Saturday, January 2, 2016

Thoughts on Gratitude

Well folks, it's a new year, with new hopes, expectations, realities and ambitions.  One of my hopes, I won't say the word GOALS, is to become more grateful. It is to develop the ability to say thank you naturally, without thinking of it, and in an uncontrived way.  I believe, as do thousands of other happy people, that being grateful and giving thanks leads to a happier, more fulfilling and meaningful life.  Below I've condensed a talk I gave in early 2015. I hope you take to heart the challenge to work on your Attitude of Gratitude.

An Attitude of Gratitude is not an easy thing to develop. I am inclined to take for granted the sun on the leaves on a spring morning, that I have two legs to walk with, and that at any given time, Brooke will have a bunch of perfectly ripe bananas ready for me in the kitchen, even though even saying the word banana makes her throw up a little in her mouth. 

But, if we manage to turn on the gratitude a little, and do it enough, the psychological research suggests that gratitude might just become a habit.  If you’re one of those highly grateful people, of which I’m sure 2 of the 3 people that read this are, then ignore this and go back to scrolling Facebook,  But, if you’re more like me, here are a few tips on how develop an “Attitude of Gratitude.”

1st: Once in a while, think about death and loss.
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I’m not just being perverse—contemplating endings really does make you more grateful for the life you currently have, according to several studies. When you find yourself taking a good thing for granted, try giving it up for a little while.  Try binging on Reese’s Peanut Butter cups for a few days. Then try giving them up for a week or two before having another one.  From personal experience I guarantee it tastes a lot better after a bit of abstinence than after the binge.

 2nd: Take time to smell the roses
And the freshly baked bread, the smell of freshly cut grass, whatever gives you pleasure.  Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant finds that savoring positive experiences makes them stickier in your brain, and increases their benefits to your psyche—and the key, he argues, is expressing gratitude for the experience. That’s one of the ways appreciation and gratitude go hand in hand.  As adaptive humans, we will become accustomed even to the good things.  When we do, their subjective value starts to drop; we take them for granted.  That’s the point at which we might give them up for a while- be it chocolate, a good run in the mountains, or even something like sunlight- and then take the time to really savor them when we allow them back into our lives.

3rd: Take the good things as gifts, not birthrights
What’s the opposite of gratitude? Entitlement—the attitude that people owe you something just because you’re so very special. The antidote to entitlement, is to see that we did not create ourselves—rather, we were created- by a loving Heavenly Father. Likewise, we are never truly self-sufficient. Humans need other people to grow our food and heal our injuries; we need love, and for that we need family, friends, and even pets.

 4th: Be grateful to people, not just things
A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned gratitude for sunlight and bananas. That’s great for me—and it may have good effects, like leading me to think about my impact on the environment—but the trees just don’t care. Likewise, the sun doesn’t know I exist; that big ball of flaming gas isn’t even aware of its own existence, as far as we know. My gratitude doesn’t make it burn any brighter.
That’s not true of people—people will glow in gratitude. Telling Sam he did great at his swim meet might make him happier and it can strengthen our emotional bond. Telling Brooke thanks for keeping me well stocked with bananas can reaffirm to her my appreciation for the little ways she shows me she loves me.

5th: Mention the pancakes
Grateful people are habitually specific. They don’t say, “I love you because you’re just so wonderfully wonderful!” Instead, the really skilled grateful person will say: “I love you for the pancakes you make when you see I’m hungry.”
My mother-in-law is a great example of this.  She is a master thank you note writer. I have never received a note saying “Thank you for the birthday present.  It was the best”  It’s always specific.  “Thank you for the wonderful scarf and gloves.  They will keep me warm on my early morning walks.”

Finally: Thank outside the box
Here’s who the really tough-minded, Graduate-level grateful person thanks: the boyfriend who dumped you, the homeless person who asked for change, the employer who fired you. “It’s easy to feel grateful for the good things. No one ‘feels’ grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health or has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement portfolio.”
In such moments,  gratitude becomes a critical cognitive process—a way of thinking about the world that can help us turn disaster into a stepping stone. If we’re willing and able to look, we can find a reason to feel grateful even to people who have harmed us. We can thank that boyfriend for being brave enough to end a relationship that wasn’t working; the homeless person for reminding us of our advantages and vulnerability; the boss, for forcing us to face new challenges.

To illustrate this last point, let me relate a short story a friend of mine recently experienced.  The Barkley Marathons are held the beginning of April every year in Frozen Head State Park in the backwoods of Tennessee.  It consists of an approximately 20 mile loop run 5 times in alternating directions for a total of around 100 miles.  There is over 60,000 feet of climbing. There is typically a combination of rain, freezing temperatures, hot sun, dense fog and everything in between. The route is not marked, is only revealed to the participants a few hours before the event begins, and there are no aid stations or pacers.  Since it’s inception in 1991 only 14 runners out of more than 800 starters have completed the 100 mile race within the 60 hour cut off.  In the slightly off kilter sport of long distance endurance events, the Barkley is the ugly step child.

Jared Campbell showed up in April 2014 for his third attempt.
                                                                                                                                  Psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi says that most people “have what psychologists call "positive illusion"—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.
Jared, in a sense, is not normal and is able to distort the reality of the world so that he does have control in the very real and difficult world around him.  In his words ”There are lessons in life that can only be learned through fairly massive deviations from our normal, comfortable routines. These lessons alter our perspective on life and better equip us to deal with life’s unforeseen challenges. They can sharpen our optimism and generate a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life.” As Jared attempted each of the 5 loops, he looked for the positive, something to hold onto, something to be grateful for, the silver linings.  Here are the silver linings he was grateful for on each loop
Loop 1-The silver lining of wet conditions at Barkley is that you slide through saw briars far easier. I focused on that.
Loop 2-The silver lining of the pain “in both my achilles tendons was that it forced me to ascend in creative ways, which spread the wear-and-tear out over my body. It would also make switching shoes for lap three something to look forward to. I focused on that.
Loop 3-The silver lining of snow on the course meant I could more easily see and follow my footprints from the previous lap. I focused on that.
Loop 4-The silver lining to cold temperatures during Barkley is that you can wear pants, which means you have protection from the briars and poison ivy. I focused on that.
Loop 5-The silver lining to warm weather at Barkley is that the footing is much better. I focused on this.

Being grateful while in the darkest hours of his race, Jared became the 14th person to ever finish the Barkley marathons.

My favorite quote ever is by President Gordon B. Hinckley, one of the most optimistic, grateful people I can think of.  He says, "In all of living, have much fun and laughter. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured."

It is my hope that we can be grateful while in our circumstances, that we can focus on the silver linings, and that we can laugh and enjoy life.  Above all, I sincerely hope that we will recognize God’s handiwork in this marvelous tapestry of life and thank Him for all that he blesses us with.

There you have it.  Try to say thank you, in a unique way, at least once a day. If you're feeling particularly ungrateful, then fake it.  Over time, it will become a habit, and the world will be a better place.

I'm grateful for Sunshine 
on a miserable day of 
February Salt Lake Inversion