Towards A Practice Pattern for Gratitude

By Jon Miller Updated on February 7th, 2022

Between food, family, and the feeling of gratitude, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s easy to be thankful when our blessings cover and surround the dining room table. Even when we have little, or when we face struggles, it helps to feel grateful for what we have. Studies have shown that cultivating a feeling of gratitude has benefits to mental and physical health. Ideally, we feel a bit of gratitude each day rather than once a year in a large batch. Perhaps this has as much to do with how we approach feeling grateful as how blessed we may be.

The Virtues of Dissatisfaction

As I was reflecting on things that I was grateful for this past holiday, it occurred to me that there is a thin line between dissatisfaction and ungratefulness. By nature and through professional repetition, my thoughts tend away from gratitude and toward dissatisfaction. After listing my reasons to feel grateful, I quickly set that as the new baseline, noticing where things need to improve. As a result I’ve been asked, “Why can’t you just be happy?” with the situation or thing. Critical thinking, and its results, make me happy. But in society, the line between dissatisfaction and ungratefulness is a thin one to tread.

In lean thinking, dissatisfaction with the current situation is a prerequisite for continuous improvement. When we become satisfied, we grow comfortable. Left alone, comfort leads to complacency. When we are complacent, pride or overconfidence causes us to stop or stop looking critically at uncomfortable realities. We close our eyes to small problems, allowing them to grow bigger. When we are comfortable, we may resist change even when we see the need. In lean thinking, dissatisfaction is almost a virtue.

A Practice Pattern for Gratitude?

The Toyota Kata is a practice pattern for teaching scientific thinking. It was recognized and popularized by researcher and author Mike Rother through a series of books and other resources. In brief, a learner works with a coach to understand the challenge, grasp the current condition, set a target condition, and try to move towards it by experimenting against perceived obstacles. Studying the facts of the current reality and comparing it to the aspirational challenge creates a gap. The desire to do something about the gap is focused on a concrete obstacle, often just beyond reach, requiring learning through experimentation. A coach observes the learner’s actions, reflects on what this reveals about their thinking pattern, and gives constructive feedback.

Perhaps developing an attitude of gratitude would be helped by following a kata, or practice pattern. In the challenge step, we could begin with the question, “What condition are you trying to feel grateful about?” Grasping the current condition is always situational and sometimes tricky. There may be or may not be a process, but there would certainly be patterns and characteristics for our condition. These may be better termed attitudes and actions. The target condition for gratitude would be based on making concrete changes in our attitude or action, as defined in the previous step. Then, working with a coach who helps us reflect, we experiment in addressing concrete obstacles to feeling grateful.

How to Be Grateful Yet Dissatisfied

The idea of gratitude and dissatisfaction may appear to be at odds. I don’t think this is the case. It’s more a matter of being careful not to confuse gratitude with comfort that leads to complacency. By the same token, we can be grateful for the obstacles we don’t have to face in life, while recognizing the obstacles before us.

What are the concrete obstacles between me and a deeper daily sense of gratitude? While I am vaguely dissatisfied with my level of gratitude, is this due to a real gap or just my general baseline condition of dissatisfaction? It’s difficult to be objective when observing one’s own thoughts, attitudes, and ingrained behaviors. Maybe I will have to find a gratitude kata coach.

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