More Than Thank You

Developing Gratitude

Sometimes people say: “I have nothing to be grateful for!”  They might be working two poorly paying jobs and still barely making it.  They might be in poor health.  They might be looking at how rich so many people are, and contrasting it with their own poverty. 
These are real and serious concerns.  And maybe these concerns are your concerns.  If so, you may be right to think that you don’t have much, or even anything, to be grateful FOR.  Still, there might be people TO WHOM you are grateful.

 

Perhaps there’s a co-worker who was willing to exchange shifts so that you could go to the doctor.  In the doctor’s waiting room, maybe a stranger offered you a seat, or a receptionist helped you fill out the forms.  Maybe your daughter can’t do much to help you financially, but she calls you every day or two to find out how you’re doing, or a friend who helped you clean up the yard or took your dog for a long walk.

 

If something like this happened, you almost certainly said “Thank you” to the person for their kindness.  You weren’t just being polite—you meant it, and maybe you meant or said “Thank you from the bottom of my heart!”  Did you also do something nice for that person, when he or she needed help?  That’s maybe easy in the case of the co-worker who helped, and might herself need help in the future.  And maybe your daughter needs help looking after her young child, and you repay the kindness she shows you by babysitting from time to time.  Your friend and you are always doing little things for one another, providing support, being there, doing something nice.

 

Being grateful TO others, and showing that gratitude by doing something helpful in return, just makes life better by strengthening the connections between you and others.  That’s even true when we think about the stranger in the doctor’s waiting room or the helpful receptionist.  There may be nothing you can do for those people—you may never see the stranger again.  But you can pay it forward.  You’re driving home along the freeway still feeling grateful to the stranger for his kindness, and so slow down to let someone merge into your lane.  She acknowledges your help with a wave of her hand, and later, still feeling good about what you did, she runs to open the door for someone struggling with a large package.  And so, with good feeling, let it continue.

 

Even if you have little to be grateful FOR, you improve your own life and the lives of those around you by expressing your gratitude TO others for the kindness they show.  That’s something we can all do.

So, the holidays are over and all the presents have been unwrapped.

I doubt that any of your children found that they’d won a million dollars in a lottery. But suppose they had? Or even that they’d gained $100, something which is much more likely. What would they have done with that money?

We found out, by asking children aged 7 to 14 what they’d do if they won $100 in a lottery. Would they rush out to spend it on things for themselves? Would they buy things for family and friends? Would they decide to save it? Would they donate it to charity.

You can read the highlights of the study here: http://emeraldgrouppublishing.com/promo/kiang_blog.htm
and there’s also a link there to the paper on this topic that we published in the journal Young Consumers.

What you’ll see is that the children’s first impulse wasn’t to go and buy stuff. They were actually more likely to want to save their money. In fact, those children who were most materialistic (that is, they were most likely to say that they wanted to live in a big house filled with cool things and have a job that paid them a lot of money) were more likely to want to save their money.

What was most interesting, though, was that children who were more grateful to others for the help they get were more likely to express their gratitude by “paying it forward.” They were the children who were most likely to want to spend some of their lottery winnings on giving to charity.

Encouraging children to be grateful to their benefactors (people who have helped them or given them something they want or need) encourages them to think more positively not just about those benefactors but about other people who might need their help.

Wouldn’t gratitude be a nice thing to be able to win in a lottery!

” ‘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.’ ”

I don’t tend to browse many websites, but one I go to every day is the BBC News (I am English, after all). And there I came upon this piece about a young girl and her crows in Seattle. This all started by accident; being a somewhat messy eater, some of the food Gabi had been eating on her way home from preschool would fall from her lap to the ground. Waiting crows would swoop down to feed on those crumbs. Gabi then decided to feed the crows on a more regular basis, and every day would put out food and water for them.

grat of crows1

Pretty soon she discovered that the crows were leaving things for her—things that they had found elsewhere. They were all sorts of things—a broken light bulb, beads, jewelry, a rusty nail, a tiny piece of metal with “best” written on it—basically, anything small enough to fit into a crow’s mouth. Gabi now has quite a collection, all neatly sorted, bagged, and labeled.

