By Liz Bentley
According to Martin Seligman, a leader in the field of positive psychology, gratitude is a primary trait of the happiest people. To be grateful for who we are and our life experience makes us happy and generally happier than everyone else. This seems like such an obvious phenomenon and yet sometimes it can be so hard to achieve. We often are conditioned to look at what is not working in our lives and review our deficits. We look back at our past and think about what went wrong, what was missing and what we would have changed or done differently. We look at our present and think about the inadequacies of ourselves, colleagues, friends, families, businesses and communities. And we look to the future and see the difficulties of the road ahead.
That’s not to say that we are all pessimists, seeing the glass as only half full. Many of us – at least half – are optimists and often see the bright side of a challenge. However this does not mean we embrace gratitude. To embrace gratitude is quite a different concept. It isn’t about being positive; it is about being grateful. As Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on gratitude, describes it: “To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great. It just means we are aware of our blessings” and thankful for the ways in which the actions of others lighten our burdens.
If you struggle with finding gratitude, here are the areas to look:
Your Past – The stories of your past create your collective memory and play a major role in forming your personality and perspective. These memories – both good and bad – define and mold you. The fond memories are easy to be grateful for but I encourage you to embrace the difficult ones with the same gratitude because these are the ones that may have impacted you the most. I was recently at a talk that Barbara Corcoran gave on landing her job at NBC. She spoke about how her father had influenced her life; he was a good father much of the time but an alcoholic. Her experiences with him gave her the resilience to fight for what she wanted in life and from that she found the resilience and stamina to succeed.
Your Talents – We all have a unique set of gifts, talents or strengths that we revel in and draw upon to help us succeed. These are not strengths that everyone has; they are special to us and are used by us in a way that only we can use. In my experience, I find that people don’t embrace and understand their strengths enough. They don’t understand why their strengths make them unique and how special they are because of them. Be grateful for your gifts. Understand that they are genuinely unique to you and only you. Revel in them so that they resonate in everything you do and know that these are the reasons people enjoy, appreciate and respect you.
Your People – I once read that when we look in the mirror “we see… shadowy images of good friends hovering behind us left and right.” Admit it or not, good friends influence us from top to bottom. In many ways, we are a product of all of the people who have crossed our path – family, teachers, coaches, bosses, friends, colleagues, clients, children. If you think about the people in your life, you can see how dramatically they have steered your life. When I was working at a big company in my 20’s, I had a very difficult boss who was demanding, a perfectionist, and at times mean. She seemed to enjoy humiliating people when they made the slightest mistake and was happy to throw your work across the room while yelling expletives if it was unsatisfactory. To this day, she was one of my best bosses and I am so grateful for her not because she was a great leader or example, because she was not. I’m grateful because from her I learned to perfect my work, create good habits, discipline myself to be thorough and conscientious, not take things too seriously, and have empathy for someone who’s going through her own life challenges.
Your Future – Randy Pausch, who is famous for writing “The Last Lecture,” describes how driving in his convertible to work one day was one of the happiest moments of his life. He had pancreatic cancer and was given only a couple months to live but he was so grateful for what he had and the time in front of him. Truly, every day is a gift. It is a chance to restart – to do things better, improve relationships, change bad habits, try something new, go on an adventure, take a risk, seize an opportunity, and grow. The future is full of possibilities; be grateful where you’ve come from and where you can go.
Express your gratitude! Tell the people in your life how they have changed you, why they are special, and how grateful you are for their presence. Do it daily and demonstrate your gratitude for everything in your life. Do this and you will see an immediate impact on your life and your vision for your future.