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Why Gratitude Comes Before Joy

We all want to be happier right? We all want to feel less fear and to have a good quality of life. According to Brené Brown the common characteristic in those capable of leaning fully into joy is a commitment to practising gratitude.

Gwyneth recently interviewed Brené Brown on her thoughts on gratitude. Here’s what she had to say:

Why do you think that practising gratitude is the key to joy?

Before doing further research on the subject I believed that joyful people were grateful people. However, after interviewing thousands of people about their experiences of joy and gratitude I discovered three distinct patterns:

  1. Without exception every individual who described themselves as joyful and living a happy life actively practised gratitude – what’s more, they attributed their joyfulness to that practise.

  2. Joy and gratitude are at their very spiritual practices which are bound by the belief in interconnection between human beings and a power which is greater than us

  3. Happiness is a human emotion connected to circumstances whereas joy can be defined as a spiritual way of engaging with the world. The concepts seem similar at first glance but they are actually distinctively different.

What does the practise of gratitude look like from a practical perspective?

The most important thing I teach people is the importance of taking tangible action. Simply trying to have an attitude of gratitude is not enough. You need to consciously think about what you’re grateful for on a regular basis. In my family we go around the table and talk about one thing that we’re each grateful for that day. When it’s someone’s birthday I get everyone to share one gratitude for that person. Some workplaces apply the same principles by putting up pictures of different staff members and encouraging colleagues to put up sticky notes of things that person does that they are grateful for. Others like to keep a journal and keep a note of 3 things they are grateful for every day – this is what I like to do personally. Just thinking about the things we are grateful for is not enough, we need to verbalise it or put pen to paper. That makes it more real, more tangible.

How has this affected your own life?

My research has shown me that joy is the most vulnerable of all human emotions, which is pretty significant considering I also study the emotions of shame and fear.

It’s terrifying for many to allow themselves to lean into the feeling of joy, as we’re so afraid that doing so will lead to pain and disappointment. As a result, many of us, myself included, try to outsmart the vulnerability to avoid being sucker-punched by pain.

An example of this is when I watch my kids peacefully sleeping – it brings me such enormous amounts of joy – but then just moments later this joy is replaced by a vision of something terrible happening. Similarly, when I watched my daughter get in the car with her prom date, I couldn’t push the image of a car crash out of my head. I know this all sounds crazy but 90-95% of us experience the same degree of “foreboding joy”

No amount of planning can stop pain. It’s unavoidable. However, this way that humans squander their own joy is what brings us undone. It takes away from our reservoir of strength that we need to tap into when hard things happen in our lives.

All human beings who have the capacity to lean fully into joy, share one variable in common, and that is their practice of gratitude. Vulnerability is real, and many of us experience a physiological response to it such as nervousness, uneasiness or tension. I refer to it as a quiver. When that feeling comes about we can choose to go one of two ways. We can use it as a warning sign to start dress-rehearsing tragedy OR we can use it as a reminder to start practising gratitude.

Nowadays, in those joyful moments when I begin to experience that sense of uneasiness, I literally say to myself “I am so grateful for…” And sometimes I say those words over and over again. This simple practice has quite literally changed my life.

Brené Brown, PhD, is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past two decades studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. She is the author of five number one New York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead.


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