Brené Brown’s Simple Gratitude Practice
Who wouldn’t want to feel happier, be less afraid, and improve the quality of their life? According to the inimitable Brené Brown, PhD, people who have the capacity to lean fully into joy have one variable in common: They practice gratitude.
And you don’t need to buy a journal or invest more than a minute of your time—a gratitude practice, she says, can come down to repeating four simple words.
(For more from Brown, listen to GP’s interview with her on the roots of shame, courage, and vulnerability.)
A Q&A with Brené Brown, PhD
1. Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or described themselves as joyful actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to that practice.
2. Both joy and gratitude were described as spiritual practices that were bound to a belief in human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
3. The difference between happiness and joy can be equated to the difference between a human emotion connected to circumstances and one that has a spiritual way of engaging with the world.
Before the research, I’d assumed that joyful people were grateful people. But after interviewing thousands of people about their experiences of joy and gratitude, three patterns emerged:
Our attitude doesn’t always translate to action. I think the best way to think about practicing gratitude is: Are you doing something that is tangible and observable? In my family, we go around the table and take turns sharing one thing we’re grateful for that day. On birthdays, everyone shares one gratitude for the birthday person. At work, we put people’s names on large posters and ask everyone to write one gratitude on a sticky under each name. I also keep a journal and write down three things I’m grateful for almost every day. It’s more than just thinking of things we’re grateful for—it’s verbalizing them.
Joy is the most vulnerable of all human emotions—and that’s saying something, given that I also study shame and fear. It’s almost terrifying to allow ourselves to lean into the feeling of joy, because we’re afraid we’ll be sucker punched by pain or disappointment. So what many of us do—myself included—is try to outsmart vulnerability so we don’t get sucker punched by pain.
If I’m standing over my kids when they’re sleeping, I go from deep joy to sheer terror in five seconds and start getting visions of something terrible happening. When I was watching Ellen get into the car with her prom date, I couldn’t push the image of a car crash out of my mind. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve also studied this for over a decade, and if it’s crazy, there are a whole bunch of us who are. About 90 percent of us, and 95 percent of parents, experience some degree of “foreboding joy.”
Of course, no amount of planning can stop pain. We can, however, squander the very joy we need to bring into our lives so that when hard things happen, we don’t have a reservoir of strength to tap into.
Men and women who have the capacity to lean fully into joy share one variable in common: They practice gratitude. Vulnerability is real, and we have a physiological response to it—a quiver. Some of us use that quiver as a warning sign to start dress-rehearsing tragedy, while others use it as a reminder to practice gratitude. Now, in those deeply joyful moments when I feel the quiver, I literally say, “I’m so grateful for…” And sometimes I say it over and over. It’s changed my life.
Brené Brown, PhD, is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past two decades studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. She is the author of five number one New York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead.