It’s easy to forget that everything (literally, everything) comes from nature. Without the gifts of nature – water, air, raw materials, food, ecosystem services – human beings would cease to exist. As the recent short film by Conservation International bluntly put it: “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.” This is the capital-T Truth that has been all but forgotten in our modern culture.
For hundreds of years we haven’t given much thought to what is required on our part to ensure that the gifts of nature keep giving. As environmental author and activist Paul Hawken said in a 2009 speech at the University of Portland, “This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them.”
Now, with ice caps melting, oceans acidifying, and temperatures rising, we’re finally starting to realize that when nature doesn’t thrive, humanity can’t either. A culture that lives in harmony with its environment has a much better chance of flourishing than a culture that destroys its environment.
How do we learn to live in harmony with the environment? A good place to start is by cultivating an ethic of gratitude.
Nature. Beauty. Gratitude.
In his 2011 TED talk, photographer Louie Schwartzberg says, “Beauty and seduction are nature's tools for survival, because we protect what we fall in love with. It opens our hearts, and makes us realize we are a part of nature and we're not separate from it. When we see ourselves in nature, it also connects us to every one of us, because it's clear that it's all connected in one.”
Through his work, Schwartzberg hopes to positively impact the future of the planet, saying, “If I can move enough people on an emotional level, I hope we can achieve the shift in consciousness we need to sustain and celebrate life.”
Gratitude has the power to move the inner place from which we operate towards connection and caring – two things that are needed to advance towards sustainability. When it comes to sustainable behavior change, the focus is usually on how we can minimize our negative footprint. Gratitude gives us the opportunity to maximize our positive handprint by acting as a force for good in the world.
What’s in it for you and me?
According to research by psychologist Robert Emmons, gratitude strengthens relationships, improves physical health, and enhances our social and emotional well-being. The many benefits of cultivating an attitude of gratitude include:
- Stronger immune systems
- Less bothered by aches and pains
- Lower blood pressure
- Exercise more and take better care of their health
- Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
- Higher levels of positive emotions
- More alert, alive, and awake
- More joy and pleasure
- More optimism and happiness
- More helpful, generous, and compassionate
- More forgiving
- More outgoing
- Fewer feelings of loneliness and isolation
In addition to the health and well-being benefits, gratitude also lessens our desire to want more and more all the time. It helps us get off the hedonic treadmill and focus on what’s really important in life. Think about the implications for sustainability. Would materialism and hyper-consumerism even be possible with a culture rooted in gratitude for nature’s gifts?
As environmental philosopher and activist Joanna Macy says in her book Coming Back to Life, “Gratitude is politically subversive in the industrial growth society. It helps inoculate us against the consumerism upon which corporate capitalism depends. It serves as a counterweight to the dissatisfaction with what we have and are, and the craving and neediness inflamed by our political economy.” Radical idea, right? Gratitude, in its purist form, can serve as a powerful antidote to consumerism. Think of it as Vitamin G. Have you had your daily dose?
Gratitude and its many surprises
While it is possible to deliberately cultivate gratitude, it does take effort. Gratitude is a practice. It’s something that grows over time. You can’t just wake up tomorrow and - poof! - be grateful for everything in your life.
Our tendency is to think: once I am happy, then I will be grateful. After I have this or that (new job, new car, new house, etc.), then I will have something to be grateful for. But according to Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, we have the equation backwards. He says, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful, it’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” When you are grateful, then you are happy. The logic is quite simple: it is hard to be miserable when you are grateful. Steindl-Rast gives us these tips for living gratefully:
1. Stop. We rush through life. We don't stop. We miss the opportunity because we don't stop. We have to stop. We have to get quiet. And we have to build stop signs into our lives.
2. Look. When you stop, then the next thing is to look. You look. You open your eyes. You open your ears. You open your nose. You open all your senses for this wonderful richness that is given to us. There is no end to it, and that is what life is all about: enjoying what is given to us.
3. Go. Really do something. And what we can do is whatever life offers to you in that present moment. Mostly it's the opportunity to enjoy, but sometimes it's something meaningful and more difficult.
Want to cultivate more gratitude in your life and start growing your handprint? Check out the links below to learn more about the science and practice of gratitude.