cup of tea at work

The Mind, Body, and Spirit of the Four Levels of Gratitude

I’ve been working on my writing for over twenty years. Some years I feel like I’ve gone backwards. Then I have days where I feel like I’ve taken a small step forward. Today was one of those days. As I picked up Bring Gratitude: Feel Joyful Again With Bite-Sized Mindset Practices, the book I had poured my heart and soul into, and flipped through it, I felt this warmth in my heart. I paused to soak in the moment and thought about how I had gotten here.

  • The support from my wife emotionally and financially.
  • The 10,000+ hours of writing really bad stories.
  • The writing tools that correct my spelling and grammar.
  • The support from readers who encourage me with emails, Instagram posts, and online conversations.

I found gratitude welling up. I even felt grateful for the rejections, over and over again, of my books, poems, and articles. The struggle was worth it. It brought me here, to this day.

My own experiences with learning to feel grateful in the heights and depths of life has allowed me to help people and to continue improving my mindset. In doing so I’ve discovered four levels of gratitude.

  1. Surrounding
  2. Sharing
  3. Self
  4. Spiritual

Each one supports the other. If you have a strength in Sharing Gratitude, you can use it to improve your Self Gratitude and vice versa. The four “S’s” of gratitude build, too. For example, you can start with Surrounding Gratitude. Once you feel comfortable with it, you can move onto Sharing Gratitude.

Surrounding Gratitude

I generally encourage everyone I meet to start with Surrounding Gratitude. For most people, including several of my clients, it's fairly easy to identify external things for which they’re grateful. I start people with a simple question:

What are you grateful for?

When I start with this question, I might write a journal entry that looks something like this:

  • I’m grateful for this cup of coffee.
  • I’m grateful for my friend Amy who always makes me laugh.
  • I’m grateful for the brakes on my car.

Being specific with the “what” is important. It forces you to pause, which enables you to see yourself and your situation more objectively. It also builds a stronger mindset that helps you to get up after a failure and to balance out the inner bully that likes to tell you you’re not good enough, don’t have enough, etc., etc.

Then I add the “why.”

  • I’m grateful for this cup of coffee because it gives me the energy boost that I need after a lousy night’s sleep.
  • I’m grateful for my friend Amy who always makes me laugh—even when I’m feeling down.
  • I’m grateful for the brakes on my car because they always work when I need them.

The “why” is important for two reasons. First, it helps you understand why the things and people you choose matter to you. Second, the “why” helps infuse gratitude into your attitude—literally. A study from Emmons and McCullough found that people who focus on gratitude, specifically through a daily gratitude journal, experience increased determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy.

Take Action: Start your own Surrounding Gratitude Journal by focusing on things around you.

Sharing Gratitude

“Gratitude is important for the successful maintenance of intimate bonds,” says a study from the Department of Psychology at the University of California. I’ve seen the statement prove true in my own life. Once I started sharing my gratitude with those close to me, I realized we having deeper conversations and understanding one another better.

But sharing gratitude isn’t always easy. Adding social interaction to your gratitude practice can be difficult. That’s one reason to start with Surrounding Gratitude, and then begin keeping a gratitude journal about people in your life. Once you record what you’re grateful for, you can reach out to those people, share what you’re grateful for, and start improving your relationships.

My entry for Sharing Gratitude sometimes looks like this:

  • I’m grateful for my wife because she walks up to me and gives me spontaneous hugs when I need them the most.
  • I’m grateful for my boss because he makes time to talk with me and find out about my personal and professional goals.
  • I’m grateful for the grumpy coffee barista this morning because I was able to make her smile by asking about her weekend.

This daily practice has helped me improve not only how I think about the people in my life — friends, coworkers, and my family members — but also how I share gratitude with them. The difficulty, of course, lies in actually putting yourself out there to let people know you appreciate them. I suggest starting.with something simple. Send a direct message, just one or two sentences each day to a friend, coworker or family member. Watch their reaction. Most of them time you’ll get a great response. I also recommend setting a routine around Sharing Gratitude—if you don’t, it’s easy to bypass. As an example, I usually practice Sharing Gratitude on Thursdays because I like doing this all at once. You might find something else works better.

The cool part is that Sharing Gratitude is a win-win for you and the other person. They will feel great, and you’ll get a boost of dopamine.

