I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude the last two months. It started, as many good things do, as part of my yoga practice. Although I’ve read a lot about cultivating gratitude I hadn’t really given it much serious thought – it seemed kind of trendy and forced, like when you’re at Thanksgiving and someone wants to go around the table and say why you’re thankful. But one day last month my yoga teacher spoke about gratitude in a way that really resonated with me. I opened my mind to it and I’ve been consciously expressing gratitude ever since.
This is a big shift for me as I’ve lived most of my life as a bit of a pessimist. Not a full-on Eeyore but definitely pragmatic. If something good happened, I figured it was only a matter of time before something bad happened to balance it out. People would be surprised I wasn’t excited about a trip or a big event, and it because I was waiting to make sure it really happened. I bought a house and worried incessantly about how much work it was and what I’d do if something went wrong.
Years ago I was in therapy and the therapist asked if I ever thought about killing myself. My response: I’m too pessimistic to kill myself, because it probably wouldn’t work anyway. And I was totally serious. So for me, looking on the bright side and appreciating the good instead of focusing on the bad has been a huge shift in mindset.
There’s been a lot of research on gratitude. Countless studies have shown that people who regularly identify the things they’re grateful for and express gratitude have better mental and physical health, decreased stress and aggression, better resilience and an improved quality of life.
As I’ve thought about gratitude I’m realizing it’s more than just saying “thank you”. It’s about showing appreciation, showing love and showing kindness. Saying “thank you” has become so reflexive that it often means nothing anymore. The cashier hands you change, you say thank you. Someone tells you that you look nice, you say thank you. Someone holds the door, you say thank you. It’s a habit, like saying “have a nice day”, but there’s no real intention behind it.
Expressing gratitude has the extra element of reflecting on the “why” behind saying you’re thankful, and appreciating the thing you’re thankful for. You are grateful that the cashier is there providing service, and giving you the correct change. You appreciate that someone noticed you and took the time to give you a compliment and the warm feelings the compliment generated. You acknowledge that someone took an extra couple seconds to hold the door instead of letting it slam in your face. It also shows a kindness to the person by demonstrating that you truly recognize what they did, even if it was something small.
It’s a subtle shift, but a shift nonetheless. And the more I do it, the more positive my outlook becomes. I read somewhere that you should identify three things you’re grateful for every day. One day I was stuck in traffic, which is pretty much the norm in Portland right now, and I was feeling irritated about how long it was taking me to get to work. I turned off the news and decided to do the gratitude exercise. I said to myself, “I’m grateful that I have a job to go to and it’s a job I love. I’m grateful that I have a car and money for gas and I’m not stuck on a hot bus in this traffic. I’m grateful that I live in a country where women can work outside the home and drive.” I felt my irritation slipping away. My situation hadn’t changed, but my response to it had.
As a supervisor, I try to thank my staff for their work regularly. But now I’m actively trying to express gratitude instead. For example, instead of saying, “thank you for getting that report to me” I said, “I’m grateful that you did such a great job on this report and made sure it was on time.” At a team retreat I stated I was grateful for everyone’s contributions and their commitment to the work instead of a meaningless “thanks for coming today”. In doing annual performance evaluations, I listed at least one accomplishment for each person and told them in detail why I was grateful for it. It was more meaningful for me to reflect on why I was grateful and to express my gratitude with kindness towards my coworkers, and I hope it was meaningful for them as well.
Regular readers know my dog was recently hit by a car. Honestly if it had happened six months ago I would have been ranting and annoyed for weeks. But instead, I reflected on the situation and I consciously expressed gratitude. It’s really helped reduce my stress around what happened. I told myself I’m grateful I was nearby when it happened and could get the dog right to the vet before he lost too much blood. I’m grateful that when I saw the enormous vet bill I had funds available to get him the care he needed. I’m grateful he wasn’t injured worse. I’m grateful the family friend who was walking him wasn’t hit too. It’s still a really crappy thing that happened, but by focusing on the positives instead of the negatives, I’m not dwelling on it or pondering the “what ifs”.
The more I cultivate gratitude in myself, the more grateful I become each day. And the more grateful I become, the calmer and happier I become. I know, this might sound a little woo-woo for some of you, but you might try it and see if it helps you as much as it has helped me. I was a skeptic but it really works. I’m grateful that my yoga teacher shared this gift with me.
I’ll end with this quote from the Dalai Lama that I love: “Every day, think as you wake up: Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry, or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”
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