As we sit down with friends and family to give thanks for making it through another tough year, here are some reflections on gratitude to help you navigate the stress of the holidays.
Positive psychology studies consistently demonstrate that gratitude is strongly associated with greater happiness. People who are grateful are more optimistic, have fewer doctor visits, and are more likely to report an overall sense of wellbeing. Not surprisingly, those who receive gratitude also benefit. Employee performance and productivity increases when workers feel appreciated. Now let’s look beneath the hood and investigate why gratitude works.
Though saying, “thank you” to someone who holds open a door, offers assistance, or shares a kind word only takes a second, it radically changes our relationship to the cosmos. It interrupts our obsession with self-importance and honors the other.
I witnessed a vivid example of this when I was commuting to Denver on the bus. In the midst of the morning bustle, most of the passengers greeted the bus driver with a cheerful “good morning” or other polite gesture, which the driver returned. Getting off the bus, passengers said thank you. With this simple human exchange, what could have been a dehumanizing, daily cattle ride was transformed into a pleasant, dignified journey.
My time in Thailand also taught me about gratitude. A common Thai word is “cop”, in men’s speech and a softer “ka” for women. It expresses thanks, respect, and politeness and is liberally sprinkled throughout a conversation at the ends of sentences. Such profuse verbal bowing reflects the gentle kindness characteristic of Northern Thai culture and goes a long way toward easing friction between people.
Alan Watts tells an amusing story of traveling around Kyoto visiting holy sites with a Japanese Zen monk. At each shrine they pass, large or small, the monk bows low. The mischievous fellow that he is, Watts teases the monk, “Why do you bow before these stone Buddhas? I just as soon spit.” (Watts is alluding to a Zen parable where Buddha is described as “dry shit on a stick.”) The monk smiles good-heartedly and in broken English says, “I bowz; you spitz!”
In contrast, when we think ours’s is the only correct view, conflict is inevitable. It leads to disrespect, which can easily morph into anger, or its silent cousin frustration. Anger is the mirror opposite of gratitude, where the offended party self-righteously elevates themselves above the accused. In the toxic exchange both suffer—the accused directly, and the accuser more subtly because to feel superior cuts us off from the source of love and fulfillment and relegates us to a barren, ego castle.
We often see this paradox in the discontent of the privileged, who can never seem to get enough. As I describe in my book, desire (wanting) is the handmaiden of the ego and is always reaching toward the future, (seeing the glass as half empty). Yet, we can only experience pleasure in the present moment (the glass half full). To arrive at the present moment fully is to tip our head back and drink the water. To drink the water is to abandon ourselves to it.
Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude and enrich your life: