It’s the holidays and I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude. I admit I didn’t understand gratitude until recently. Don’t get me wrong. I was thankful and tried not to take my life for granted. But experiencing life changing, soul affirming gratitude was something very new. I had glimpses when I was younger, but I didn’t understand that gratitude could become the backbone of how I lived my life.

I’ve heard all the sayings and advice about gratitude. Start a gratitude journal to feel better. Feeling down, think about what you are grateful for. Everyday think of 10 things you are grateful for. The advice goes on and on. But honestly, I would write down my list of things to be grateful for, and it never made me feel better about my life. But my understanding of what gratitude is has changed, and that has changed my life.

I think gratitude didn’t help me feel better about myself or my life when I was younger because I was grateful for the wrong things. Yes, I was grateful for what I had. All of my needs were met and really all of my wants were met in terms of material things. I loved my car. I loved all the places I lived and created very comfortable homes for myself. I’ve had all the clothes and shoes I’ve wanted to feel good about how I look. These things made my life extremely comfortable and still do. I am thankful for that. But that’s what material things do; they make you comfortable. Even though these material things made my life comfortable and I was thankful for them, they didn’t bring happiness or help me feel better about myself as a human. So, I’d write these material things down as what I was grateful for, and they never helped me feel better about my life.

I was also grateful for my accomplishments and successes. Going to school, getting my Master’s, having a corporate job, running large conferences, and managing large projects were all things I was proud for doing. Also, having the drive and focus to accomplish these things, made me proud. But I was never satisfied. Gratitude for my job and accomplishments never made me feel happy or content with my life. I wanted more. My accomplishments were things I would pile up and collect. Each project or event completed was another notch in my success belt. I was damn proud of the work I did but having these accomplishments and successes didn’t make me feel any better about my life.

In fact, the more and more I would accomplish, the worse I would feel about my life. I expected myself to continue to accomplish and succeed to prove my worth. However, the problem was I had attached my self-worth and value to these accomplishments. I needed to achieve continually to feel good about myself. And I was always afraid of the day I wouldn’t achieve. If I didn’t keep pushing and doing, I wouldn’t get the external validation that I was worthy. Also, even though I thought I was thankful for my accomplishments, the truth was I was always too busy working to really experience gratitude.

The good news is I’ve grown and changed and so has my definition of success.  One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that my value and self-worth as human is inherent and not tied to external factors like accomplishments or material things.

This shift in thinking also changed what I was grateful. It’s no longer about being thankful for what I have or what I’ve accomplished. Rather, it is a feeling of awe for just being alive and getting the chance to live this life. Gratitude is this warmth in my chest I feel when I think of connections I have to people and the world around me. It’s a switch from being grateful for what I can do with my life to being grateful for having the chance to live and to love.

Practicing gratitude is cultivating this feeling of awe through connection and experience. I get this feeling of awe when I connect with people I care about or listen to music that blows my mind or see a sunset that takes my breath away. This feeling of awe feels like when I stand at the ocean and feel the waves break on the beach. I feel small but at the same time completely part of system. In many ways, this feeling of awe is a feeling of love. The awe is so overwhelming, that I lose myself. Through my gratitude and this feeling of awe I connect to something so much bigger than myself and I get to be a part of it. I can only experience this awe if I am present in the moment. When I was focused on my accomplishments, I was always doing and going, not focused on the moment. So, experiencing these moments of awe were rare.

Awe needs time. It needs openness. I take time for gratitude when I see the beauty of the world around me. Gratitude happens when I accept my humanness including all my failures and imperfections and honor the humanity, I see around me. Gratitude is love. It’s cultivating love for myself, for my life, for others, and the world around me. But one of the best things about gratitude is the more gratitude I feel, the more love I feel.

But my biggest breakthrough in understanding gratitude I only learned recently. Since gratitude is tied to my humanity and lived experience, it means I have to be grateful for my full human experience. It means being grateful for the good, the bad, and they ugly of my life. Happiness is a gift but so sadness. Accepting my humanity and being grateful meant I had to accept every part, every emotion, and every experience of my life. For emotions or traumas, I didn’t want to feel or experience, I’ve had to sit down and be present with them. This includes the trauma I experienced there were not my fault and I didn’t deserve. Honestly, I wouldn’t be the same person in all my flawed glory without them. The truth is those wounded, hurt and flawed parts of me deserve the most of love and compassion from me.

Gratitude for every aspect of my life help me accept my imperfect self as is and see that all of me is worthy. This was what is life changing about gratitude. Gratitude is nourishment for my soul. The more thankful I am for my life, the more love and excitement I have to live my life. So, this sense of gratitude has become core to who I am. My favorite saying is Live it with Love, which also means live it with gratitude. This experience with gratitude is circular, so experiencing awe for life, I continually cultivate gratitude and love.