A Lesson In Gratitude
When was the last time you took a look at your life and recognized the many blessings you have?
This past month I was reminded of just how many blessings I have in my life. One of my Guatemalan friends asked me to go with him to help him with some errands. Our errands ended up taking more time than we had thought, so we stopped to have lunch before heading back. We went to my friend’s favorite restaurant to eat and got to talking. He is a few years younger than me and has four children, and a deep desire that each of his children has a better life then he has.
He shared with me how important it is that his children have a good education. He knows that a good education is critical to his vision of a better life for his children and he sits down with his kids every night to discuss and review their homework. He has even been known to make up homework exercises for his kids so that they fully grasp the content they are learning.
He then told me that he didn’t have the opportunity to go to school like his children have. He was one of a dozen children, and times were tough. The family didn’t have much money for extras beyond food and clothing, and unfortunately paying for and going to school had to move to the “extras” category. (Public school is not free in Guatemala.) He considered himself fortunate because he was able to go to grammar school for six years before having to drop out to work to help his family.
Even when he was going to school, it wasn’t a picnic. They lived in a small house with a dirt floor. At the time, the village he lived in didn’t have running water. In fact, his village got running tap water just a few years ago. Every morning at 5 his father, he, and a couple of the older siblings would each take a large, 5-gallon plastic bucket and walk the 3.5 miles to the lake in the town I live in. They would fill up the buckets and carry them the 3.5 miles back to his village, which required them to carry the full buckets up a steep and large hill. When he got home from school, he would make another walk to the lake to get more water for the family.
When he got married twenty-plus years ago, he and his wife (and children when they came along) continued doing this routine. They too lived in a small house with a dirt floor, but my friend vowed it would be different for his children. And it has been. My friend has come to the United States twice and worked long hours to save as much money as possible to provide for his family.
SEE ALSO: The Very Misunderstood Inner Critic
Positivity amidst hardship
His family now lives in a nice house with a ceramic tile floor. He has made sure that his children will all have the opportunity to go to school: his oldest son has graduated the Guatemalan version of high school and will be starting night classes at the local university this year; his second son graduates high school in 2019 and is looking at going to university as well; his grammar-school aged old daughter is number one in her class; and I have no doubt that his toddler son will go to school when he is old enough.
His life experience is rich and varied. In fact, I often go to him for advice. He uses that wisdom to raise his children, who are all a joy to be around. They are well-mannered and well-adjusted, and enjoy joking around with “Tia Jenny.” They are not afraid of hard work, and I know each one of them will go far in life. With all of his personal hardships and the realities of his life, you would think that he might be discouraged, bitter, or even jealous of what he sees of other peoples’ lives. He is exactly the opposite. He is one of the happiest people I know and truly content with every blessing in his life.
Our conversation was a reminder to me of how many blessings I have in my life that I often just take for granted: having access to public education regardless of my family’s income; having clean, running tap water in my home; having a house that had a wood or carpeted floor instead of dirt; and living in a family where going to school and college was something we talked about from the time I was a young child. I was fortunate enough to be born to a family in a country where these things were relatively easy to come by. My life is what it is because of where I was born and to which family I was born…and could have been completely different if I had been born to a different family in a different location.
So often we go through life not seeing all the things we could be thankful for in our lives.
Gratitude’s effects have been studied extensively. A 2015 Psychology Today article lists a number of scientific studies and their findings around the benefits of being grateful, including:
- More personal relationships and friendships
- Improved physical health
- Improved psychological health
- Increased empathy for others
- Better sleep
- Improved self-esteem
- Increased mental strength and resilience.
With all of these benefits, you would think that being grateful would be a no-brainer. But it’s not always easy to be grateful. You may have a mindset of looking for the negativity in life and see the glass as being half-empty. Or perhaps your personality leans toward being envious or materialistic, which ends up forcing comparisons with others, and leading to feelings of being “less than” others and unable to be grateful for what you have. The good news is that even if you are more “wired” to be negative and ungrateful — whether it is because you tend to see the glass half-empty or because you tend to feel envious or materialistic or whatever the reason is — you can train yourself to be grateful with practice. Gratitude, like courage, is like a muscle that can be exercised and get stronger with use.
The even better news is that you don’t need to workout your gratitude muscle for an hour a day to see impact. Spending even just 10 to 15 minutes a day practicing gratitude makes a difference. So, how can you work out your gratitude muscle?