grat of crows2grat of crows3

It seems quite likely that the crows are expressing their gratitude to Gabi.
Children, you’ve probably noticed, aren’t very much like crows. For one thing, they don’t fly. But they do express their gratitude in various ways. A lot of parents work really hard to get their children to say “thank you” when receiving help or a gift. That’s great, but of course some children only say it when prompted and others do it just out of politeness. Politeness is great, but it would also be good if the children had a warm and positive feeling about the person who had helped or given them something.
Some children behave as crows do. They receive a gift from someone, and their parents encourage them to provide a gift in return. So the children think about something that they themselves would like; they don’t think very much about the person to whom the gift is intended. Like the crows, these children recognize that someone has gone out of their way to get them something nice and they want to give something back to express their gratitude.
But as parents, we can do better, I think. We can encourage our children not to think so much about the gift or help they’ve received but about the person providing that gift. For example, when children recognize that they’ve received important help or a nice gift from someone and want to give back in some way, we could influence them to consider what that person might want in return: “Wasn’t that nice of your friend. I wonder if there’s something that we could do for her that would let her know how thankful you are.”
Perhaps Hitchcock was wrong in his famous film—Gabi’s crows are lovely. But let’s encourage our children to be more than crows.
The link to the full story is: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026 The photos are from that story.

One evening while standing in a long line in the grocery store a woman in front of me turned around. She must have recognized my accent and/or voice, and she just brightened up and exclaimed in a really excited tone: “Oh my goodness, how are you?”  Almost a year ago, a colleague and I had interviewed her and her daughter for our Developing Gratitude Study.  She gushed about us coming over to her house and asking questions about such things as how her child responds to the things that are given to her and whether her response changes depending on the gift or the giver.  This mom proudly stated that since our home interview, many months earlier, she has seen changes in herself, her daughter, and even in how the family interacts with each other.

Mom stated that she had started pointing out to her daughter the time, effort, and thought that both she and her father put into the things they do for her, such as making sure she can play sports, get her hair done, and wear nice clothes. She beamed and excitedly said: “It’s just not what she is given any more—it’s the thought, the act, the people in her life who are making an attempt to enrich her life.”

We can all do this, you know. Those of us who are parents should try not simply getting our children to be grateful for the nice things that they’re given.  Instead, how about focusing on the kindness or the thoughtfulness of the person given the gift?  After all, the gift will soon enough be laid aside in favor of the next one.  Connections between people, however, can last a lifetime.

A Short Story

Recently James saw a beautiful sunset, but didn’t pay  attention. Alicia thought the fall leaves were lovely, but said nothing. Michael at 70 took his excellent health for granted.  Mary knew her friend Jane needed help, but didn’t lend a hand. Even though Jane gave  her a  ride home a few days ago.

It’s reasonable to think that James, Alicia, Michael, and Mary do not appreciate their good fortune. But only Mary behaved ungratefully. She  received help from a friend, but  didn’t repay the favor when she had the chance. If that is typical, her friends probably think she is an ungrateful. But no one will think that James, Alicia, and Michael  are ungrateful, just because they ignore beautiful sunsets, fall leaves, or good health.

Gratitude Journals

Gratitude journals are all  rage these days. We’re asked to take note of  good health, pretty sights, and kindnesses to others. And I think it’s good to be appreciative of all that life has to offer. But the kind, thoughtful, and helpful actions of others are special, and  much more than just appreciation. If you do something  nice or helpful to me, given the opportunity,  shouldn’t I help you too? Not just say thank you. That’s the essence of gratitude, and how it is different from simple appreciation.

What’s So Nice About Gratitude

Gratitude builds and strengthens connections between people !  You do something nice for me, and I respond by helping you. Not in some “tit for tat” way, but because I genuinely want to. As a result, you feel good about me, and in the future when I need help , you  probably offer it. What a lovely upward spiral of positive connections.

It’s good to appreciate all the good things that happen to us.  The beautiful sights and the good fortune that comes our way. But it’s even better to be truly grateful. And to express  gratitude not just in words but in deeds, and to enjoy improving someone else’s life.

And that, I think, is the essence of gratitude. Do you agree?