- Mental Health
The Art of Being Thankful
How Thankfulness Can Transform Your Perspective
I was involved in a chaplain's program when I was in undergraduate school, and I remember the leader of the program (a woman I looked up to immensely) saying that if she could impart one life skill to us, it would be the ability to deal with disappointment. It wasn't until I got out of college and began experiencing the pressures and pitfalls of adult life that I realized how right she had been. Disappointment, setbacks, and failures are inevitable. I have found that cultivating an attitude of thankfulness helps me take bad news in stride.
When I talk about cultivating thankfulness, I'm not merely talking about being an optimist. Yes, I can choose to see the glass as half empty or half full, but what about the times when the glass is totally empty? At that point, it's up to me to choose my response to a bad situation. "A bad situation" could be anything from a car breaking down to a terminal illness. Many times the only thing I have control over is how I respond. This is where the art of being thankful comes in handy.
For example, let's say my car has broken down and I'm short on cash to pay for repairs. While the mechanic is doing the estimate, I can worry and fret about how much it's going to cost, but the fact is that I have no control over what's wrong with my car. It will cost whatever it's going to cost and worrying about it will not make one bit of difference. I may as well use my mental energy to be thankful that I can afford to have a car at all, since many people all across the world cannot. Yes, my car repair may be awfully expensive and I may empty my savings account or go into debt to pay for it, but there's no sense in getting down in the dumps about it. At least I have a savings account or good enough credit to get a loan. The trick is to find something about any situation for which I can be thankful. When I'm thankful, my mood is automatically brightened. Nothing about the situation has changed, but I feel better. Life is short, so why not spend more time feeling good?
Life is innately unfair. Some people are born into wealthy families, some are better looking, some are naturally more skilled, some have better opportunities than others. Comparing myself to other people can have one of two outcomes. I will either feel inadequate or feel superior, and neither of these are desirable. Instead of constantly assessing my life situation in comparison to others,' I find it much more helpful to be thankful for my life, strengths and weaknesses both. Thankfulness breeds contentment, and while I am all for striving to be better, more accomplished, wealthier, or whatever, I believe that a certain amount of contentment is necessary to enjoy life.
Another trick I have for cultivating thankfulness is to remember that whatever I'm going through, it could be worse. Let's go back to the car breaking down. Yes, it's expensive and inconvenient, but it could be worse. Both my children are healthy and safe, my country is not fighting a war on our shores, and I am not the victim of genocide or starvation. That may sound a little extreme, but I never forget that my day to day reality could be very different if I lived in another part of the world. A wrecked transmission is nothing compared to wondering how I will find food or clean water for my children. My daily life is vastly safer, healthier, and more enjoyable than that of literally millions of people around the world. Too often we forget this, but I think that having this perspective would silence much of the complaining and self-pity we allow ourselves to do.
I have had this attitude of thankfulness for so long now that my immediate response to bad news is to say, "What can I find that's good about this situation?" I'm so used to doing it that it has become my first response. I naturally do not have a "Pollyanna" personality; in fact, in the past I've been a bit of a pessimist. I have had to consciously redirect my thoughts to thankfulness. When times are particularly tough and I'm having trouble being cheerful, I sit down and write out a list of all the things I'm thankful for in my life. It's an exercise of choosing to place my thoughts on the parts of my life that are happy and good. While it does nothing to change the challenges and setbacks I experience, it always results in a renewed sense of joy and appreciation for my life, challenges and all!