My two boys bought me a lovely present this year for Christmas – tickets to the theater. But their gift wasn’t my favorite part of this year’s Christmas. My fondest moment will be the warm, expansive feeling that I felt in the center of my chest as I watched my boys experience true appreciation for their gifts. Their gratitude was….palpable. From their beaming smiles to their big hugs and grins, their delight was genuine and unmistakable.
At this point you may be wondering if I bought them new cars for Christmas. No such grand presents were given, but their gifts reflected who they each are and what they enjoy. Their awareness – the ability to notice and appreciate the time it took to select each gift – was so rewarding. It was a pleasure to buy their gifts, and I think that I was more excited than they were for Christmas morning.
Many years ago I remember shocking a mom I met at the park. She commented on how appreciative my kids seemed as she passed out juice boxes, and I replied that sometimes it takes a little bit of guilt to teach gratitude, but it’s worth it. The woman gave me an incredulous look – first of confusion, then repulsion. I explained that I believe parents can use a small amount of these emotions to coax children to see outside of themselves and relate to someone else’s perspective. I don’t think the mom was convinced.
When my boys were young I remember being dissatisfied one day with their mumbled “thanks” as I handed them their lunches. So as they reached for the lunch bags I held on tight. When they looked confused about why their lunch was being held hostage, I explained. I reviewed how I expended energy to make their meals – first buying the food and bringing it home, then organizing it into their lunches. The reason to say thank-you wasn’t just to be polite; it was also to send me energy out of gratitude since I had used my energy to help them. They quickly understood and each of them made eye contact with me, smiled, and said “thank-you mom” with genuine gratitude. My warm smile confirmed what they felt – that their appreciative energy had been received.
My boys and I live in a rather wealthy area. And while we are definitely not wealthy, my boys regularly witness people living a very indulgent lifestyle. So it’s easy for them to slip into entitled thinking, where they forget to be grateful for all that we have. Over the years when I feel that either of my kids hasn’t shown the proper gratitude for all that is done for him, I address it right away. To the outsider it might look like a guilt-trip; I review in detail how much energy I’ve put forth on his behalf, or how much effort it takes for teachers to do their job well, or I tell them about someone I know whose child is currently in the hospital, etc. While this may appear to be me “guilting” my boys, I see it differently. By learning to step outside of themselves and acknowledge someone else’s efforts or pain, my boys have learned to feel truly grateful for all that they have and all that is done for them.
I think that being able to feel gratitude on a daily basis is a true gift.
Your ability to feel gratitude is in direct proportion to your ability to experience happiness, and I’m so pleased that my boys and I regularly experience both.
I also believe that it’s helpful to be taught how to feel gratitude. Not because we can’t feel this emotion naturally, but because the ego doesn’t seem to automatically register this concept.
When I was going through my divorce it was easy for my boys and I to feel unhappy; gratitude was definitely a less natural response. So at the dinner table or as I tucked them into bed I tried to remember to ask each of them to tell me something good that had happened that day. It was my simplified version of a gratitude journal, and it helped all of us recognize that good things happened daily, and that it was up to us to notice. I believe that our gratitude practices helped us avoid feelings of victimhood, a frequent outcome of the divorce process.
I try to keep my family focused on feeling grateful because I’ve witnessed the correlation between my happiest clients and the frequency with which they express gratitude.
If you want your family to experience happy, joyful lives, keep an eye on your gratitude levels.
If you’re interested in expanding your ability to feel gratitude, I can recommend a few books that have assisted me over the years:
Happiness is an Inside Job, by Sylvia Boorstein, PhD.
How We Choose to be Happy, by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks
Suffering is Optional, Three Keys to Freedom and Joy, by Cheri Huber
Happiness is a Serious Problem, by Dennis Prager