Gratitude Revisited: What's the Alternative?
Gratitude and Thanksgiving go together. They were made for each other. Yet gratitude can be such a mushy virtue, hard to swallow like lumpy mashed potatoes. Or too sappy, like an overly sweet drink. Have you ever encountered groans or smart replies to that favorite Thanksgiving dinner question: What are we thankful for this year? "I'm grateful this won't last long and we can get on with the turkey so I can have some pumpkin pie soon," my oldest son was fond of saying as a teen. Perhaps gratitude is so illusive because it's not our usual way of seeing our experiences. Feeling a little overwhelmed (or a lot) and a healthy sense of self-pity may be more familiar than gratitude. The wave of "No Whining" buttons and tee shirts sweeping America may be the beginning of a new day for the "attitude of gratitude". It's hard to admit that my alternative to gratitude is often self-pity, blaming others, or some other way of feeling like a victim. An experience at the beach a few summers ago provided me with a jolt and some new openness to counting my blessings. The chatter was normal talk of a family enjoying dinner out on a week's vacation at the beach. "Can we go surf-sailing tomorrow", Ian, our 13-year-old asked. "I want to go to the boardwalk and ride the Merry Mixer again," 10-year-old Sarah piped up. As I listened to our family musings, I couldn't help but overhear the conversation next to me. "I started it two years ago when I was so down about everything -- my weight, my job, my love life or lack of it. I was reciting my woes yet one more time to a friend and she interrupted with: "Why don't you try a gratitude list". As I peeked over and observed an attractive, smiling woman telling this story, she pulled a book from her oversized bag. "Just so I don't forget, I carry my Gratitude Diary with me everywhere. Let's see, yep, I'm on # 1463 today. So I've got 1462 blessings I'm grateful for in my notebook."Her dinner companions eyed the book, some in admiration, others in disbelief. My curiosity was peeked. I was dying to see the book. "Excuse me", I nervously interrupted, calling quietly to her table, "Did I hear you say that was your Gratitude Book? Excuse my nosiness but that sounds like a great idea. What kinds of things to do you put in there?""Oh, most anything", she replied. "Happy moments with my children or husband, getting over a cold, having the courage to speak up when someone ignores or disrespects me, being healthy, having a warm home in the winter, you know. The ordinary ups and downs of life. Wanna take a look?"Feeling like an invader, I couldn't resist. As she passed the brightly covered notebook, I flipped through. For each line there was a date and a brief entry " 434. 11/16/94 - Jeanette's help with the PTA Bazaar planning; 804 - 12/25/95 - the sweet ear rings from Ralph". It continued like that for pages."Why do you do it," the question tumbled out. "I feel better when I do. It's really that simple. I used to focus on what wasn't right. I didn't write them down, but I kept talking about my complaints to anyone who would listen over and over again. My friend helped me see that I didn't have to be so focused on the negative all the time. I'll never be a Pollyanna -- I love to go back and wallow in self-pity every once in a while. But keeping this list reminds me just how many blessing I have and prevents me from staying negative for very long."As I thanked her and turned my attention back to my family, I couldn't stop thinking about what she had said. I had often heard my grandmother say, "Count your blessings, Frankie." I thought it was one of those things older people say. I never paid any attention to it. Part of my beach reading that year was a gift from a cousin, a book called The Greatest Miracle in the World by the editor of Success Magazine and writer, Og Mandino. The book is a parable about a ragpicker who visits the author and offers him a short message with the keys to his happiness. There are five suggestions. The first is: "Count your blessings."When I left the quiet of the beach, this coincidence haunted me. As I struggled with the challenges of my work and family life, I kept thinking about that woman and her Gratitude Book. "No, I can't do it. That's crazy", I'd tell myself whenever I was tempted to try it. One evening after a day where the boss was particularly hard to get along with, I was rereading The Power of Hope, by a Jewish rabbi, Maurice Lamm. He describes in vivid detail the concrete steps we can take to keep hope alive even in the most troubling of circumstances. As I read, my mind drifted to relatives and friend who showed continual hope against devastating odds. And who resisted great opportunities