“Gratitude? That’s not real stimulating, is it.”
My grandmother peered over my shoulder at the computer screen to get a better look at what I’d written. She shook her head.
“We all know we should be grateful. We are grateful. End of story.”
With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, I’d wanted to write a blog post on gratitude and I was struggling to find something to say that wasn’t obvious. Was my grandma was right? Be grateful, end of story. Or are there subtleties of gratitude worth exploring?
Gratitude is the cornerstone of Thanksgiving, and we’re told to be thankful to see long lost family members, gather for a meal, and reflect on all the good in our lives. We declare our thanks in Facebook statuses and Instagram pictures of our baby cousins.
But for a holiday that’s purportedly about the warm and fuzzies, there’s an awful lot of stress and distractions, whether it’s a missed flight or bumper-to-bumper traffic, sibling-induced outbursts, or the antics of drunken uncles. For every proclamation of gratitude, there’s an infographic breaking down the elements of traumatic family meals or a non-sequitor like America’s Next Top Turkey Competition (I’m still in disbelief about that one).
This year’s Thanksgiving brought together nearly twenty of my family members. We would congregate in in San Diego, California to spend the week sharing a villa-by-the-sea. I was looking forward to leaving the stresses of the city behind, taking off into an oasis of peace and familial harmony in sunny La Jolla. Little did I know that within hours of stepping in the doors of the house, I’d be in tears.
80 DEGREES AND NUTTY
As the plane took off from rainy San Francisco, I was ready for an escape from the hectic flurry of my daily life in the city. I have recently developed a love for air travel, and can appreciate the moments of silence while trapped in a small metal tube for several hours. However, this occasion was a bit different as I wouldn’t be on vacation the entire trip. I had a full day of work when I arrived.
I spend my days at work fixated on my computer, in constant anticipation of emails to be answered and problems to be solved. Anxiety from work followed me all the way from San Francisco to sundrenched San Diego. Rather than switching off my brain, I found myself in the same hectic flurry that I’m in at home.
When spending time with family, rolling with the punches is a must, so my uptight attitude did not bode well for me.
Upon arrival at the cavernous villa-by-the sea, I was thrown into the middle an evening already underway. Between a flurry of hugs and kisses, “hello”s and “how are you”s, an unintentionally rude comment led to raised voices, bruised egos, slammed doors, and the departure of a loved one. I spent the night crying in bed, certain I had ripped the fabric holding my family together and ruined Thanksgiving.
As it goes, time quells tempers. The morning sun brought the renewal necessary to make good on the previous night’s disagreement, and the family was reunited. Thanksgiving could proceed as originally planned.
The argument, though resolved, left a mark throughout the rest of the week. I had been reminded of how irritating my family could be.
Families are comprised of people, and people have vices. From insensitivity to impatience and addictions to anger, the members of my family (myself included) are no exception. However, after a night contemplating my life without certain people, I was reminded of how much I loved each and every member of my intelligent, kindhearted, and sometimes-infuriating clan.
In fact, getting into a big fight was perhaps the best attitude adjustment I could have hoped for in the moments leading up to an extended period of family craziness. For the remainder of the week I was acutely aware of each moment of tenderness, each gentle hug and heartfelt giving of well-wishes exchanged between family members.
Appreciation is the highest form of prayer, for it acknowledges the presence of good wherever you shine the light of your thankful thoughts.Alan Cohen
Whether it’s enjoying a fish taco on the beach mid- November, or being able to purchase a plane ticket to visit family, I am constantly reminded of my advantages and how lucky I am to live the life that I do. Until this trip, though, I rarely distinguished between knowing I should feel grateful and actually feeling grateful.
While I agree with my grandmother (“we all know we should be grateful. We are grateful”), I think that gratitude has more nuances than we give it credit for. In fact, upon further research I found a wealth of research on how gratitude can positively affect our lives, and strategies for practicing it effectively.
For example, happiness psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has identified four effective ways we can practice gratitude, and Psychology Today has pinpointed ways you shouldn’t practice gratitude. Additionally, for those that cringe at the cliché of “practicing gratefulness”, TED has compiled a Non-Cheesy Guide To Gratefulness.