Here are some suggestions:
Keep a gratitude journal
Spend a few minutes each evening before bed or first thing in the morning and write down things you are grateful for. It could be something that happened that day, something that makes you smile, or even something that you take for granted until you discover that what you are taking for granted isn’t available to all. I always try to come up with at least three things that I am grateful for and look for them in different areas of my life so that my gratitude is “even” or “balanced” throughout my life.
So, for example, I may come up with something about my physical health that I’m grateful about, something about my work, and something related to friends or family. Or I may change it up by adding something about my mental or emotional state, my ability to do something I want to do in my life, or something that I see in the world that brings me joy.
Count your blessings
Similar to a gratitude journal, counting your blessings can help you see the good things in your life. Give yourself a daily challenge of coming up with 5, 7, or 10 blessings each day; and challenge yourself to come up with new things every day so you can continue to see the many blessings in your life.
For example, rather than saying that you are grateful for the love of your spouse, get specific. One day you say you are grateful for how your spouse shows his or her love by cheering you on to go after your dreams, and then another day say you are grateful for how your spouse shows his or love by laughing at your corny jokes. This helps you see all the ways you are grateful for your spouse and keeps the things you are grateful for “fresh” and different, rather than becoming stale.
Compare where you are today with a time in your past where things weren’t quite as good.
Just being able to see how much better your life is today can help you start to discover a lot of things to be grateful for. When I was 18 years old I moved into my first apartment. It was a three-story walk up and had a living room, eat-in kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. Money was really tight, and it was all I could afford. (I paid $65 a week rent!).
At the time I moved in there, I was ecstatic and I did truly enjoy living there. But, it didn’t have many of the amenities I’ve gotten used to since then, such as the in-apartment washers and dryers, the nicely designed and laid out kitchens, or designated parking. When I compare my living situation today within the past, I am able to feel gratitude for things that have become more commonplace in my life and that I might take for granted.
Look for ways to express your gratitude every single day.
This doesn’t need to be a big gesture — although those are always fun. It could be as simple as saying a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone that does something to help you that day — whether that person helped you write a report for work, did your dry cleaning, or simply opened the door for you because your hands were full. Maybe you ask to speak to the manager to compliment the customer service rep or server that went out of their way to help you. Or perhaps you write a thank you letter or email to someone.
Whatever it is, when you practice gratitude in this manner, you do so “real time” as you experience or remember that actions of another. Combine your expression with a smile as you share your gratitude and I promise you that you will make the day of the recipient. And really, there isn’t anything better than helping another person feel good and appreciated.
Look for ways that others have helped you beyond the people you have a physical interaction with.
You only have to do this for five minutes to realize the enormity of the people who have done something to help you on your life journey. It could be as simple as thinking about what needed to happen to bring you the fruit that you’re making into your breakfast smoothie. Be grateful for the sun, rain, and soil that helped the fruit grow; the people who tended the plants picked the fruit, packed and shipped the fruit to your store; and for your job that allowed you to earn the money to buy the fruit.
Focus your prayers or petitions on saying “thank you” instead of “I want”.
So often when we pray we have a whole litany of things we want to occur, or as I call them, the list of demands. And even when we are asking on behalf of another person (“Please, universe, help my cousin heal from cancer.”), we usually are not coming from a place of gratitude. When you shift your prayers from “I want” to “thank you,” you change the entire dynamics of the prayer. Think of how much more powerful your prayer is when you say, “Thank you Universe, for the beautiful day with my cousin. I am so grateful that we were able to share our memories of our grandparents and laugh until we cried.”
Look for the gift — and then express your gratitude for it — from the difficult and challenging times in your life
Maybe the death of your mother taught you the depth of love you and she had for each other. Or perhaps losing your job and all of the stress that went with trying to find a new one opened up the door for you to discover what it is your really love doing in life.
Volunteering is a great way to feel more gratitude in your life, whether by seeing the blessings you have or feeling the joy in helping others or being thankful for having the skills to help others. I started off by writing about an experience I had recently with a friend in Guatemala who didn’t have the benefit of education like I did. As I reflect more on our conversation, I realize that I am also grateful that I have such a wonderful friend who is there for me, who is comfortable sharing his past with me, and who can take a difficult experience and extract the gift from it.
I am grateful that I have a friend in my life that is the perfect example of living a gratitude-filled life every day…and I feel gratitude for this in every cell of my body.
When you can feel gratitude this way, you truly reap the benefits of being grateful: you are more positive, more connected and happier. And isn’t that how we are supposed to live life?
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