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The Anatomy of Gratitude

By: Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC

“Today is a wonderful day…I haven’t seen this one before” – Maya Angelou 

Recently, I listened to an insightful podcast titled “The Anatomy of Gratitude” with David Steindl-Rast, a ninety-three-year-old Benedictine monk and teacher on the subject of gratitude. He makes useful distinctions about experiences that are “life-giving” and “resilience-making.” He shares interesting perspectives on the ideas of gratefulness, joy and anxiety. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I highly suggest you do, but below are some key points that he shares with us. 

What is Joy? 

Joy is the happiness that does not depend upon what happens to us, or around us. The root of joy is gratitude. It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful. Real joy comes in terms of quality, not quantity. You can be unhappy, yet joyful at the same time. Happiness isn’t steady, but what we want in our lives is joy that is consistent, outside of circumstances. 


Gratitude seems to be a common theme today, yet we often think about it superficially, and fail to put it to practice. When we are grateful, we act out of a sense of “enough-ness,” not out of a sense of scarcity, and it makes us willing to share with others. Gratitude enables us to enjoy the differences between people and respect everybody, and that dissolves the power pyramid under which society lives. When we are grateful, we come alive – which is an outcome of positive wellbeing and living within the present. We can’t be grateful for everything that has been given to us (i.e. things like war, sickness or violence), however in every moment, we can be grateful for something. For example, we can be grateful not for a difficult experience, but for the opportunity to learn something from the experience that we have endured. In practicing this, we cultivate our capacity for resilience. Gratitude takes energy and intention from your mind, body, and spirit. Yes, this is easier said than done, but with regular exercise, we develop a healthier and more adaptive outlook and response to adversity. Practicing gratitude allows our emotions to fully express and experience true joy, which gives us the space to return thanks to others. Being grateful is more of a feeling, while thankfulness is putting that feeling into action. For example, when given a gift, we feel grateful for the actions of the other person, but that turns into thankfulness when we take action ourselves, such as writing a thank you letter or giving the person a hug to show appreciation. 


Anxiety is a reasonable response to many human experiences, and it can be particularly difficult to practice gratitude during moments of anxiousness. Fear is the resistance of anxiety; thus we must acknowledge it when it comes about. Experiencing feelings of anxiousness has its origins at birth. Our body’s primal response to anxiety triggers the trauma we all experience from the uncomfortable and vulnerable process of childbirth. As infants, we persevere and endure birth fearlessly, which brings more people into this world. If we resist the birth, we risk death, and the mother could have health complications. However, if we acknowledge the uncomfortable feelings and proceed, we receive positive benefits, such as new life. If this metaphor didn’t reach you, maybe this will. 

If you can’t find anything else to be grateful for and you are struggling to combat your anxiety, at the very least, be grateful for the next breath you take. For many people in the world, taking that next breath might be laborious or difficult, but if it’s something that’s easy for you, we can often take the blessing of that next breath for granted. In channeling what you are grateful for, you may need to dive deep and reflect a bit given that gratefulness arises from a deeper level – from within the heart. Living with a grateful heart will lead you to a more enriching life with tools to confront your relationship with anxiety. If you’re interested in taking a closer look into some of these subjects, tune into the podcast here:

If you would like to talk to a therapist for support, our counselors are here to help you. Symmetry Counseling offers in-office and online counseling in Chicago to support you. Contact us today.


On Being. (Presenter) & Tippett, K. (Host). (2020, April). How to be grateful for every moment (but not everything) [Podcast]. Retrieved from:

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