” ‘Smith, you don’t realize it’s a privilege to practice giving presents to others’.” The way he did it was charming; there was nothing glittery and Christmassy about it, but almost sad, and sometimes his gifts were old beat-up things but they had the charm of usefulness and sadness of his giving.”
You may wonder why I chose to open this posting with these lines from Kerouac’s Dharma Bums when Christmas is still some weeks away. First of all, my creative writing professor in collage told us in first class that “Always start with a quote if you want to make a strong influence.” But secondly and most importantly, I chose these lines because they tell a lot to someone like me who is a member of a research team studying the development of gratitude.
So far, I have heard so many people talking about gratitude: what it is exactly, how you feel it, and what it means to be grateful. I heard people saying that they are grateful for being healthy, for having a job they like, or for the beautiful sunshine after a week of rain. I heard a parent, who had just moved out of a shelter, complaining that her daughter is not appreciating that they now have a roof on their heads and a meal to put on dinner table. I listened to another parent worrying that her daughter takes for granted whatever she gets, despite living in a huge mansion in the middle of a gated condominium, able to ride horses whenever she wants to, and going to the most expensive school in town.
I don’t know a secret formula to make any child more grateful, and I am not sure that there is any. But by now, I know what definitely won’t work: asking your child to compare himself or herself to others. This would make your children feel better (search for ‘downward social comparison’ in Wikipedia if you don’t trust me), but it won’t make them more grateful and stop wanting more and more in a world where they are surrounded with messages forcing them to consume and where there will always be some others who are in a better condition than your children are. But instead of asking them to be thankful for what they have, you can teach them to be grateful to the people who tried hard to give them those things and make them realize that “it’s a privilege to practice giving presents to others”. Presents that are not necessarily “glittery and Christmassy”, but anything the other person would want or need. Maybe a visit that a grandfather has been looking forward to, or a hand to a neighbor carrying groceries.
I don’t mean that it’s in any way bad to ask your children to appreciate the house they live in, the school they go to, or the new computer you bought for them. And we should be thankful for being healthy, for the beautiful flowers in our garden, or for the beautiful day outside. I just mean that these things have nothing to do with gratitude, because gratitude involves valuing the person who provided you with something nice and wanting to give or do something back for that person. The best thing about gratitude is that, unlike appreciation and thankfulness, it brings people together or strengthens the bonds between those who are already together through the exchange of favors, as it did with Japhy and Smith in Dharma Bums:
“In fact he taught me, and a week later I was giving him nice new undershirts I’d discovered in the Goodwill store. He’d turn right around and make me a gift of a plastic container to keep food in. For a joke I’d give him a gift of a huge flower from Alvah’s yard. Solemnly a day later he’d bring me a little bouquet of flowers picked in the street plots of Berkeley. ‘And you can keep the sneakers too,’ he said. ‘I’ve got another pair older than those but just as good.’ ”