I've been thinking a lot about gratitude lately. Perhaps it's because the holiday season recently ended, or because my family just went through a brief bout of unemployment, which forced us to take stock of our lives. This Christmas, there weren't a lot of gifts under the tree. Instead we used our budget to buy gift cards. Christmas morning we walked around downtown Boston, distributing the gift cards to anyone who looked like they could use a little something to make their day special. In each case the recipient was so grateful for the gift. One man hugged us. Another said he wished he had something to give us in return. As far as we were concerned their appreciation was more than enough.
In contrast, I have been teaching a class for the past few months. For Christmas I bought each student a book, wrapping it up and sending it off with a hand-written note. To this day, even though I still meet with them weekly, not one has ever acknowledged the gift, either in person or in writing-electronic or otherwise.
Anyone who has been following my blog will know I am a huge believer in the thank you note (note that the word is “note”-not a text, not an email). I believe the more we lose our sense of gratitude, the more we lose a vital essence of our hearts and souls. A lack of appreciation damages our relationships with those around us, and mars our connection to the world. Having the mindfulness to acknowledge what we have and what others do for us changes our entire life perspective. We stop thinking about putting ourselves first. We stop thinking about what we want and “deserve”. We start to consider our impact on others, both our loved ones and society as a whole. We recognize we are a part of a far greater structure, and that even something as mundane as a smile and a “thank you” when a stranger holds the door open for us can provide a positive ripple effect on the world.
Just the other day, a neighbor was complaining about how unhappy she is. Her health was poor, her stuff was broken, friends were rude; the list went on and on. While I listened to her I couldn't help but wonder how different her perspective would be if she focused on her blessings, rather than life's standard hardships and disappointments. For example, just that morning a handmade Valentine's Day card had been slipped under her door. How do I know this? I'm the one who made the card, and delivered it to her. Yet, not once did she mention receiving the card, even though I know she had.
Don't get me wrong, the point is not that she didn't thank me for my gift. After all the purpose of a gift is to give without any expectation of something in return. But how much are her circumstances affected by her state of mind? Is her health manipulated by her negativity? Would her stuff seem so run down if she cherished her possessions? Are her friends responding rudely to her attitude? Does she realize she is robbing herself of happiness, of a joyful life because of her perspective?
This is why it is so important to develop an attitude of gratitude from a young age. Beyond saying the words, “please” and “thank you” to obtain something, children should be taught that life is not about constantly wanting more, it is about being satisfied for what we have. Advertising assaults us with the continuous message that our lives are incomplete until we purchase the next great thing, and children are especially susceptible to the influence of marketing. It is important to remind children that stuff is just stuff, and since stuff costs money and money must be earned, we must be discerning about what we truly need and want. When I was growing up gifts on every occasion were kept to reasonable proportions. Generally we children received one to three items we had really yearned for, and that was it. As a result, I treasured what I owned, taking good care of each and loving those possessions for years, rather than discarding them right after receiving them. It makes me sad when I visit families whose homes are filled with toys piled in every corner. Generally the toys are completely ignored by the children who own them, children who have learned that there is always yet another thing to gain and then quickly toss in the pile. These children have absolutely no comprehension of the value of money, nor do they understand that life involves an inevitable amount of sacrifice-we can't always get what we want. While thinking about this topic I went around and asked friends what their favorite gifts from childhood were. In every case, the gifts that stuck out very clearly in their memories were those gifts that were the focal point of that particular special day, rather than just another present lost in the crowd. Why do parents forgo financial stability to overload their kids with junk? The only thing the child gains is a series of misguided messages about consumption. If our responsibility as parents is to raise well-adjusted responsible citizens, shouldn't we provide our children with realistic expectations about life? How likely is it, given our economy and the state of the world that your child will be able to get whatever he wishes on the salary he earns as an adult, without getting into serious debt?
So how do we adopt an Attitude of Gratitude? Well, I have a few suggestions, and I welcome you to share more.
I know you've heard and read those words five billion times, but seriously-do it. Remember, for everything you buy there is added responsibility. Even an item as insignificant as a spoon must be cleaned, polished, stored. So ask yourself, “Do I need this?” before purchasing anything. Take stock of what you already own. Pass along to others items you no longer use.
And remember: you can't take it with you!
OPERATE FROM A PLACE OF THANKFULNESS
Find a peaceful space and take a quiet time to jot down what you are grateful for. Make your list as comprehensive as possible: the people you know, your talents and abilities, your health, your job, your pet, etc. This was an exercise I did at the end of the worst year of my life, a year of great loss and a serious health scare. It was a delight to find I could fill countless pages with my blessings. I hope you'll be able to fill page after page too. The results may be encouraging enough to make this a weekly, if not a daily practice.
Our society should not lose the ability to reach out to one another in genuine ways. Acts of service, gifts, and time spent together-all should be acknowledged in a considerate, thoughtful way. Believe me, it will encourage your friends and loved ones to do more for you!
Kindness should never be orchestrated out of obligation or manipulation. If someone is pressuring you to spend your time and resources in a way that exceeds your comfort zone, discuss it with him or her. A healthy relationship between two people is a balance of give and take, not one person funneling support from the other.
TEACH GRATITUDE TO THE NEXT GENERATION
Be respectful of parents when they request that their children not receive too many gifts (or any
Gifts at all). I know one mother who stores all the extra gifts in the attic to dole out over time as
the current toys get worn or forgotten-that is how important it is to her that her child learn to
appreciate what he has. And just because there are parents in your life who are sending the
wrong message to their children doesn't mean you have to go with the flow. Without making a
stink about it and thus offending the parents, simply choose to disengage from this practice of
consumerism. A greeting card shows you are thinking of the child and taking the time to
acknowledge him/her on that special day. If you do feel compelled to send something, depending on the child's age, stickers, a gift certificate, or money is fine. Money is actually a good gift as it begins to teach children about the cost of things, and the importance of budgeting.
Creating an awareness of gratitude, adjusting our perspective so that we view life with thankfulness is so vital, not just for ourselves, but for everyone around us. If we don't operate from a place of appreciation, we will stumble blindly through life focused entirely on ourselves, never recognizing what we have, who we know, and who we are.
Read this great article by Shawn Achor on how gratitude equals success: