By Santara Gonzales
Receiving And Conferring Benefits
Among the many and diverse errors of those who live reckless and thoughtless lives, almost nothing that I can mention, excellent Liberalis, is more disgraceful than the fact that we do not know how either to give or to receive benefit. Nor is it surprising that among all our many and great vices, none is so common as ingratitude. – Lucius Anneas Seneca, On Benefits (1).
The Importance Of Gratitude
Gratitude, a deep feeling of appreciation, had a high standing with the Stoics. The Stoic philosophers Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius wrote on the importance and benefits gratitude adds to our lives. Gratitude can be directed towards people, as when someone does something nice for us or gives us a gift. Another form of gratitude is based on awareness. It is a feeling of gratitude for life itself and all it bestows on us, for nature, and for being a part of the cosmos.
For the Stoics, gratitude should not only be directed towards the good things that happen to us, but also to the difficult events. They taught that we should be grateful for everything in life. It may feel counter-intuitive to be grateful for the tough times. How can we be grateful for losing a job, the breakup of a relationship or the passing of a loved one? Viewing such situations with gratitude may be difficult, but it is not. If we take a step back, and see the big picture, we may come to realize that not only the good things, but also the challenges we have endured, are responsible for shaping who we are.
Epictetus, underscores this by writing:
It is easy to praise providence for everything that happens in the world provided you have both the ability to see individual events in the context of the whole and a sense of gratitude. Without these, either you will not see the usefulness of what happens, or even supporting you do see it, you will not be grateful for it. – Discourses, 1.6
In this passage, Epictetus linked gratitude with “seeing”, urging us to be aware of what is happening in each moment, and the opportunities lying therein.
In one of his letters to Lucilius, Seneca reminds us that when our actions benefit others, we benefit ourselves:
We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves … gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. – Moral letters, 81, “On Benefits”.
So how can we practice gratitude? Thankfully, we have the Stoics to guide us. We should start with awareness and acknowledge the benefits life bestows upon us.
Appreciating What We Already Have
When finding ourselves desiring a newer car or a bigger apartment, we are losing sight of the fact that the car we have is a luxury many may not be able to afford, or that we have a roof over our head providing shelter. When we appreciate what we have, as opposed to what we do not, we may begin to feel gratitude. The Stoics were aware that our inability to acknowledge what we have and being driven by wanting more impedes our ability to feel and express gratitude. Epictetus tied gratitude to the art of living:
He who is discontented with what he has, and with what has been granted to him by fortune, is one who is ignorant of the art of living. – Fragments, 2
Viewing things that happen to us in their entirety is another way to practice gratitude. Life’s events are connected, not isolated. Acknowledging this leads to understanding the impact events have on our lives and to developing the ability to feel genuine gratitude. All events, whether fortunate or unfortunate, contribute to who and where we are today.
We can also follow the example of Marcus Aurelius who wrote a list of the people for whom he was grateful. Writing a daily list of what we are appreciative of, whether people or events, aids our practice of expressing gratitude. (Meditations, 1)
Changing Our Perceptions
Our perceptions also play a part in our ability to feeling grateful. The more positive our perceptions of events, the more likely we are to experience gratitude.
Practicing gratitude is not easy, especially when facing difficult times. We have to work at it. As we go through our lives, we should strive to be grateful for the people around us, and everything that happens us, always being mindful that there is the potential for gratitude in every moment we encounter.