Do I need to feel gratitude first and then express it or the other way round?

A few years ago New York Time columnist Arthur C. Brooks addressed the chicken or egg conundrum about gratitude and found studies which strongly suggest that we can cultivate gratitude. A kind of “fake it till you make it” approach. At a time of great distress in our world, gratitude seems all the more poignant as we see shivering refugees and weeping survivors in Paris. Some people even question their right to have so much to be grateful for. The thing is that every human being has that right which is what we want to pass on to our children and encourage their own gratitude to grow and develop.

[If you will permit me, I’d like to share a bit of my own experience in this regard. Some years ago, shortly after I’d left my fulfilling career, family and a close circle of friends to move to Switzerland where I had taken on a very challenging but frustrating job, I was feeling rather unhappy, well miserable really, and not at all grateful, despite living in the spectacular and stirring beauty of the Swiss Alps. I was with my husband and two sons at a kind of family meditation camp where the teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, urged us to truly notice and take in the tiny everyday beauties – the wind on your skin, the heat of your delicious tea, the tender beauty of a lotus flower, and so on – and let them nourish you. This sounded very nice and I thought I’d understood it, but my depression worsened. At one point, I took myself in hand and began to consciously note the moments in the day which made me feel happy – my delicious coffee, hanging laundry (something I find quite satisfying), the view out my window, a chuckle shared with a student – and strung these snapshots of happiness together until I had a necklace and then a multi-strand string of pearls. The secret ingredient is a subtle but distinct smile even when no one is looking but your own heart. Sure enough, I began to crawl out of my depression and to appreciate the gifts in my new life. This lesson marked me forever and I remain very grateful for its teachings.

I urge you to try it for yourself. You can be anywhere. Simply stop and notice and then smile. It’s the smile that really waters the seed of gratitude. Try it and let me know.]

If you have not introduced it already, Thanksgiving can provide the perfect opportunity to start a compliments round which we begin family meetings with. Each person simply shares one small thing they have noticed and appreciated in another. It can appear banal and only becomes profound in being appreciated. Indeed, the more ordinary the better for families are all about the extraordinary in the ordinary. “Dad, I really appreciate that you picked me up from basketball when it was raining.” And you thought she had just taken it for granted.

The compliments round serves a number of purposes, the most obvious of which is the positive atmosphere and sense of connection that is generated. But what I really love about doing the compliments rounds regularly is that it trains everyone’s perception, observation and sensitivity to how others enrich our lives in small ways every day. Our children generally learn this more quickly than we do. For parents, it can prompt a groundswell of “catching your children doing things right” more than wrong which then activates a benevolent cycle of authentically seeing the positive in others. You can even grow accustomed to sharing these observations during the week without waiting for the next family meeting or Thanksgiving.

For the empirically inclined, there is more and more evidence of the value of cultivating a vision for the positive in oneself and others. What we focus on becomes what we experience. But don’t take my word for it. Try it consistently for one week and see if you don’t notice a positive change in how you see the other family members and in their and your behavior towards one another. If it doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll send you a bar of Swiss chocolate.

Thank you. I appreciate that you read this blog and sincerely hope that it lightens your day in some way. I wish you a blessed holiday time, rich with family, friends, and food.