The following story ran in a newspaper some years ago:
The District of Columbia police auctioned off about 100 unclaimed bicycles Friday. “One dollar,” said an 11-year-old boy as the bidding opened on the first bike. The bidding, however, went much higher. “One dollar,” the boy repeated hopefully each time another bike came up.
The auctioneer, who had been auctioning stolen or lost bikes for 43 years, noticed that the boy’s hopes seemed to soar higher whenever a racer-type bicycle was put up.
Then there was just one racer left. The bidding went to eight dollars. “Sold to that boy over there for nine dollars!” said the auctioneer. He took eight dollars from his own pocket and asked the boy for his dollar. The youngster turned it over in pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters-took his bike, and started to leave. But he went only a few feet. Carefully parking his new possession, he went back, gratefully threw his arms around the auctioneer’s neck, and cried.
When was the last time you felt gratitude as profoundly as this little boy did?
Aesop said, “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.” Indeed, gratitude is one of the hallmarks of a life lived well. It is a virtue that profoundly impacts your personal happiness and the quality of your relationships.
Showing Gratitude to Others
A lack of gratitude is often at the root of a variety of the ills that plague relationships. When a wife or husband never shows appreciation for their spouse, the embers of their love are soon extinguished. When a boss never thanks his employees for what they do, the employees start to resent both him and their job. On the flip side, nothing can buoy up our relationships quite like gratitude. A warm word of appreciation can instantly thaw the ice between people.
How often do we thank our wives for taking care of those little errands we forgot to do? How often do we thank our girlfriends for how thoughtful they are? When was the last time we thanked our co-workers for helping us get a project ready or our friend for being there to help us move?
We often assume that people either get thanks from other people or that they just somehow know how grateful we are for what they do. We are usually wrong on both counts. Here’s another old story that illustrates this well:
A group of friends in the midst of an after-dinner conversation started talking about what they had to be thankful for. One of the group said, “Well I, for one, am grateful to Mrs. Wendt, an old school teacher who, 30 years ago in a little West Virginia town, went out of her way to introduce me to the works of the poet, Tennyson.” “And does this Mrs. Wendt know that she made that contribution to your life?” someone put in. “I’m afraid she doesn’t. I have been careless and have never, in all these years, told her either face-to-face or by letter.” “Then why don’t you write her?”
Now, all this is very poignant to me, because Mrs. Wendt was my teacher and I was the fellow who hadn’t written. That very evening, I tried to atone. On the chance that Mrs. Wendt might still be living, I sat down and wrote her what I call a Thanksgiving letter. This is the handwritten note I had in return. It began:
“My Dear Willie-
I am now an old lady in my 80’s, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and seemingly like the last leaf of fall left behind. You will be interested to know, Willie, that I taught school for 50 years and, in all that time, yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered my lonely old heart as nothing has cheered me in many years.”
What prevents us from showing our gratitude more freely?
Gratitude is inextricably tied up with the virtue of humility. Gratitude shows that we’re paying attention to the acts of service people perform for us and that we truly understand how those acts make our life better, easier, and happier. The ungrateful man is callous; he’s come to think that all the good things that happen to him and all the service rendered him are an automatic response to his impeachable awesomeness. He deserves all that stuff and more. Thus, he never takes notice of the good things that happen to him. And he’s never really happy with what he has. He deserves only the best in life, and concentrates solely on the ways in which this ideal hasn’t been met.
The grateful man is a humble man. He has no illusions of his grandeur. He knows that bad things happen to good people. He knows how easily a rally can turn into a slump. He knows how much worse off many others are than he is. He understands the sacrifices others make on his behalf. And he deeply, deeply appreciates them.
Gratitude is not simply something that we externally share with others. It is an attitude that we live with every day. Some of the unhappiest men I’ve met in my life have also been the most ungrateful. They could only see the things that were wrong with their life, choosing to concentrate on the things they wished they had and wished had happened but didn’t. Their whining corrupted their soul. On the flip side, some of the happiest men I’ve know are the ones that truly embraced the virtue of gratitude. Some of them were dirt poor, but they were still so grateful for what little they did have. They focused not on the things they lacked, but on all the things they had going for them.
Some people think if they had more stuff or better luck, then they would magically have more gratitude. But the number of your material possessions or relationships will have no effect on your attitude. Once you got those things, you’d simply start thinking about new things you wanted. Gratitude is an attitude that can be cultivated in whatsoever circumstances you find yourself in. It’s not about good things happening to you, it’s about finding new layers of wonderfulness in the things that you have right now.
The Task for Day 5: Cultivating your Gratitude
Today’s task has two parts to help you work on both your personal gratitude and also on showing your gratitude to others.
Part 1: Cultivate Your Personal Gratitude
It’s time to take stock of all the good things in life that we have to be thankful for. So task #1 is to make a list of 10 things that you’re grateful for.
When you start, big things will probably come to mind first: health, family, job, kids ect. But remember gratitude will really work its magic in your life when you start taking notice of the great layers of pleasure present in everyday things. We often walk around like zombies, totally numb to the great beauty and joy we experience each day. So think about really specific things. Not just “I’m thankful for my wife, but, “I’m thankful that my wife makes me laugh every day.” Not just, “I’m thankful for my kids,” but “I’m thankful for how happy it makes me when my kids rush to the door when I come home from work.” It doesn’t have to be deep stuff. You can be thankful for a delicious meal of beer and pizza or how fresh the house smells when the windows are open. Really take some time to think about the stuff that gives your pleasure and happiness. And don’t feel like being grateful for material things is superficial; it’s great to take time to reflect on how thankful you are for your 350Z.
Part 2: Show Your Gratitude to Others
Too many times we skimp on the thank you’s because something has happened so often it’s become routine or we figure the person already knows how thankful we are for them. But as I said above, they often don’t, and even if they do, telling them directly will warm their soul and make their day.
So task #2 is to give 3 thank you’s to 3 different people today. These have to be specific thank yous. I’m not talking about the waiter bringing your soup and you saying, “thank you,” in return, although you could at the end of the meal say, “I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am for the extraordinary service you gave tonight.” It’s okay to thank people just for doing their job well. Yeah, they’re just doing their job, but I think we all know plenty of people who can’t even rise to that level, and I’m personally grateful when people have enough integrity to do so.
Thank your significant other for how wonderful she is and mention some specific things about her that you love. Thank your co-worker for bringing donuts. Thank an AoM Community member for their contributions to the community. Thank your teacher for how great he or she is.
It doesn’t have to be present stuff either; give another thank you to your friend who showed you the best time in NYC when you came to visit 2 years ago. Send a thank you to that old professor you had in college who really opened your mind. Call your brother and thank him for helping you get through that rough time you had last fall. Think about people you should have thanked but missed your chance with or the people you really didn’t thank enough.
These thank you’s can be done in person, on a post-it note, by letter, by email, by phone, whatever. Just put some thought into it and get going!
Listen to our podcast on cultivating your gratitude: