiving week, let’s make time to show each other some gratitude, and remember to extend it to the natural world, too. Even when the news cycle makes it seem like so many things are going wrong, there is still an incredible amount to be thankful for. And when we get really good at recognizing the things we are grateful for, it only opens us up to more gratitude, and most importantly, new ways of expressing it.
Two options again this week!
Read or listen to the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. Try to visualize what you are reading and pay attention to how you feel throughout it. Did you learn something new, or see something in a new way?
Write a thank you note to a family member, neighbor, teachers, student, customer, friend, or someone in your community who inspires you. Let them know what you appreciate about them, and do it without expectation of return.
Placeful is a weekly email newsletter containing personal narratives and reporting on sense of place and sustainability. Each week I delve into a new topic, wrapping it up with an action item that will help readers foster deeper connections to the natural, cultural, built, and historic environments around them.
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