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A conversation about gratitude

Laurie Fraser

Laurie Fraser

Are “please” and “thank you” “magic” words or are they essential vocabulary to learn and practice to have a successful and fulfilling life?

I know of one mom who keeps a “what went well” journal with her sons. My family and I always share a “good thing that happened today” over supper time. Somewhere amidst the conversations unique to two- and four-year-olds, such as the difference between a tutor and a tooter, my girls mention new songs someone taught them, a classmate’s birthday cupcake, or that they were simply grateful to get outside at recess. The boys in my class keep a casual gratitude document where family, friendships and opportunities are frequently acknowledged. One of my colleagues helps her daughter write thank-you cards.

What makes you grateful? How do you acknowledge it?

Research has proven that the act of giving and receiving thanks significantly impacts people’s lives in a positive way. In a study by The Journal of Happiness, the academic results of students who demonstrated high levels of thankfulness for the world in which they live and the people in their life reported having stronger grade point averages, less depression and a more optimistic approach to school and life than their less grateful peers. Gratitude is linked to optimism, empathy, stronger relationships and resilience.

However, in a report to The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Emmons suggests that a lack of gratitude is contagious and passed from one generation to the next. Emmons states that gratitude is essential for happiness, but that “modern times have regressed gratitude into a mere feeling instead of retaining its historic value, a virtue that leads to action.”

What seems to be increasingly interfering with our efforts to cultivate gratitude is materialism. As comedian Louis C.K. suggests: “Everything is amazing and no one is happy” because we’ve developed some sort of arrogant sense of entitlement about “stuff” and tend to view the acquisition of “things” as representing success.

In fact, materialism works in opposition to gratitude. A recent Globe and Mail column noted a study that documented an increase in high school students’ desire for wealth with a decrease in the willingness to work hard to earn it. This doesn’t sound like a particularly successful strategy for a fulfilling life.

As parents, shouldn’t we help our children discern the difference between earned and given? Shouldn’t we have conversations about their accomplishments not being entirely a result of their individual traits and diligence? Would intentionally pointing out the supports in their life — the librarian, the coach, the parent who works hard to provide — be a worthwhile conversation?

Gratitude is a relationship builder that fosters an authentic awareness of our reliance on others. By intentionally acknowledging the gifts of others — be it people, planet, pet or prayer — we recognize that we’re not alone. With an understanding of gratitude, we develop our humility — and this allows us to see beyond ourselves. Gratitude links us to others and broadens our understanding of community. It highlights our roles as givers and receivers, and this increases our ability to be empathetic and compassionate. During tougher times, gratitude gives us the ability to switch our narrative from negative to positive, which ultimately builds our resilience. Gratitude is at the core of character in that it’s a feeling, an understanding and a skill that’s used for the welfare of others.

Saying thank you to your barista, mindfully being grateful to your heart for still beating, or your arms so you can embrace a loved one, taking a mental snapshot of the snow as it falls, savouring the chocolate as it melts in your mouth, thanking your spouse for, well, anything … these are ways we can cultivate a culture of gratitude. Intentionally teaching our children to appreciate abundance elevates our sense of humanity and our interconnectedness.

My mom kept a gratitude journal. Now that she’s gone, her words give me comfort.

What are your thoughts on gratitude? What does your family do to foster appreciation? How do you model gratitude for your children? How has gratitude impacted your life? What do you see as the role of gratitude in young people?

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Please send them to lfraser@ucc.on.ca.

Want a little inspiration? Check out this website. If you don’t have time to peruse it, have a look at this short video.

Thanks to everyone who gave input and inspiration to this article.