Raise your hand if you’re interested in a happier, healthier, more content life? What about less worry and anxiety? Or how about more energy and optimism? At this point, I’m like the guy who sat in the front of my engineering classes, fidgeting in his seat with his arm locked at 12 o’clock, as if the professor allowing him to answer the question was a life-or-death matter.
According to multiple studies, the gateway to improved psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being is gratitude. Gratitude flows from an increased focused on the good things in life. It’s paying attention to and celebrating the positive and redemptive parts of humanity.
Sounds easy enough, right? For some people, maybe. For me, not so much. I’m bad at gratitude, real bad.
If gratitude were a sport, like pick-up basketball on the playground, for example, I would be the guy picked last. And picked is misleading. More like the team captain would begrudgingly allow me to join his team only after scanning the playground for other players and debating whether he would be better served playing with one less player than the other team.
Fortunately, gratitude is a lot like basketball in that you can improve with practice. The greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jordan, was cut from his 8th grade basketball team, and although you probably won’t “be like Mike” on the basketball court, you can on the court of gratitude.
All the great ones, whether we’re talking basketball or business, possess a particular set of qualities. So it is with gratitude. Truly grateful people do things differently. If you struggle with cultivating a life of gratitude like me, you can improve. Throw on some gym attire and let’s get to work.
Here are some things grateful people do differently.
1. They see life as a gift, not a birthright.
Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude, in my opinion. Entitled people believe life is theirs. Why should they celebrate or express gratitude for a promotion, or another day of life, or health, or anything, for that matter? Life is not a gift to be received, but a logical response to hard work, moral superiority, responsible choices, etc.
Grateful people see the world through a childlike lens.
When I think about gratitude, I think about my three and four-year-old boys. Life is a gift to those two, all of it. Whether it’s an afternoon in the backyard or Christmas morning, their lives overflow with untainted, unrestrained joy and excitement. Everyday, when I walk through the door after work, they run to embrace me like I just returned from a long pilgrimage or something. My boys don’t love me because I buy them stuff. They love me because I’m their dad, which is reason enough. They don’t worry about meaningless stuff like I do. They aren’t bored with life. They aren’t fixated on dividing people along racial or political lines.
Meanwhile, I reminded of Jesus when he said you must change and become like a child to find heaven. Grateful people see the world through the eyes of a child.
2. They start with the man (or woman) in the mirror.
Growing up, especially in my teenage years, I was on my own worst critic. The one person I could never affirm was the person in the mirror. My senior year of high school, for example, I threw a no-hitter against a district rival. People congratulated me. Our team celebrated a big win. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the one guy I hit in the back with a curve ball, the difference between a no-hitter and a perfect game.
Can I ask a personal question? When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What thoughts immediately come to mind? Positive? Negative? Just being honest, if the self-defeating language I often whispered to myself as a teenager were directed towards another person, it would classify as verbal assault.
Gratitude is a pipe dream without self-compassion. How you see yourself is how you see the world.
I’m convinced a life of gratitude is largely a pipe dream without self-compassion. How you see yourself is how you see the world. Unless you see beauty in the mirror, you won’t see it in your neighbor. Until you show yourself grace, especially when you screw up, you won’t extend it to the person who hurts you. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
3. They realize every rose has a thorn.
Gratitude isn’t “Hakuna Matata.” Life is a mix of sun-drenched and stormy days, with the occasional tornado or hurricane. Grateful people don’t allow these impending storms to shipwreck their faith. In a culture of affluence and comfort, this point is especially important. There’s no such thing as rainbows without rain or roses without thorns, it seems.
Even love, the greatest of all virtues, comes with a cross. The beauty of Christianity, what makes gratitude possible, I believe, is that our narrative ends with a resurrected Jesus, not a crucified Savior. We welcome the thorn because we have the rose. We rejoice in suffering and loss because love wins.
4. They love people and use things (not the other way around).
Matthew Kelly nails this in his book Rhythm of Life: “People were made to be loved, and things were made to be used. Your problems, my problems, and indeed all the world’s problems come from our misunderstanding of these two simple principles.”
Too often, we love stuff and use people. Gratitude, in many ways, is the life-long pursuit of reversing this.
5. They thank outside the box.
This is advanced-level gratitude. People who understand this point have passed the core requirements of gratitude’s undergrad curriculum. But they refuse to graduate or drop out, choosing instead to continue with victory laps.
I’m only joking.
When you thank outside the box everything becomes a source of gratitude, even your greatest disappointments and setbacks. A cancer diagnosis isn’t a time to play the woe is me card, but an opportunity to ask “Where is God?”. The jerk-face boss isn’t a source of anger and frustration but an opportunity to grow in patience and love.
People who thank outside the box never forget those in undergraduate courses. They disciple and mentor, challenge and encourage. They have an undying hope in humanity, especially in the next generation.
6. They create worlds with their words.
Words are the building block of life, the cornerstone of creation (Gen. 1:3). With our words, we create worlds. Wrestle with this for a minute. Heavy stuff, I know.
Affirmation is gratitude incarnated. Much like Jesus is the outpouring of God’s love for us, affirmation is the inevitable overflow of a heart filled with gratitude. Grateful people breathe life into others, and they do this with regularity. Hope, joy, peace and love are the natural resources that form their world.
These resources are infinite because they’re from God. You can use them freely and liberally, without fear of running out. A heart of gratitude always gives, thus thanksgiving. Who are you thankful for today? Who hasn’t received a word of hope from you in a while? Maybe your spouse, your children, your parents, or your friends. Maybe your favorite barista or the homeless guy you pass everyday on the way to the office?
Your words create worlds. What kind of world are you creating?
What kind of world are you creating?
As we embark on another holiday season, as we gather with family and friends to enjoy good food and exchange a few presents, don’t forget about gratitude. Don’t allow family tension or a full calendar to shield you to keep you from seeing the good.
Don’t forget gratitude always gives. For many, this season is hard, a reminder of tragedy and loss. These people would trade all the candy canes and presents for their loved one or for someone who loves them. An unexpected word of affirmation could provide a ray of light in an otherwise dark season. Paying attention to the invisible people in the world, the ones without a family or a home, could crack the shell of worthlessness.
Is there a better time to practice gratitude, to cultivate a life of thanksgiving than right now? The court is wide open. Lace up your shoes. Let’s get to work.
Grace and peace, friends. Amen!