Today, many people look at gratitude as a life hack. It’s seen as a means to an end, whether mental health, greater happiness, or less stress. Gratitude certainly has all these effects. But aside from the health benefits, gratitude for its own sake is undoubtedly a virtue. Abraham Lincoln didn’t have all of the studies about gratitude’s health benefits when he created the Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. Like many of the people who came before us, he recognized the value of being grateful for what we have. Through their writings and sayings, the Stoics provided us a powerful example of gratitude. Here are three things the Stoics have shared with us about gratitude.
#1. Appreciate everything, but none of it is yours
The Stoics recognized that everything we have is in trust. One of the most famous stories of the Stoics is about Epictetus’ lamp. Though not wealthy being a former slave, Epictetus had an iron lamp that was relatively nice for the time. One night, a thief broke into his house and stole his light. Rather than being so broken up about losing this possession, Epictetus recognized that the time fate had given him with his iron lamp was over. He replaced it with a simple earthen lamp. He focused not on the fact that someone had stolen his lamp but that the thief forfeited their virtue to do so. Epictetus’ focus was not on losing the lamp but on not allowing the loss to rule over him. He appreciated the lamp while he had it but still had what he truly valued his virtue.
No thief could take that. Whether you believe it is from God, from the universe, whatever it may be, all that we have is never truly ours. Your house could burn down. Someone could steal your car. All that you have, you have temporarily, including your life. Therefore, we should appreciate everything with an understanding that it is in our trust for a time, and it will be gone soon enough. The lesson that Epictetus’ lamp teaches us is to appreciate things with a recognition that it will all be gone soon enough, so enjoy it but never allow it to take priority over virtue because that’s all we can’t lose.
#2. Be grateful for its own sake
The Stoics were generally in agreement that virtue is the highest, if not the only good. I think that they certainly would agree that gratitude is an element of the virtue of wisdom and possibly justice. However, now we hear about all of the things that spending time in gratitude will do for us. We regularly hear about the scientific benefits of gratitude. Being grateful may indeed lower your blood pressure, make your immune system work better, etc. But that’s not why we should do it. We should be grateful because we’re fortunate. Recognizing and humbly appreciating the good things in our lives is wise; failing to do so is unwise. It is just to enjoy the blessings fate has afforded you, and to be angry with fate for what you don’t have is unjust.
#3. Be grateful for everything
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Phillipians 4:12–13
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius said, “Unhappy am I because this has happened to me.- Not so, but happy am I, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future.” Modern stoics Ryan Holiday and Jocko Willink have concepts similar to this, Ryan bringing Freidrich Nieztche’s idea of “Amor Fati” to stoicism, and Jocko Willink and his phrase “Good.” These phrases follow this simple idea: be grateful for everything, not just the things that immediately appear pleasant. Few things are more empowering than recognizing the good in every situation. Of course, all the life-giving relationships, nice possessions, favorite foods are easy to appreciate. But the trials that reveal our character? Being grateful for those things can be a bit more challenging. However, it is a lot more worthwhile. Why is it that when you didn’t get that outcome you aimed for, it was the best thing that could have happened? How can you love your circumstances precisely as they are? To do that is profound gratitude that nothing else can match.
With the Thanksgiving holiday just passed, make sure to spend some time in gratitude every day. Give thanks for the fact that you’re here, now, that you woke up today and every day previous. Count every blessing and use it as fuel to pursue a better soul. Here’s wishing you and yours a happy holiday season.