for self-pity and resentment of what life dealt them. They, too, seemed grateful even when there was a lot of reason not to be. Consider Aunt Julie whose husband of over 50 years has Alzheimer's. For five years she watched him deteriorate. First she took over the money management, then it was watching that he didn't disappear at night, then it was her heart attack and two months in a rehab hospital for her. Last month she decided she could no longer handle the care and placed her husband in a nursing home. "I miss him terribly. I'm so lonely", she confided. "But I'm grateful he's getting the care he needs." There's cousin Carol whose husband died of cancer when their first born was one. "Yeah, I sometimes feel really cheated and sorry for myself. But then I look at our son Sam and thank God for the few years we did have together."As my mind ran through these and similar experiences, I couldn't deny the truth any more. I really have two simple choices moment by moment. Focus on the negative and complain about what's not right in my life or focus on the positive and count my blessings. Knowing this and changing a life time habit are two different things. Being human, I'll never be perfect and will always want to head back to negativity and self-pity. Being a victim is a fairly comfortable actually - doesn't require much change or action. But it does get tiring. So I looked around for tips on how to count my blessings. I found them in all kinds of places - the Bible, self-help books, and talking to friends who were happy most of the time.Here are some of the lessons others have shared with me about how to increase gratitude and reduce self-pity: 1. Live one day at a time (bold)The Bible, bumper stickers, and common sense point to this simple truth. All we really have is the present moment. If I can appreciate this day and not let yesterday or tomorrow rob it of its joy, each day gets better. Sometimes its one breath and one minute at a time. 2. Count your blessings dailyWhether you use a gratitude notebook, write a few notes on a scrap of paper and shove them in a shoe box, or list them in your mind, consider finding a time each day, perhaps before retiring, to focus on the good of the day. Consider writing them down and looking back from time to time , particularly when you are feeling down or sliding into negative thinking. 3. Identify negative thinking early and take action or ask for helpIt's hard to stop negative thoughts. For most of us they're a fact of life. The choice comes with what we do with them. If we feed and nurture them, they grow like a cancer. If we acknowledge and take some action -- substitute a positive thought, call a friend and share the negative thought, read something inspirational, pray -- any action that heads us back to positive thinking, they loose their power. 4. Focus on me and my attitudes. Accept others as they are. We can't change other people. A lot of negative thinking and self-pity begins with our disappointment that we aren't getting our way in some small or big matter. By asking ourselves what can I change in me, our attitude begins to shift.5. When all else fails, try the ABC's.A friend struggled for years with anorexia. No matter how badly she wanted to eat normally, it was a constant struggle. Her weight dropped as low as 80 pounds. When she was in her deepest despair, she would take each letter of the alphabet and think about something that began with that letter that she was grateful for. She usually started begrudgingly. By the time she finished the alphabet, though, she usually felt better. 6. Look for the good.Being critical is a habit and a skill many of us learn early in life. In our quest for perfection and excellence, we are quick to see what isn't right. Like any habit, when overused, this trait becomes a problem for us. Cultivating the habit of looking for the good is a great antidote to complaining and criticizing. There is good all around us. When we look for it, we see more of it.7. Be generous with praise.As seeing the good all around us becomes more natural, it's equally natural to share it with others. Be generous in applauding and encouraging others and recognizing their unique contribution. Positive thoughts and positive comments have an amazing power to move us away from self-pity and inappropriate judgments of others. Thanksgiving is indeed a time for gratitude. In fact, it's such a great way of living, why not consider it as a year round practice. The alternative isn't really that attractive. May your ability to see and count your blessings grow. Happy Thanksgiving. Frank Thomas, MSW writes on leadership and personal development topics and serves as a professional development coach/consultant for executives and managers.