Take Action: Practice Sharing Gratitude to build stronger relationships at home and work.

Self Gratitude

When I ask clients, “What are you grateful for about yourself?” stammers and pauses follow. I like those responses. They make me appreciate how important sessions with my clients are. Most people pause because they don’t feel comfortable. They have to stop, collect themselves and force themselves to find things they appreciate about themselves.

This struggle tends to occur because we let our inner bullies dictate our actions. We shy away from hard projects that will help our careers and our confidence.

In my experience Self Gratitude is the hardest level. It may be, however, the most important. The National Research Council says, “Satisfaction or dissatisfaction is an affective response to past actions; self-confidence expectations are judgments about one's future capabilities to attain one's goal.”

That is, the people who enjoy going to work each day do a better job because they have a right perspective on who they are, as well as the world around them. For you to make this mindset shift, you have to build your confidence. And one of the best ways I can think of to do that rests in Self Gratitude. Here are some Self Gratitude examples from my journal:

I handled multiple meetings well. It showed me how organized I can be and how much my organization helps me.
I’m proud that I let Sarah lead the meeting with our client Heather. She did a great job asking questions. I’m becoming a better leader instead of trying to do it all myself.
I handled my drive home well when I was stuck in traffic. I let out a big breath, took a breath in and started listing things I was grateful for in the moment. I’m pausing to enjoy life instead of getting angry over small stuff. This is a huge improvement.

Entries like these help me see the progress I’m making with my emotions. I still struggle with traffic, but I’m getting better at noticing my anger rising and pausing to take a breath and focus on things I’m grateful for.

It’s important to appreciate who you’ve become. By writing things you are grateful for about yourself, you start to see how much you’ve grown. And seeing this growth will build your confidence.

Take Action: Read more about practicing Self Gratitude to grow your confidence.

Spiritual Gratitude

Finally, I encourage people to maintain a spiritual gratitude practice. When you believe in something greater than yourself it makes it a little easier to pick yourself back up when you get knocked down. Eckhart Tolle puts it this way: “It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up.”

You could start with a simple “thank you” before eating a meal. That will only take a second or two of your time. Once you master this habit, you can go a little deeper. Try keeping a Spiritual Gratitude journal. Write down or record opportunities you are grateful for and had nothing to do with. They arrived seemingly out of nowhere, like grace.

My last Spiritual Gratitude journal entry looked like this:

  • I’m grateful that God has given me this body with all its faults because it’s the only one I have.
  • I’m grateful that the universe put water on this earth so that I can drink a glass of water and hydrate myself.
  • I’m grateful that a friend recommended me to be a guest on a podcast because I’m trying to reach more people with my message of gratitude.

The universe, which I use interchangeably with God, has put amazing gifts before me. It’s up to me — and you — to recognize impossible possibilities. Every breath I take is a gift. I have to make the most of it.

When you practice Spiritual Gratitude at least once throughout your day, it becomes easier to act on things you might procrastinate on because you’re afraid of rejection or failure. It allows you to appreciate that nothing is perfect, yet everything is beautiful, including yourself.

Take Action: Read more about Spiritual Gratitude to help you feel more purposeful in and connected to your life.

Small Steps

Earlier I said people should start with Surrounding Gratitude. I stand by that claim. Small steps are critical when building a lifelong gratitude practice. Starting with one of the other levels is a recipe for failure. I’ve seen people start with the Self Gratitude journal and give up because it was too hard. And it is. Most of us aren’t wired to notice the good things about ourselves.

We all have habits and internal bullies that are not very kind and forgiving. They won’t go away after keeping a Self Gratitude journal for a few days. But they will dissipate or at least become manageable by starting small, with Surrounding Gratitude. If you focus on the small external things, you can progress toward Sharing Gratitude, Self Gratitude, and Spiritual Gratitude to grow your confidence, strengthen your relationships, and develop your resilience.

If you are interested, join our next free 30-Day Bring Gratitude Challenge. We host them five times a year. It’ll help strengthen your mindset. You’ll get email updates and a private Facebook group. If you have any questions, I’ll be available 7 days a week during this time. My goal is to get the smartest and most caring people together to create an amazing community, so we can help each other learn from our mistakes and build a life that we love.

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