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Is Gratitude the Key to Happiness?

Have you ever been in the presence of someone who lives in a truly grateful way? I mean someone who is grateful to be alive, grateful for the people in her or his life, and grateful for God’s presence, and sees the world around her or him with appreciation and joy?

I’ve had the privilege of meeting quite a number of these people as a pastor, spiritual director, therapist, and more. What makes them special is that when we’re around them, they have the ability to make us feel good about our own lives.

I had a simple realization years ago about the difference between hopeful and cynical people: cynical, pessimistic people suck energy out of us. Grateful, appreciative people give energy to us. You’ve experienced this. Think about times when you’ve had to listen to someone crab about his or her life—about politics, religion, people, bosses, spouses, teachers, his or her lot in life. You get trapped listening to them as they gain more and more energy from their growing anger, while you become more and more drained. Now think about the times you’ve spent with someone who is truly grateful, joyful, and positive. You feel more energized, more hopeful, more… possible. Gratitude gives energy. Cynicism sucks energy.

When I think about living a grateful life, I think about Sallie, a woman whose funeral I did years ago when I was her pastor. I had visited her often as her health declined over a ten-year period. Even in declining health she was an absolute joy to be around. Her arthritis and other ailments made it very hard for her to get around. Still, no matter how bad things got for her, she never complained. Even in the last years of her life, as macular degeneration took away her ability to read (her living room was stacked with cherished devotional books and magazines), she still had hope. She once told me that even though she couldn’t read, she still took comfort from all that she had learned from them.

Sallie was a bright light. Whenever I visited her, I tried to bring her some sense of comfort, but in reality she gave me more comfort and joy than I think I ever brought her. I often drove home feeling as though I had been in the presence of a great sage.

Her outlook on life was rooted in a deep sense of gratitude. She was grateful for her life. She was grateful for her children. She was grateful for her husband who had died so many years earlier. Sallie lived a life of gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.

I don’t want to give the impression that people like Sallie are perfect and live pain-free. They aren’t and they don’t. They make mistakes, parts of their lives can be messed up, and they struggle just like everyone else does. It’s just that people like Sallie choose to react differently to the struggles of the world than most of us. They can go through severe struggles, but they grow from them each time and they find meaning and purpose in them.

I look around and I see a world filled with miserable people. They’re not necessarily miserable because of the conditions of their lives, although their conditions often contribute to their misery. I see an attitude of misery reflected in the darkness of present movies, television, and novels nowadays. I see it on social media as people argue, complain, criticize, and crab about everything, especially during this pandemic. I see it in parents who constantly criticize their children, only seeing what’s wrong with them, what they don’t do, and how disappointed they are in them. I see this same dynamic in too many marriages, where over time it becomes easier to be critical of our spouses than complimentary. Life wears us down, as do relationships. Still, cynicism is a relationship killer. Good marriages, parenting, and lives are built on laughter, smiles, appreciation, and gratitude. Bad marriages are built on indifference, cynicism, and criticism.

The struggle of life is to see it with appreciative eyes rather than depreciative ones. Depreciative people diminish life by only seeing what’s wrong in the world around them. They’ll justify their cynicism and negativity by saying that we live in a hard world, and that they’re just being realistic. The reality is that they aren’t living in a cold, hard world. They’re just choosing to make it cold and hard.

Parts of life can be cold, ugly, and hard, but it still is wonderful, beautiful, joyful, and hopeful. Many people truly live in horrific, terrible conditions. At Samaritan we do our best to help these people make choices to transform them and their conditions. It’s hard work. Part of what we also do is help people see with different eyes, helping them to see what’s right, not just what’s wrong; what’s good, not just what’s bad; what they can do, not just what they can’t; what’s light, not just what’s dark; what’s possible, not just what’s impossible.

In my life I constantly return to what a great spiritual writer, David Steindl-Rast, says in his book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: “What counts on your path to fulfillment is that we remember the great truth that moments of surprise want to teach us: everything is gratuitous, everything is gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is the measure of our gratefulness. And gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness . . . In moments when we are truly alive, we experience life as a gift. We also experience life as surprise.”


Executive Director

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