Leading, and Living, with Gratitude, 0421 COBJ, Vol. 50, No. 4 Pg. 4

PositionVol. 50, 4 [Page 4]

50 Colo.Law. 4

Leading, and Living, with Gratitude

Vol. 50, No. 4 [Page 4]

Colorado Lawyer

April, 2021



In February, I reprinted the remarks Attorney General Phil Weiser made at our December Board of Governors meeting about “Leading with Empathy.”1 I put a lot of stock into his message that we should avoid contributing to “today’s rising polarization, demonization, and divisive rhetoric,” which AG Weiser, quoting author Arthur Brooks,2 observed can be “addressed by two teachings from the Dalai Lama”: (1) waiting before reacting—in other words, “withholding our natural and initial judgments”; and (2) “replacing contempt with loving kindness.”3 AG Weiser’s remarks have inspired me to try to lead with empathy and have guided me as I made decisions about potential courses of action on behalf of the Bar. They also inspired me to write this month about another trait I believe in leading, and living, with—gratitude.

Benefits of Cultivating Gratitude

Gratitude is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”[4] As a trait and a state, gratitude has always come to me very naturally. My parents used to tell the story of how, when I was only 2 or 3 years old, I opened a package of underwear for Christmas, each pair embroidered with a different day of the week. My reaction: “Underwear—just what I always wanted!” I was too young for sarcasm. I was sincerely thankful. And that “attitude of gratitude” has persisted throughout my life.

Unfortunately for me—but not, my research would suggest, for most people—the flip side of gratitude is anxiety. I am so grateful for my many blessings that I generally have an undercurrent o f anxiety that occasionally manifests as outright stress. After all, gratitude is about not taking the good things in our lives for granted. I take almost nothing for granted—which means I simultaneously have a pretty constant concern about possibly losing the things I appreciate so much: family, health, work, friends, our professional and school communities, civil liberties, this planet, my sense of taste and smell . . . the list is long.

But my research turned up very little information about the connection between gratitude and anxiety, other than inversely. That said—even for me—those under-the-surface nervous feelings are generally substantially outweighed by on-the-surface feelings of considerable happiness. I particularly notice my feelings when I’m not too distracted, such as when I’m doing dishes or driving. In those quieter moments, I often notice that I feel really happy—and really grateful.

Philosophers have been connecting gratitude and happiness for about 2000 years.5 And (much) more recent psychological findings support that gratitude is related inversely to sadness and positively to life satisfaction.[6] According to Harvard Medical School, “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”7

Some research has suggested that, for people with clinical depression and anxiety, the benefits of gratitude are not significant.8 Even those studies, however, support that “people who have gratitude as a general trait have a lower incidence of mental health problems and better relationships.”9

It makes intuitive sense that people who focus on gratitude show greater optimism in many areas of their lives.[10] Moreover, the more gratitude they experience and express, the more situations and people they may feel grateful for.11 Feelings of appreciation also help us “to have healthier minds, and with that healthier bodies.”12 Research has shown that patients with heart failure who completed gratitude journals showed reduced inflammation, improved sleep, and better moods, which reduced their medical symptoms after just eight weeks.13

Tools for Cultivating Gratitude

There are tools that can be used to enhance feelings of gratitude. One such tool is meditation. 14 I have never managed to give meditation a chance, despite knowing it probably would be great for me. I thought you were supposed to clear your mind of all thoughts when meditating. But evidently it is acceptable to “sit with your eyes closed” and “[f ]ocus on all the good things in your life and start thanking your stars.”15 If that counts as meditation, then I guess I do that, for example when I’m driving—except that part about “eyes closed”!

Another wonderful tool for cultivating gratitude is giving back.16 Gratitude can be inspired by “an awareness that you enjoy many basic things that others, unfortunately, lack.”17 It causes us to “reflect[] on the things that are easy to take for granted.”18 One way lawyers can give back is by providing pro bono legal services. My October President’s Message is all about pro bono opportunities and our duty, as well as our privilege, as attorneys to help people and small businesses that are struggling.19 I have also urged lawyers to consider ways they can give back and make a difference regarding racial justice, including in my January President’s Message20 and during comments at symposiums and summits, on local bar visits, and when addressing the Board of Governors.

Making photo collages is another way to inspire gratitude, especially for creative types. I love this idea for my 10-year-old daughter, Tatum, but adults can try it too. Assembling a photo collage of your favorite people is one approach; another is clipping photos from magazines that represent your sources of joy.21 The process of making the collage is likely to generate feelings of gratitude, and so will seeing the collage regularly thereafter.22 Making a collage for someone who matters to you might enhance the experience as well—use it as a way to thank someone meaningfully. Thanking people for their contributions to your life is another tool to cultivate gratitude.23

A further tool I have read about is the “gratitude visit.” A study in 2005 allowed participants one week to write and deliver a thank you letter to someone who had been especially kind to them but who had never been properly thanked.24 Participants were required not only to express their gratitude in the letter, but also to deliver the letter personally and spend time with the recipient discussing the letter’s contents.25 Participants reported greater happiness for an entire month following the “gratitude visit” compared to a control group.26

“Gratitude journals” are another tool.27 I have frequently read that people who are feeling sad or depressed should consider keeping a journal in which they write with sp ecificity—ideally one to three times per week and not more—what they are feeling grateful for.[28] I have never kept one because I regularly and naturally think about what I’m grateful for (and feel happy and slightly anxious about it). But I have suggested a gratitude journal to Hadley, my 14-year-old daughter, and she has tried it and reported feeling happier because of it.

There are a lot of ways I fall short as a mom, but I intentionally seek to instill gratitude and appreciation in both girls, and it seems to be working. Feeling grateful has helped them cope with the many disappointments (e.g., closures and cancellations) resulting from COVID-19, which they are weathering better than some of their peers. In fact, Hadley has come to appreciate a lot of things about online school: sleeping a little later, access to better snacks and her dad’s good cooking, less running around, acting programs being offered out of...

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