The Sensory Astonishment of Gratitude

Thursday, November 26, 2015 - 5:23am
Photo by Jeff Stanford
The New Better Off

The Sensory Astonishment of Gratitude

In this season of Thanksgiving, you’ve no doubt been reminded that expressing gratitude, or even just thinking gracious thoughts, is a direct route to a more satisfied life. As Arthur C. Brooks wrote in last week’s New York Times:

“We are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness.”

I’m not terribly interested in happiness, truth be told, or at least not the hollow version of it that is too often peddled as the goal. To me the goal is closer to meaning and pleasure, integrity and humility. Happiness, in contrast, seems like that yoga teacher who is convinced that she is super spiritual when, in fact, she’s just read the right books; she keeps telling you to contort your body into strange shapes while urging you to smile as you shake with the strangeness of it all.

Nevertheless, I’m a huge fan of gratitude. It connects me so deeply to other people. I feel the physical sensation of my shoulders lightening and my head clearing when I write a thank you note. It’s almost like I’m in the same room as the person to whom I’ve addressed the letter. I can feel their physical presence and they’re in a great mood. I feel better about myself having written it. I’m who I want to be, someone who pauses long enough in a busy life to put pen to paper, to scrounge up a stamp, to pop a 2D expression of a 3D love in the mail.

When I think grateful thoughts about a thing, not a person, there’s a similar phenomenon. I have an immediate, visceral sense that this thing — the gorgeous guts of a pomegranate or the thousands tiny scratches in my thick silver ring — becomes instantaneously more valuable, like fine art. My gratitude makes the thing show off, get brighter and more detailed, flare and flash. I think, “How have I not noticed how totally beautiful and intricate this thing is?”

I am reminded, in these moments, of a time when a friend of mine — tripping on acid — looked up at the full moon blazing against the dark sky, uninhibited by city lights, and shouted: “I had nothing to do with that! Keep shining, moon! Just keep shining!”

His astonishment was, yes, a product of drugs and maybe a hint of narcissism, but it was mostly the enlargement of this wonderful thing that happens when humans actually pay attention and feel the full capacity of our gratitude. We realize that the world’s beauty is unfathomably vast — and that it has nothing to do with us. It’s enough to make even a sober person shout into the darkness.

I feel especially high on this realization when I think about the functioning of my own body. As the moon keeps shining, our lungs keep breathing, our blood keeps pumping, our brains keep firing. Until they don’t, which of course only makes us even more aware of how miraculous it is that they normally do. About 100 million new red blood cells are being formed in our body every minute! The liver, meanwhile, takes toxic substances and converts them into harmless ones, or makes sure they are released from the body. It’s doing that right now, as you read this column, as you eat your pumpkin pie, as you grow frustrated with your racist uncle.

Nothing will make you bow down to the human body more than learning about pregnancy. Pregnant women’s bodies actually build a whole new organ — the reddish-blue placenta, which is like the control center for baby life. My midwife used to measure my growing belly (technically called “fundal height”) and explain to me that ancient cultures figured out your belly is exactly the number of centimeters that you are weeks pregnant. That’s better than science fiction.

Which is all to say, gratitude is not just about empty platitudes or forced dinner table exercises. It’s about marveling. It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do. It’s about natural science and human anatomy. It requires, above all else, slowing down and noticing and letting yourself be astonished.

So keep shining, moon. Just keep shining.

Share Post

Shortened URL


Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



What beautiful words to begin this day of Thanksgiving! Astonishment at the endless wonders of life, coupled with humility, feels like the ultimate happiness to me. In those moments, I have often thought that it's not possible to reach a higher level. When one sort of melds into the universe and feels the absolute comfort of that, it seems as good as it can get. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family Courtney, to readers here, and to all those at On Being who bring us their awesome gifts of astonishing and comforting words and thoughts every day.

Lovely post, perfect for this day! My gratitude journal and daily practice are so important to me. Mostly, the mantra begins with husband, cats, health, food... The simplest and most lovely things.

Courtney - You so got it! Gorgeous reflection on being AWAKE and being in AWE and REVERENT and I love your word, "marveling." Thank you. We are your kind of people over at where we celebrate grateful living every day. I hope you get over to hang out with us there - we would be honored for your company in our wild quest to make the world a more generous, kind, humble, joyful, peaceful place through the lived far reaches of gratitude. There is a lot of amazing marveling to do on our site. Come over and say hello. May thanksgiving blessings and much gratitude for your wild and awake wisdom...Kristi Nelson

Thanks for this expansion on the statement: " gratitude is the secret to happiness". Nicely done.

You fill my senses with your words words. Thank you ,Courtney.

Thank you, Courtney, for this beautiful perspective on thanks-giving and gratitude.

Thank you! What a pleasure to read on this Thanksgiving weekend.

I'll be paying closer attention to the physical sensations you discuss so well. Thank you for this.

"Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment." Rumi

I also love the word 'thank you' and what it means...Better than 'i love you' in my opinion...'Keep on shining moon' that's great! Lol :)

I wish i could feel as passionately as you at the moment...But im sure my fire will return...Thank you :) x

Thank you, Courtney! For all of it, in this piece and the others as well. I go to "On Being" to feel uplifted, to be reminded of the things I know are true, to remember I am not alone in the way I want to live. "Gratitude is the memory of my heart." rOSIE

This is my favorite time of year. The weather outside is crisp and cool, which makes me grateful for the intermittent presence of the sun. It must be the bright illumination juxtaposed with the dullness of the season that draws me into a reflective space. I love to sit in the fall, perched on the edge of the hearth, gentle fire warming my back, staring out the window into the bleak yard. I think I’m enamored with God but it might be the glory of the season that makes my heart swell. I like to daydream in the winter, like a hibernating bear, only I give my thoughts free reign.

Today I consider the state of our world and I worry that we’ve forgotten how to love. Where do we find hope in the midst of such violence and despair? My dear friend Phyllis always prays for peace in the heart, peace in the home, and peace in the world. It makes perfect sense to me now. If there is no peace in our hearts, we won’t find it in our homes, and the world will reflect this general malaise. I feel ashamed for my comfortable life especially when held up to all the deficiencies in the world. How do we render this situation? I feel impotent when confronted with the enormity of it all.

Like a magnet, I am pulled back into my narrow little world, by a bouquet of mundane distractions. It’s the end of the semester. There are projects, papers, and presentations to grade. The holidays are barreling down on me, gifts to purchase, family gatherings to attend, Christmas lights to hang, and the dreaded tree to decorate (I was deprived of the decorating gene). I’m attracted to the extreme opposites of the season. The shortness of the day against the long cold nights, the sweetness of chocolate paired with bitter coffee, not to mention the birth of the prophesied child to a virgin. Jesus was also born into a violent world, but he doesn't let this overwhelm him, he simply ushers in a new social order, based on love. This was an extreme vision for the culture of his time and one that continues to benefit our world today.

I remember listening to a final interview with Steve Jobs. He was an extreme sort of guy and I am intrigued by his creativity. He seemed obsessed with work, perfectionism, but he changed the world with his unique vision. At the end of his life he said, “What I can bring is only the memories precipitated by love.” I don’t know if he really thought he would be able to access his memories after death, but clearly in life, he thought this important enough to mention. If nothing remains but our acts of love what a world it could be. Happy Thanksgiving all and may love reign.

love this - thank you! keep shining, courtney!