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Setting Your Attitude To Gratitude

Gratitude goes beyond the mere ‘thank you’ (though that is also important). Gratitude is a mindset for life, which – if instilled from a young age – can have a huge impact on happiness and self-esteem. It’s not always easy to choose to be grateful, but it can make your and your children’s lives immeasurably better.

Gratitude requires introspection

Dr Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, is an authority on the topic of gratitude, and I love his definition of the emotion. He describes it as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.” This definition describes the value of introspecting to find the goodness that exists in our world.

But introspecting isn’t always easy. In my practice of gratitude, I find a lot of solace using the Japanese technique of naikan, which means ‘looking inside.’ This method of reflection and introspection was developed by Yoshimoto Ishin and focuses on three questions:

  • What have I received from (person’s name)?
  • What have I given to (person’s name)?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused (person’s name)?

The question-and-answer nature of this exercise leads to feelings of abundance and gratefulness. And the process of developing gratitude as an attitude opens us up not just to receiving but also giving love and kindness. Which brings me to …

Gratitude is contagious

Our little acts of thanksgiving can trigger an upward spiral, ‘payed forward’ just like acts of kindness. In the moment when we choose to express gratitude or experience it, we open our hearts and bodies to the abundance that lies ahead. It enhances our appreciation for thoughtful gestures, blessings that we often tend to forget.

This attitude is contagious, seeping into other parts of our lives to help us graciously accept lessons from life’s more trying aspects, and helping others to see the same in their own lives: Once, after I thanked a client for always arriving on time, he told me how valued the gesture made him feel. Admittedly, it’s far easier to become irritated with tardiness than to recognize regular punctuality. But seeing and valuing the good not only made me feel happier and peaceful, it also made him more likely to feel the same. Meaning that…

Gratitude can be cultivated

Just like kindness, we can learn to cultivate gratitude. It’s in our simple rituals that we teach children about gratitude. For instance, if you come in from the heat and your child offers to get you something to drink—choose to thank him. His concern about your wellbeing and his love for you is a reason to be thankful, and your response demonstrates to him that understanding and love are valuable—for children learn gratitude by modelling their parents. Which means we must cultivate gratitude in ourselves, as well.

At the family level, rituals like writing thank-you notes, engaging in conversations about gratitude around the dinner table, and – my favourite – holding your own personal thanksgiving like the U.S. holiday can help instill gratitude in your children. To foster it in yourself may be more difficult – as Dr Emmons says, “Gratitude is an attitude, not a feeling that can be easily willed” – but it’s possible. Dr Emmons suggests keeping a gratitude journal, wherein you record moments, things and people for which you feel thankful. A journal provides regular, conscious opportunities to pause, introspect and recognize positive experiences – which in turn trigger positive emotions.

Another way to foster gratitude in yourself and in your children is to make a Gratitude Visit. Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology University of Pennsylvania, developed the exercise, which involves writing a gratitude note to someone who has been kind to you in the past, but whom you have never had a chance to thank—then hand-delivering it. He emphasises that participants must deliver the letter in person. In an experiment to test the impact of a Gratitude Visit, Seligman found that people who participated were happier and less depressed.

So when was the last time you chose to thank someone? Maybe today is a good day to start.

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