Words: Kaki Okumura
How do you handle stress? No matter how hard we try to avoid it, in life there will be stresses that are outside of our control, that we will have to navigate and manage. Some choose to exercise, others choose to meditate.
Some of us learn to adopt tools like writing or playing music. Taking care of our mental health is less straightforward than our physical health, and sometimes what works in one situation doesn’t necessarily work in another– and that’s why it’s important to explore multiple ways to support our mental wellbeing
And it’s how I came across the idea of gratitude as self-care for my mental health.
I’ve been told to practice gratitude before. Gratitude has been shown to improve sleep and mood in several studies, and is also known to decrease our risk of mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. A practice so simple, with so many health benefits, of course I was eager to implement it into my daily routine.
But unlike exercise or eating well, the challenging thing about gratitude for
me was how abstract it was. How did I know I was practicing it correctly? When I was practicing gratitude, was I feeling grateful enough? And what could I do on more stressful days, when I was less keen about counting my blessings?
I think we all understand the benefit of gratitude, and most of us want to be able to practice gratitude and appreciation as naturally as we breathe, but it’s not always an easy mindset to adopt.
But learning about the origins of the ‘arigatou’ allowed me to find greater peace, even when life felt challenging. Arigatou is the Japanese word for ‘thank you’. Like in the US, it is used daily, and often without much thought. But there is something very odd about the term arigatou, a fact that even most Japanese wouldn’t pay attention to, and it’s the Japanese characters that it is made up of: “to have” and “difficulty”.
有: To have, possess
難: Difficulty, hardship
有難う: Thank you
On the surface, these are not characters we would necessarily associate with the feeling of gratitude. While most Japanese words are based off of the characters for it in Chinese, this is not the case for arigatou. The Japanese characters for ‘thank you’ were actually thought to be developed by Buddhist linguists, and their beliefs toward gratitude: Saying thank you is something difficult to be able to do.
Arigatou is understanding that the things we are grateful for in life– even the smallest of things– is an accumulation of many miracles, which allowed that moment to take place. For example, food, water, and shelter are not obvious to have in life, but many things outside of our control had to happen for us to have food on our plate. Even meeting a kind person who holds open the door for us when our hands are full, is the result of thousands of factors and miracles.
So many things could’ve happened in-between, that could’ve prevented us from finding a moment where we are able to say ‘thank you’. In Japanese, underlying the term ‘thank you’ is the belief that you are living a miracle.
It can feel silly to say practice gratitude on our worst days, like we are trying to trick ourselves into positivity or optimism. But gratitude is not about rejecting or avoiding our negative feelings, and being happy all of the time, but it’s simply about reframing it.
We can acknowledge that life is not perfect, but by shifting our perspective to see it from another angle, we can recognise that there are still some small miracles in our lives to still be grateful for. If all you can muster is that you’re grateful things aren’t worse, that still counts.
Redirecting our attention can prevent us from spiraling, or going down darker paths of pessimism or envy. You don’t need to believe that everything in life is perfect, but just recognise that not everything is bad– you may be surprised by how it changes the way you see something in life.
I recently learned about a Japanese poll conducted by NHK, a national broadcasting group in Japan, where they posed this question: What is the most beautiful Japanese word to exist? And the answer absolutely astonished me.
If you know anything about Japanese culture, you would probably notice that it is very driven towards nature. Being an island country located where there are many natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, Japanese culture has developed to respect nature for both its beauty and strength, and that’s reflected in the language.
For example, there is a word komorebi which specifically refers to the light that shines through the trees. Hanafubuki refers to how sakura petals fall like a blizzard, and form carpets of petals in the late spring. For a language with so many references to nature, surely there would be many poetic terms to choose from.
But surprisingly, the list contained none.
According to the survey, these are the top 5 most beautiful words in Japanese:
- Arigato (Thank you)
- Sayonara (Goodbye)
- Hai (Yes)
- Sumimasen (Excuse me)
- Ohayogozaimsu (Good morning)
If you’ve ever studied Japanese, these are all words that you’d learn within the first week, if not the first day. Many people would pick them up naturally, even if they were only visiting the country for a short period of time.
And the top one is ‘arigatou’!
Why would such a simple and common word be considered one of the most beautiful? It appears that what makes a term beautiful is not its relevance to nature, or poetic quality, but how it makes someone feel when they hear it.
We may not pay too much attention to it when we say it, but saying thank you can really change the way we feel about an interaction with someone else. Even greetings that are less emotional, like ‘goodbye’ or ‘good morning’ are words that recognise another person, and can make someone feel more seen. It may even inspire conversation and friendship.
There are depths to gratitude– the gratitude we feel for the person who opened the door for us will feel different from the gratitude we feel when someone, say, saves our life. But learning more about the term ‘arigatou’ and how it’s embedded in Japanese culture has helped me understand that even these more subtle forms of appreciation matter.
If we are feeling stressed or down, we don’t need to reject our negative feelings or feel forced to just ‘be more positive’, because the irony of forcing positivity is that sometimes it can make us more stressed or frustrated when we can’t, and morph into its own form of added self-criticism. But if you’re dealing with a particularly challenging moment in life, it can be freeing to accept that things may not be perfect, and that there are still things to be grateful for.
Contrary to American culture which tends to have a greater focus on positive emotions, and the value of being optimistic in even challenging moments, Japanese culture often takes a more subtle approach. Accepting and redirecting our attention, rather than ignoring uncomfortable feelings, can allow us to move on with grace while being empathetic towards how we feel.
Life can be hard sometimes, but small or large, there are beautiful miracles to be recognised.
Sometimes all it takes is paying attention to what is worth saying thank you for.
Kaki Okumura is a Japanese wellness writer and illustrator and author of Wa – The Art of Balance (£14.99) Growing up in the USA, she struggled to find a way to approach her health without falling into narratives of extremism or obsession, and instead turned to her Japanese background to better understand ways we can take care of ourselves to live longer, happier, and more fulfilled lives. Kaki’s writing on the platform Medium garners hundreds of thousands of views a month, and she has been published in Bon Appetit, Eater, TedxGateway, Heated x Mark Bittman, S&P Magazine, Elemental, and Katie Couric’s email newsletter Wake Up Call. She is Top Writer on Medium in the categories of Cooking, Food, Culture, Health, Psychology.
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