Arboretum News

The Nature of Gratitude

Give thanks for the gift of the Earth.

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Sunset in the Spring Peeper Meadow in June 2020. Photo by Jason Landis-Boudreau.

By Jean Larson, manager of the Nature-Based Therapeutic Services Program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

How does it feel when you send someone a “thank you” card or end an email with “I am very grateful to you?” If like me, doing good things for others brings a feeling of warmth and thankfulness. Research suggests, not only does “doing good” make us “feel good” –it can have a powerful and lasting effect on our mental health and wellbeing. So what is the feeling I am referring to? Gratitude. 

Gratitude is hardly a new concept. For centuries, philosophers, theologians, clergy have spoken of gratitude as a “virtue.” The book “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make you Feel Happier” by Robert A. Emmons explains how scientifically gratitude has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve immune function, reduce cardiac inflammation, increase happiness, improve relationships, and decrease depression. Showing gratitude to others is good for us!

Showing gratitude to non-humans applies as well.  In the book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” author Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how we are given gifts from the Earth everyday of our lives! Gifts we have not paid for or earned, like air, water, soil, honeybees, trees and flowers. She says:

“In the teachings of my Potawatomi ancestors, responsibilities and gifts are understood as two sides of the same coin. The possession of a gift is coupled with a duty to use it for the benefit of all. So when we ask ourselves, what is our responsibility to the Earth, we are also asking, “What is our gift?”  

Kimmerer suggests the Earth urgently needs our gift of gratitude because it is the “strong medicine” needed to combat the challenges that lie before us.  When we give thanks to the Earth we recognize not only the gift, but of the giver. For example, when eating an apple, my gratitude goes beyond the gift of the apple itself out to the tree whose offspring has become the reason for my enjoyment.  Gratitude moves us past ourselves into relationship with all beings – plant, animal, mineral and more.  

As we close out 2020 and look toward the New Year, how can we reciprocate the gifts of the Earth?  I say, start with gratitude and give back your own unique gifts on behalf of the Earth. 

References:

Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013) Returning the Gifts. Center for Humans and Nature. https://www.humansandnature.org/

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