I was sitting behind two teenage girls on a bus. One of them was upset because her parents had balked at buying her a prom dress they couldn’t afford. She was not happy with her second choice.
“Then Mom came unglued because I didn’t say thank you,” she complained. “I don’t know what she expected me to say thank you for!”
Ungrateful child, I thought.
Not long after that I began pondering the promise of “a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (3 Ne. 24:10). Although I had been paying my tithing and fulfilling my other obligations, I did not feel overwhelmed with blessings. In fact, I felt that I had little to be grateful for.
Suddenly, my experience on the bus flashed through my mind. I, too, had been an ungrateful child. I began to think about my life, and, first as a trickle and then increasing to a torrent, there came to me a powerful awareness of the blessings I had received. From tiny everyday blessings to the great blessing of the Atonement, I saw how abundantly I had been blessed. The windows of heaven had been open all the time. I just hadn’t noticed. My soul filled with such wonder and gratitude that I felt physically unable to bear it.
That night I understood for the first time that when gratitude fills our hearts, there is no room for unhappiness. Happiness, I decided, does not depend on obtaining all the desires of our hearts. It does not have to wait until we get married or become parents or acquire material goods. Happiness depends in large measure on our ability to feel gratitude for the abundance we already have.
But what if we don’t feel grateful? Isn’t it hypocritical to express an emotion we don’t honestly feel?
Certainly. But there are ways to cultivate gratitude. The idea that emotions occur spontaneously, unaffected by any action on our part, is false. Through study and prayer and practical experience, I have learned that we can control our emotions. We can take actions that change the way we feel. We can increase our ability to feel gratitude.
Following are some simple exercises I have found helpful in developing a more thankful heart.
Count your blessings. Awareness is the first step in developing gratitude. Bishop Henry B. Eyring pointed out that if we count our blessings with faith, the Holy Ghost will often bring other blessings to mind (see Ensign, Nov. 1989, p. 13). Many of our greatest blessings have been part of our lives for so long that we may have forgotten they are gifts. How often, for instance, do we recall that our physical bodies are blessings we eagerly longed for as spirit children?
One day a sister was contemplating the richness that music added to her life. She was suddenly overcome with a feeling of gratitude for those eternal laws that enable us to enjoy music. With that came a deep appreciation for the technology of recorded music that allows us to listen to music without having to be in the actual presence of the performers, a privilege we have been able to enjoy only in the past few generations.
Recognize trials as blessings. It may seem odd to think of illness, social upheavals, natural disasters, and personal tragedies as blessings. But how often have we heard people bear testimony to the growth they experienced through enduring periods of challenge and trial?
Some have supposed that trials are reserved only for the disobedient. But the scriptures make it clear that even the humble and obedient will face tribulation. Experience is a great teacher, and sometimes our hardest experiences can be our best teachers. When Joseph Smith was falsely imprisoned in Liberty Jail, he was told that even if he were to suffer in the most extreme circumstances, “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).
This may be why we are commanded to give thanks for all things (see Eph. 5:20). Some blessings come to us painfully. But the Lord promises that “he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious” (D&C 78:19).
Carefully nurture every feeling of gratitude, no matter how small. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is much like caring for the seed of faith. If we nourish the first tiny sprout, in time it will grow into a beautiful and fruitful tree (see Alma 32:27–37). I find that when I first become aware of a blessing, I can strengthen my feeling of gratitude if I immediately express my thanks.
Study your patriarchal blessing. Too often, we fail to recognize those gifts that have been given to us specifically. Our patriarchal blessings can help us recognize and appreciate these personal gifts. Reading our blessings can also help us avoid the human tendency to despise our own gifts and covet those given to others. In the poem “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, the people who envied the wealthy Mr. Cory “went without the meat, and cursed the bread”—until the day he shot himself. Do we think of our talents as “bread” and of others’ talents as “meat”? As we come to understand our patriarchal blessings, we can feel Heavenly Father’s love for us and trust his wisdom in giving us what we have.
Read Mosiah 2:19–25. I often feel a spirit of gratitude return as I read this passage of scripture. King Benjamin’s words, written in language both plain and powerful, remind me of the great dependence we all have on the Lord for everything, even our very being.
Record your blessings. Recording our blessings in a journal helps focus our minds on them and enables us to recall them later when we may have forgotten. Others, too, might benefit. President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Journals are a way of counting our blessings and of leaving an inventory of these blessings for our posterity” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 349).
Express your gratitude to Heavenly Father. When we pray in private, the Holy Ghost often reminds us of blessings we have overlooked. Public prayers can also be revelatory. I have learned to listen carefully as others pray. They sometimes call attention to blessings that have escaped my notice. Some of the prayers that have influenced me most have been prayers that focused almost exclusively on blessings. President Ezra Taft Benson has said, “There is a great tendency for us in our prayers and in our pleadings with the Lord to ask for additional blessings. But sometimes I feel we need to devote more of our prayers to expressions of gratitude and thanksgiving for blessings already received” (God, Family, Country, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974, p. 199).
Express your gratitude to others. It has been said that when Heavenly Father wishes to bless us, he often sends that blessing through the service of another—a friend, a parent, a Church leader, a teacher. Expressing appreciation to these agents of the Lord’s love accomplishes two important things: it reminds us of the kind and thoughtful service they have given us, and it knits our hearts together.
Pay an honest tithe. The basis of gratitude is understanding that all we have comes from God. In giving back to him one-tenth of our increase, we acknowledge that truth. Paying tithing helps cultivate a deep and sincere gratitude for the source of all our blessings.
Overcome roadblocks to gratitude. Sometimes, no matter what we do, a spirit of bitterness or depression keeps feelings of gratitude far away. In such cases, the unhappiness we feel may stem from something we have little control over. People suffering clinical depression need professional help in order to find relief from their negative emotions.
Elder James E. Talmage once observed that “God requires thanksgiving, praise and worship, not for His gratification as the recipient of adulation, but for the good of His children” (Sunday Night Talks by Radio, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1931, p. 486). The good we receive by developing a thankful heart is immeasurable. It cultivates feelings of reverence for God and thereby opens our souls to the influence of the Holy Spirit. It allows us to find joy in the here and now instead of in some future day when all our desires have been granted. A thankful heart allows us to face trials firm in the knowledge of Heavenly Father’s love for us.
I like the way a friend of mine sums up the power of gratitude. “The grateful heart,” he says, “sits at a continual feast.”