The Thank You Project
Cicero once said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Thanksgiving is not something that happens once a year, but that which should happen daily. As a mother I spend much time teaching my children the importance of gratitude. In fact, earlier this year we initiated something we like to call the “Thank You Project”. What began as a simple learning experience has mutated into an all-out challenge for our daily attitudes!
After an episode where I had complained about particularly poor service I got (or rather, did not get) from a company, my daughter and I discussed the art of complaint. She noted that when we complain, we expect results. Then she asked, “What happens when you tell a company how wonderful they are? Do you still get results?” The conversation flowed from there, and we touched on ideas involving gratitude and appreciation. We devised an experiment.
Psychologists say that it takes an average of 8-10 compliments to make up for one criticism. As humans we grumble when something does not go right and we often expect someone or something to come along and fix our problem. While this fussing is a powerful tool, and sometimes weapon, it comes all too easy and often pales in comparison to the art of appreciation. It is no secret that the media covers the bad stuff and hardly ever shares the great stuff. Thoreau noted that misery loves company. In recent years, however, television execs have finally discovered that people want to see the great stuff and they have been scrambling to find out how they can profit from such endeavors. Shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Swan, and many others are reality shows are based on the feel-good premise. They take someone who is in line for some appreciation and grant them an act of kindness on a grand scale – such as building them a home or making them look and feel beautiful. The results are amazing – not only in the television world but also in the real world. Paying it forward is contagious, in the same way negativity is contagious.
TO THE LETTER
While the experiment is not a new one, my children and I decided it was time to show some long overdue appreciation. We chose ten things we absolutely love and wrote hand written letters of appreciation concerning those ten things. Each letter described how long we have enjoyed each item, and why we love that item. We thanked each company for their quality product and essentially told them how much we appreciate them. Our subjects of gratitude included Legos, Toblerone Chocolate, Celestial Seasons tea, Vanilla Coke, Carmex, Ben and Jerry’s, Mr. Coffee, a local bakery, Nintendo for the Wii and many more. This exercise allowed the kids to stop and ponder how much they enjoy some of the everyday items we use – things they might normally take for granted. Several weeks later we started receiving emails and letters thanking us for our thank-yous. We even found coupons in a few of our replies, which was very nice.
This led us to a second, more important experiment. I told them we should choose ten people we appreciate and write a letter to each one explaining why they make our life better. My son’s class once did an exercise involving positive reinforcement. Each student got a piece of notebook paper and wrote their name at the top. They then passed their paper to the next student. As each piece of paper was traded and students saw the names on each page, they then wrote something specific and complimentary about that person. The results were incredible. My son brought home a piece of paper covered with statements proclaiming how smart and funny he is, and that he always knows how to make people smile. When he is having a bad day, he looks at his page of compliments. This idea inspired us and caused us to ask the question: “Do we expect anything in return?” No! The selfless, altruistic act of showing appreciation for someone you love warrants no expectations. We all wrote letters of love and appreciation to our selected individuals. The response was overwhelming! At this point in the project, my children were glowing from the effects of positive attitudes and hearts filled with gratitude. Why stop there?
IT ALL ADDS UP
Our next idea was more like a science experiment. Just how much negativity surrounds us on a daily basis? We found out. The kids spent an entire day adding up how many negative comments they heard during the day – both at school and at home. My 3rd grader said he counted over 40 bad things other people said, while my 8th grader said he counted 56, including a few of his own complaints at school. My daughter – a 6th grader – counted over 80 negative statements made during the course of the day. We calculated close to 200 negative words and phrases overheard in just one day.
The following day we did the opposite. The kids and I counted how many positive things we heard people say. Again we discussed our findings over dinner that night. My youngest heard 14 positive things, my daughter heard 38 positive things and my son heard 26 positive things. That is only 78 positives. My kids were paying attention. My son said, “Everyone complains all the time! No one talks about the good stuff. Hearing all of it made me want to start going around complimenting people.” What we learned from this simple exercise was a sense of self-awareness. Now my children, like me, stay alert to our words as we go through each day. Our goal is to outweigh the negative with the positive. We have LOTS of positives in our lives! The Jackson house has far fewer complaints these days, and that is a wonderful thing.
My oldest asked me what to do when he is dealing with someone who is negative ALL the time. I have wondered that myself. It’s no secret that some folks just love to gripe and complain, about themselves as well as other people. So I asked the kids what they thought. Their answer was simple. Every time you hear a negative comment, counteract it with a positive idea, comment or even a positive subject change. We all tried it for a whole week. The effects were great. As we shared our experiences, we learned that when most gripers are met with a positive attitude, they either lose interest, become more positive themselves, or – for the die-hards – they amble off to find someone else to whom they can grumble. Optimism is our secret weapon against pessimists. After a few months, my oldest noted that the worst of the grumblers don’t bother him anymore. He likes it that way.
NINJAS OF NICETY
After months of learning about gratitude, we now enter the phase of giving. Part of being altruistic involves doing good deeds for others – and in our case the game states that the more secret the deed the better. The kids and I have gleaned a few ideas from the internet but we have also added a few ideas of our own. Our ninja tasks include tucking dollars behind toys at the dollar store, paying $10 on other people’s gas while they’re not looking, leaving cards or candy bars in the cars of our friend’s as we leave their homes. The more creative the act, the better. We pride ourselves in thinking up new ways to show our love and appreciation to those closest to us. The tiniest nicety can take someone’s horrible day and make it amazing. Shouldn’t we do that everyday? Now, we do at least one good deed a day, and sometimes multiple deeds. If you ask my kids what they did for someone today, they will always have an answer! Don’t be shocked when they ask you what you’ve done for someone lately.
This world can be a rotten and depressing place. It is my job to rear my children to be the future adults of this world. Wherever they will go, I know that they will be a positive force and that they will be the kind of people who aren’t controlled by their negative attitudes. As they know, we all have bad days, but they are quick to remember how good life is. Next time you’re out and about, listen to the people around you. Listen to yourself. Do you offer an example of someone who is grateful for the good in your life? My youngest said it best the other night. He had a very bad day at school and yet I witnessed him sharing his special dessert with my daughter. I commented on how sweet he was, even after the trials of his day. He looked at me and said, “Mom, just because life is mean doesn’t mean we get to be mean to other people.”
Amen. And thank you.