This article was originally featured in the April 2024 issue of Connect.

Nomfundo Amanda Zondi (Hokkaido)

Spring is here! Cue the dance party. The days are finally longer, the sun is shining, and, in many parts of Japan, the snow has finally melted. There is nothing quite like the hope that returns as the seasons change. Everyday there is something to look forward to: the grass becoming greener and the mountains becoming covered in lush vegetation yet again. Spring is a testament of how all creation is resilient, yourself included. That we can always start again. And, of course, spring in Japan means: cherry blossoms! If this is your first spring in Japan, get ready to be dazzled by the different shades of pink that are about to pepper your surroundings. Albeit short, be sure to take part in hanami which is the custom of viewing cherry blossoms during this season. Pack some food, sit under the cherry blossom trees, and enjoy what really is a transient moment because, as quickly as they appear, they will soon disappear. This ritual of viewing cherry blossoms is linked to the Buddhist themes of life and death, mindfulness, and living in the present moment. To hanami is to realise the brevity of life and to appreciate it while it is here. It is easy to feel immense relief and gratitude once spring rolls around, as it is a reminder of how things can change for the better and it beckons one to acknowledge how beautiful change can be no matter how short-lived it is.

In recent years gratitude has become a topic of interest in the realm of positive psychology. What is gratitude? Is it a feeling? A character trait? An action? It may mean different things for each of us depending on the situation. We can all agree that many cultures around the world encourage one from childhood to say ‘thank you’ when receiving a gift or a favour from another. As we know, in Japan, it is much the same. However, I must say, ‘thank you’ has taken on a whole new meaning for me here in Japan. With the vast ways to say ‘thank you’, and the amount of times I have received and given a ‘thank you’ in my time here, it has given space for greater levels of gratitude within myself. To the point where I now have a habit of thanking people for thanking me. Haha! Who would’ve thought, appreciation for being appreciated. 

Gratitude can take many forms. Scientists studying it have postulated that there are three types of gratitude. (1) The first being one’s natural disposition. That’s right, some of us are just born more grateful than others. If you don’t resonate with this, do not despair. There are ways to work on this. Along with it being an affective trait, gratitude is also a mood. You know that feeling, when you wake up and just feel good, and you have warm thoughts of love towards life and your surroundings? That is gratitude. And the final type of gratitude is the emotion which you may feel temporarily when a kind coworker gives you omiyage from the trip they took over the weekend.

gratitude makes us awaken to the good around us

So, how does gratitude impact our daily lives? Professor Richard Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California says that gratitude makes us awaken to the good around us by taking note of it. (2) Emmons goes on to add that gratitude also makes us realise external sources that bring goodness to us such as other people, a higher power, or destiny. (2) It is, in fact, the cornerstone that keeps us together. Such ideals are much the same as that of the spirit of ubuntu as in my native South Africa. Ubuntu is the spirit of togetherness, to realise that I am because you are. (3) This allows us to have a sense of indebtedness to one another which spurs us to act kindly towards each other in gratitude for the ties that weave us together as a community. The concept of ubuntu also extends beyond humans, to the nature that surrounds us. Feeling grateful to others, or to the world, encourages us to extend help to those who have helped us, as it gives us a sense of responsibility. Not only that, but it also ignites us to help absolute strangers. (4) I think it is safe to say gratitude has the power to create a virtuous cycle if you will, of ongoing kindness and gratitude. 

The benefits of gratitude do not stop there. Studies done on gratitude have shown it has the ability to improve mental health and well-being. (2) This is due to how we, as humans, are often cognitively more aware of the challenges we face than of the benefits we receive. So, by being more aware of the benefits, we are able to experience gratitude and, therefore, are able to have a more helpful outlook on life, which stirs positive emotions. These positive emotions spill over, which results in gratitude being a great way to cope with stress and build resilience in difficult situations. (5) There has also been evidence that suggests that gratitude can build self-esteem, with studies done on youths showing that those who reported feeling more grateful had a higher sense of self-esteem. (5) This may also be linked to how gratitude is related to the aforementioned ubuntu. When we feel less alone in life, we have a greater sense of security, which then enhances our self-esteem. (5) There are suggestions that gratitude may encourage complacency, because if we are grateful, it is assumed that we have no motivation to work towards any goals. Quite the contrary is true, as research has shown that gratitude can make one believe they are prone to, or deserving, of good things. (6) This then motivates us to work towards our goals with the belief that it can happen for us, spurring us on. It seems that the sky’s the limit when it comes to gratitude. 

Perhaps you are reading this and thinking, “Wow, I could really use feeling or being more grateful in my life, but I just don’t know how.’’ Whether you have a natural disposition to being grateful or not, we all can use a little more gratitude in our lives. Here are some ways gratitude can be expressed, felt, and increased in your own life:

  1. Start a gratitude journal—Make it a habit to write down three things everyday that you are grateful for. Initially, it may be your health, your friends, or your job, but this practice will make it a habit for you to look for things to be grateful for.
  2. Tell a loved one ‘thank you’—Many of us are where we are today thanks to the help we have received from someone at one point in time. Pop that person a text telling them how thankful you are and how their help impacted you positively. 
  3. Pay it forward—Don’t wait for things to be grateful for, go ahead and create them! Do small acts of kindness for those around you.
  4. Spend time in nature—Being in nature has the power to remind us all that nature does for us. How the trees continuously clean the air and provide us with oxygen, how the sun gives us light, and how the rays of the sun on our skin allows us to make vitamin D, strengthening our bones.
  5. Go out with friends—Friendships have a spectacular way of reminding us how fulfilling and uplifting close connections can be.
  6. Look at the bright side—Those who tend to feel more grateful are able to see the good in situations. Try to always look for that silver lining, even in the mundane.
  7. Mind your language—The way we speak impacts how our lives go, whether we like to believe it or not. Be mindful of how you speak. Those who are able to experience more gratitude choose to complain less and speak of the good things life has brought them. Therefore, increasing their belief that more good is able to reach them. This is not to say that one should stifle the very valid feelings they may be struggling with. However, keep in mind that what we believe to be true influences our reality. 

We may not always feel grateful but we can take small steps towards cultivating more gratitude within ourselves and in our lives. I hope you can take this spring to launch yourself into a new era of gratitude. Take the time to look around you and you will find you have a lot more to be grateful for than what you initially might think. If you want to dive more into research done on gratitude, feel free to go to the links in the source list below.

Source List 

  1. Gratitude Whitepaper 
  2. The Science of Gratitude
  3. The African Philosophy of Ubuntu
  4. Gratitude and Prosocial Behaviour
  5. The Benefits of Gratitude
  6. How Gratitude Motivates Us To Be Better People

Nomfundo is a second-year ALT from South Africa based in Hokkaido. She studied Dietetics and Human Nutrition in university. Her approach to health and wellness is multifaceted as she believes it comprises more than the food we eat. She enjoys writing poetry, going to art galleries, going to live concerts, and being in nature. In her spare time, she produces a podcast “The Sun in Japan” to help uplift others through storytelling. Connecting with people is her passion and learning more about the world and what brings us together as a human race.