As children we were taught to say “thank you” as an immediate response whenever someone gave us something, and it was difficult to care or understand why we should be grateful. As we got older, saying “thank you” became a reflex, and we learned that manners are both received well by others, and a form of conditioning. We say thank you because we know we should, but how often do we feel true gratitude?
As adults, we don’t always expect others to do things for us, or to give us things. We learn to earn things, and then feel proud when we get them. But when our peers show greater kindness than we’re used to, we feel gratitude. Like if our co-workers go out of their way to buy your favorite flavor of cake for an office birthday party, or when a stranger tells us we look nice today. Gratitude puts us in constant dialogue with the people around us, and reminds us that we can’t always do everything ourselves or create our own perfect happiness. We’re social animals, and need others to survive.
There are two kinds of gratitude: the one described above, which is reactionary and is felt as a response to something someone else does for you. Then there’s the kind of gratitude that doesn’t really hinge on anything — it’s just consistent gratitude for the small things.
This kind of consistent gratitude is felt by people who are childlike and who are constantly thankful for the things they have: friends, family, a good job, sunny days, creature comforts, thirty minutes to relax during the work day, and all the small events and people that have shaped their lives. Both kinds of gratitude are important and can make you a better, happier person.
Focus on the small things
Stress can lead to unhappiness and focusing on the negative. On the opposite end of the spectrum is gratitude, which puts in mind the positive things in our lives, even when they’re small and even when you ignore or dismiss them.
On a daily basis, be grateful for being able to listen to your favorite song on your morning commute. Your hot morning coffee. A sunny day. Someone holding a door open for you. Remembering to bring a phone charger to work. A good sandwich. A pretty sunset. All small things we are wont to take for granted. Actively practicing gratitude changes that.
Where you’ve been
In our lives, we’ve been indelibly affected by hundreds of different choices, circumstances, people and mistakes. It’s impossible to know exactly how our lives have been changed, but it’s certain that they have. For example, you may have been influenced positively by a particularly smart and nurturing teacher in college, or you may feel grateful for the time that you volunteered at an animal shelter. Meditate on where you’ve been in your life, and be grateful for the circumstances that brought you to this exact place.
Pay it forward
Expressing gratitude toward someone who did something nice for you makes them feel fantastic. It’s a symbiotic kind of thing that benefits both parties. So pay it forward, to make you feel happier, and to make someone else’s day. Practice small, everyday acts of kindness, and don’t expect a return gesture. Open a door for someone and see a smile light up their face. Offer to help a co-worker with a difficult project. Buy a coffee for a friend. Kindness engenders kindness, and gratitude makes you happy.
Be grateful for your relationships with others
Again: take nothing for granted. Don’t forget to say “I love you” to a spouse or partner, call your parents and see them for dinner sometime, organize times to see your friends, and be aware of what they mean to you. Tell them.
The health benefits of gratitude cannot be overstated. In more than 40 research studies on gratitude, results found that practicing gratitude in all its forms led to a better life across the board: you’ll have a healthier marriage, better relationships, more friendships, you’ll be a better manager, more productive, more resilient, you’ll create happier memories and feel more relaxed, you’ll have better self-esteem and be less self-involved, more optimistic, more spiritual, you’ll sleep better and get sick less, have increased energy — hell, you’ll even live longer. Convinced yet?
Some people advocate taking five minutes from every day to maintain a gratitude journal — a small compendium of things we were grateful for that day. You’d be surprised how much difference five minutes can make in a life.
Gratitude is built on the premise that we owe kindness to our fellow humans. We’re not all in this life alone, and we should practice altruism, kindness, and honesty. It’s proven that gratitude and kindness makes you a happier, healthier, and more positive person. As an added bonus, it makes other people happy too.