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Beginning with Thanks: The Power of Being Grateful

Gratitude creates instant connections between people.

Key points

  • Gratitude exercises are a powerful way to begin group experiences.
  • Experiencing gratitude reduces objectification of others and forges instant connections.
  • "Seeing" others brings mindful presence to individuals and groups.
  • Gratitude expressed as acceptance and respect helps people to cross interpersonal borders.
 Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu
"Let's begin with thanks"
Source: Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

As we chanted Buddhist prayers at my grandmother's funeral my eyes were drawn to a poster on the wall showing a young woman in gassho, hands together in prayer. The caption read, "Let's begin with thanks." I smiled when I read it, feeling that I could hear grandmother herself saying this. Since then, beginning with thanks has become a way of living, learning, and teaching.

For many years I've been designing courses at Stanford University with the theme of "transforming self and society." We often start with this story and my suggestion that our class can also begin like this. We do a reflective meditation on what we feel grateful for at that moment—possibly something we normally don't notice or take for granted. We might bring awareness to the many small kindnesses or services we receive each day that make our lives possible and rich.

We reflect on gratitude on a grander scale:

Gratitude for the gift of life itself

Gratitude for the presence of other creatures and ancestors

Gratitude for nature or gods that guide and protect us.

We recite a prayer from the Dalai Lama, A Precious Human Life.

Every day, think as you wake up

Today I am fortunate to have woken up.

I am alive,

I have a precious human life.

I am not going to waste it

I am going to use all my energies to develop myself

to expand my heart out to others

to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

I am going to have kind thoughts toward others.

I am not going to think badly about others.

I am going to benefit others as much as I can.

Sometimes we sing some of the lyrics to experience the joy of music.

Following this beginning we do some exercises designed to enhance the sense of gratitude. In these exercises students experience interconnection through the simple acts of learning and saying each others' names, seeing the other, and affirming one's presence. The exercises offer the experience of respect, mutual vulnerability, and unconditional positive acceptance. A sense of mindful presence emerges in all.

Gratitude has been shown to contribute to an increase in happiness, health, and other desirable life outcomes. It's also correlated with a decrease in negative affect and problematic functioning. These results are seen in patients with neuromuscular disease, college students, hypertensives, patients with cancer, health care providers, and early adolescents.

Recent research also supports what I see in every one of my classes—gratitude reduces objectification. A little appreciation goes a long way in bringing people together, crossing borders that divide humans into "us" and "them." Beginning with gratitude creates instant connections as people see others as simply fellow human beings. Fears are quieted, as they experience their common humanity and exult that "there are no enemies" and "I don't need to be afraid of others." The way in which these experiences provide a start to creating community is truly awesome.

By beginning with gratitude we move away from victimization and toward empowerment. Gratitude enables us to overcome blame and take responsibility for our own lives and to do what we can for others. "Seeing" and affirming the goodness in each other helps people realize that they are all no more than imperfect human beings, stimulating mutual healing in a community context.

I have found no better way of starting a group experience that will become transformative. Members feel gratitude that they were born and are alive, that they are connected to other beings, and to nature or gods that give us this magical mystery world in which we live.


"A little appreciation goes a long way: Gratitude reduces objectification." Jiaxin Shi, Xijing Wang, Fei Teng, Zhansheng Chen. The Journal of Positive Psychology, Published online 20 March 2022

"Gratitude." Emmons, R. A., Froh, J., & Rose, R. In M. W. Gallagher & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Positive psychological assessment: A handbook of models and measures (pp. 317–332). American Psychological Association, 2019.

"I See You, I Am Here: The Secret to Heartfelt Communication." Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, Lion's Roar, June 2, 2021

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