“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
The great American essayist, lecturer, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is known today as a champion of individualism and self-reliance, but his idea of cultivating a habit of gratitude and giving continuous thanks for everything stands at stark odds with today’s every-person-for-themselves world. How much time do we spend each day considering the myriad of people and experiences that have contributed to our own advancement, let alone in giving thanks for them? You hear a lot of talk about gratitude, but most of the time it’s hard to do.
The reason we find real gratitude so difficult is that we’re each constantly focused on our own obstacles and difficulties in achieving the things we are pursuing—getting our fair share of the goodies in life—things that are often out of our control and have no power in themselves to advance our progress as human beings.
It’s easy when sitting around the Thanksgiving banquet table to speak our gratitude, but why have we restricted what Emerson thought should be an everyday practice to this one holiday ritual? The great late-Stoic philosopher Epictetus gave us a powerful strategy for taking that attitude of the bountiful Thanksgiving banquet table and making it our default mode for behavior in daily life:
“Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet. As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping. Does it pass you by? Don’t stop it. It hasn’t yet come? Don’t burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. Act this way with children, a spouse, toward position, with wealth—one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods.”
— Epictetus, Enchiridion, 15
The Stoics knew that wanting less correlates to increased gratitude, just as wanting more obliterates it. Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation. The Stoics sought to reduce this destructive habit of wanting more. In it they saw the key to a happy life and relationships.
In fact, the Stoics believed not only that we should want less for ourselves but that we should seek the advancement of our friends with as much fervor as we do our own. Seneca put it this way:
“It’s in keeping with Nature to show our friends affection and to celebrate their advancement, as if it were our very own. For if we don’t do this, virtue, which is strengthened only by exercising our perceptions, will no longer endure in us.”
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 109.15
This Stoic challenge to get out of our heads by “exercising our perceptions” and by reaching out to friends by celebrating their progress as we would our own requires that we first get over ourselves! What we give to others is far more valuable than what we might try to take for ourselves.
When we relinquish the pursuit of more—yearning for what might be ours or fearing what might be taken away—we gain the freedom of being present in the here and now, present to our relationships and to the opportunities to do good in each moment. Marcus Aurelius summed up this pared-down approach to life this way:
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.6
This lost daily art is something to ponder in this season of Thanksgiving. The great Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast reminds us that it isn’t happiness that makes us grateful, but rather, gratefulness that makes us happy. He says that when something really valuable is freely given, gratefulness arises, and with it, happiness:
Brother Steindl-Rast reminds us that opportunity is the gift within every moment. Epictetus talked about this special form of awareness, what Steindl-Rast calls “the master key to happiness”:
“It is easy to praise providence for anything that may happen if you have two qualities: a complete view of what has actually happened in each instance and a sense of gratitude. Without gratitude what is the point of seeing, and without seeing what is the object of gratitude?” — Epictetus, Discourses, 1.6.1–2
The word Epictetus uses for gratitude—eucharistos—is bound up with the sober “seeing” of what is actually occurring in each moment, and recognizing what is freely given as an opportunity in each moment.
This form of daily gratitude is echoed in Marcus Aurelius’ beautiful meditation on carrying this awareness through to our last moment in life:
“Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.48.2
This Thanksgiving, as Brother Steindl-Rast tells us: STOP wanting; LOOK at what’s really happening; GO and do something for someone else for a change. Let’s grow in that kind of grace.
Stephen Hanselman is the co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.