Intentional Gratitude

When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude. ~Gilbert K. Chesterton

Image courtesy of Incyst

At Thanksgiving here in America, it has long been tradition to make a list of those things for which we are thankful. Gratitude lists are as ubiquitous as those handprint turkeys little children make this time of year. While the turkeys may not last past November, I believe that thankful hearts should–an attitude of intentional gratitude is something we should strive to hold on to all year long. Instead of being grateful for family and friends who join us for one long day of parades, turkey dinners and football, we should be conscious of the blessings we have experienced in the past, those we are enjoying in the present, and of the good things to come in our future. Every day is a good day to acknowledge and express gratitude.

Perhaps Melody Beattie (self-help author of such books as Codependent No More) said it best: Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. The first part of living with a grateful heart is embracing our past, for better or worse, and giving thanks for lessons learned. So often we look back on our lives with selective amnesia, forgetting the bright spots and focusing on the dark times. When we focus on the negative, it is only natural that we would feel negatively about our lives and ourselves. Instead, we need to try to view our lives more objectively and find the parts that have been positive.

Actor James Earl Jones has been an example of this positive focus on our past. Born during the Great Depression, Jones was abandoned by his mother and father; his father left to pursue a boxing career before his birth, and his mother left him shortly after as she went to find a job herself. Raised by his grandparents, Jones struggled with abandonment issues before making peace with his past. In a later interview, Jones stated: I was an adopted child of my grandparents, and I don't know how I can ever express my gratitude for that, because my parents would have been a mess, you know. Instead of allowing his past to cast a long, dreary shadow over his life, Jones chose to focus on the positive. Each of us can consciously choose to do the same. Dwelling on negative pieces of our past just keeps us stuck. We need to celebrate the path we have traveled in our lives that has gotten us where we are today.

Photo courtesy of The Italian Voice

Just where are we today? Despite the economic turmoil spread throughout our nation, we are actually quite well off. According to research done by World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, as a people we are relatively rich. In fact, the poorest 5% of Americans are still financially better off than 68% of the world’s population. One quarter of the population of India makes less than $1 per day, which puts our lifestyles in a whole different perspective. In fact, Globalrichlist.com has a calculator operation where we can enter our annual income and see where we stand among the peoples of the world. (Incidentally, my teaching salary puts me in the top 3% of all global wage earners–not too shabby.)

Next time I want to curse the alarm clock for waking me up so early, I need to remember that it is waking me up because I am fortunate enough to have a job to go to each morning. As winter comes and I have to scrape the ice and snow off my windshield in sub-zero temperatures, I can whine about the inconvenience or be glad that I have a reliable vehicle to get me wherever I need to go safely and comfortably. Even doing such tedious chores as washing dishes and doing laundry are opportunities to acknowledge that we are fortunate enough to have food to eat and clean clothes to wear each day. Perhaps I am sounding a little on the Pollyanna side, but I feel strongly that having an attitude of thankfulness helps us to live more positive and productive lives than we would live if we spent our time finding things to be unhappy about. On that note, if you are reading this, be grateful you can read, unlike the twenty percent of the world’s population who are illiterate.

Photo courtesy of *Christopher

As we look toward our future we should strive to keep this focus on intentional gratitude. Life coach Brian Tracy suggests: Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, knowing that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation. None of us knows precisely what the future holds for us–we cannot control our futures, but we can control our reactions to whatever comes our way, choosing to focus on the positive in all things. My faith tells me that all things work together for the good of those who love God; with this in mind, I have been able to grow through every negative experience, even my recent, painful divorce, as I trust that God has something better planned for me even if it is hard for me to see in the moment. Spiritual or not, all people can benefit from a positive outlook for the future. I have a friend who takes bad dates in stride, certain that each wrong man brings her closer to finding the right man for her. Another friend of mine found that losing his job propelled him to focus on a new career, one he now loves, that he would never have gravitated toward had it not been for his losing his former job unexpectedly. As they say, attitude is everything.

Photo courtesy of Silly Eagle Books

Finally, gratitude should not exist in a vacuum. Inspirational author and self-described optimist William Arthur Ward puts it this way: Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it. When we feel grateful for someone or something, we need to share our feelings. Next time you have really great service at a restaurant, tell the server. When you realize how thankful you are for your children, your parents, your friends–tell them. Practicing intentional gratitude by sharing it with those around us is a great way to keep the positive feelings going, and growing, long after we have packed away those adorable little turkey handprints.