Learning to be grateful has completely transformed my life for the better. When I picked up the first book I ever read on the subject of gratitude, I had absolutely no idea that by applying the principles within it I would become happier, more fulfilled and significantly less stressed.
Gratitude, as an emotion, hasn’t come naturally to me. I have had to make a super human effort to change my mind-set and learn to focus on the good in my life. It has taken years of dedication and mindful application and I’m still not quite there yet. For me, gratitude is a daily practice and it takes work and dedication.
Until I learned to be thankful, I had never once given any thought to how utterly blessed I am. Like everyone, I have faced difficulties and challenges in my life. But I have always had access to certain privileges I took for granted. Electricity, heating, drainage, a home, education, healthcare – the list is endless. It had never occurred to me that millions of people on this planet would die to lead such a life. To be able to live in a peaceful and democratic country where I am free to do as I please, within the boundaries of the law, is a gift. In fact, many do lose their lives in pursuit of such freedoms – the current European refugee crisis highlights this.
Instead, I was too busy complaining about what I didn’t have to notice the blessings I received every day. I assumed happiness would come when I received or attained something – a partner, a house, a job etc. But when I received these things the happiness was always short-lived. Learning to be grateful has led me towards sustained happiness.
After seeing the positive effects that practicing gratitude has had on my own life, I wanted to find out if any research had been conducted around the topic. I found a plethora of studies that all came to the same conclusion. Grateful people were happier, healthier and better connected to those around them.
Having digested this, a thought occurred to me. Imagine if I hadn’t had to spend years learning to practice gratitude? Imagine if I just did it without thinking – if these emotions were automatic? I’m in no doubt that some people are born grateful, but for the vast majority of us it is learned behavior. If I had been taught to be thankful as a child, imagine how many years of unhappiness, worry and stress I could have been spared?
It was at that moment that I decided to make it my mission to teach my children how to be grateful. This extends beyond teaching them good manners and politeness. My job is to teach them to continually look for and appreciate the good in their lives. I want them to think positively and view the world around them with wonder.
My own mother used to complain and moan a great deal, even though she had an incredibly privileged life. It wasn’t her fault; she probably learned this behavior from her own parents. And so, subconsciously, I copied her.
Teaching gratitude to our kids doesn’t have to be difficult. It’s mainly about leading by example. If my children hear me complaining and wanting ‘stuff’ all the time, they will mirror my behavior.
If I moan about others in their presence, I will be showing them that I don’t appreciate the people in my life. If I complain about my home, my car, the family income or my husband’s job I will be projecting a complete lack of appreciation of these things onto them.
I don’t believe that in teaching them to be appreciative, I need to refrain from buying them toys and taking them out for treats. But I am mindful of teaching them to appreciate what they have been given.
This doesn’t involve giving them lectures on how lucky they are and comparing their lives to the lives of less fortunate children. While it may be true that there are starving children in Africa who would give anything to have my children’s three meals a day, lecturing them won’t help them to understand and appreciate the difference. Neither will labeling them ‘ungrateful’ or ‘selfish’. I was called these things many times as a child and I was not compelled to be grateful as a result.
Teaching my children gratitude is about showing them how to constantly appreciate the things I used to take for granted. We can begin every day by telling each other three things we are grateful for. Instead of saying, ‘Ugh what a horrible day!’ when it rains, we say, ‘How lovely – it’s raining. Just imagine if it never rained, we wouldn’t have any water or food to eat!’
It’s about making the sending of thank you cards after a birthday a priority and a joy (not a chore). And ensuring that I always say thank you sincerely – when someone helps me at the supermarket, when my husband pours me a coffee or a friend gives me a lift.
Instead of trying to make them feel guilty about how lucky they are compared to millions of other children, I can help them learn about the world they live in. We can donate to our local food-bank and take part in shoe-box appeals while talking about why it is important to do so. I can set a good example by volunteering for a charity and helping at their school.
Teaching children to be appreciative and satisfied with what they have doesn’t mean making them complacent and unambitious. While I teach them to be content with what they have, I must also teach them to form and pursue goals. They must be grateful for everything they have now, while still focusing on what they want to achieve.
As a mother, my greatest wish is for my children to become happy, caring and well-adjusted adults. The journey towards hard-wiring them for gratitude starts now; there isn’t a moment to lose.