Growing Your Gratitude

"When you change the things you look at, the things you look at change." Dr. Wayne Dyer canstockphoto8641742

Each year at this time, thankfulness becomes a buzzword. It tends to go hand-in-hand with the foundational message of the holidays, which is to acknowledge all the good of your life. But there are times, people and situations we each face where there isn’t a thing in the world to be thankful for. Maybe you’re reminding an employee yet again to come to work on time, or your annoying neighbor has his music blaring. Perhaps someone refuses to participate in arts and crafts, or your supervisor expects more of you than you can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time.

Or maybe you’re just having that proverbial bad day. It happens. A series of small, uneventful but unfavorable activities is set in motion when you pull away from the drive-thru window and have two creams in your coffee instead of two sugars, progresses when you get to work and find half of your staff hasn’t finished their work, and hits a high (or low) note when the supplies you ordered last week were delivered to the wrong address—and you need them tomorrow.

That’s where gratitude steps in. To some, the difference between being thankful and being grateful is simply a word choice. To say you’re thankful for your family or you’re grateful for your family is splitting hairs. But there is a difference in definition and usage, one that has the potential to change not only your words but your perspective. Whereas ‘thankful’ is a state of having thanks that something exists in your life, ’grateful’ is the smaller action of noticing how those things came into being. Being thankful, then, can be thought of as the end process of finding numerous, smaller things to be grateful for.

If you’re still following the idea of gratitude as a component of thankfulness, you’re putting yourself in a place of power when it comes to growing your gratitude in even the worst and most trying situations. One quote that I share often, courtesy of Dr. Wayne Dyer, is “When you change the things you look at, the things you look at change.” This quote resonates deeply because when you apply it to your life’s rough spots, sooner or later you’ll start to feel a shift in your thinking. More importantly, you’ll start feeling a change in yourself. Don’t expect this overnight, however. The practice of gratitude, especially when we apply it to the darker edges of life, takes time to cultivate and refine.

The biggest challenge of gratitude isn’t to express pleasure for the things in your life that are going well, it’s for finding a tiny spot for a finger hold in the moments, people and events that challenge you. When you grow your thoughts, your daily reality and living in the moment to include things you’re grateful for, your eyes will adjust to the entirety of a situation, not just the parts that please you most. I am definitely thankful for my family, but there’s not much in the way of growing in gratitude there. I love my family down to my core. Practicing that gratitude is easy. It’s easy to be grateful for the things we love. It is not easy to be grateful, or to find one nice thing to say about something or someone we dislike, don’t respect or downright can’t stand—but that is where our growth comes.

When you change the things you look at, the things you look at change.

Starting where you find negative emotion, resistance, hurt or even anger is a great entry point for developing a gratitude practice. The middle school ESL students I teach each day come to me with a large number of personal and life issues, learning disabilities and language deficiencies that put them at a serious disadvantage as compared with regular students. On occasion, I get depressed at what I perceive as a lack of progress and academic success with them. Even though I know I’m doing my best and they are learning, I fall into a comparison game with my peers and their student growth even though it’s truly comparing apples to oranges. It hurts to think my students arrive in my classroom developmentally three to five years behind their peers, because over the three years that I loop them, I get to know them as the bright, funny, creative people they are on the inside, not the test scores they bring with them. But last week in a meeting with high school ESL colleagues, they shared that their classrooms are literally bursting with new arrivals with no language background at all—students who enter high school at age 15 and 16 without having any knowledge of the English language, or, in some cases, educational experience, even in their native country. At the moment I heard that, my woes of having to reteach the lesson on context clues for the third time dissolved and was replaced immediately by an overwhelming, authentic sense of gratitude that while my students struggle, they are still young enough to have plenty of time and energy to reach their educational goals. My student numbers are low enough that I’m able to circulate around my classroom and have individual student conferences, which these high school teachers cannot. I have the luxury of working with younger siblings of families I’ve had year after year and have a positive, established relationship with. I know their home life, their learning styles and what we can do to succeed, whereas my colleagues have that work ahead of them for each and every new student.

When you change the things you look at, the things you look at change.

What areas of your life are the most challenging? A relationship, perhaps? A misunderstanding, inadequacy, fear, shame or a generally painful event? What if, for the sake of gratitude, you spent a moment thinking deeply from the perspective of seeking out even the tiniest sliver of gratitude for the experience? It’s not always easy, sometimes messy, and you’re allowed to pass on any situation you find completely and totally irreparable, as long as you remember that true gratitude comes from challenge of seeing a flicker of beauty in every life moment. If there’s no gratitude possible in the person or situation, maybe the gratitude comes from the lesson the experience taught you—in which case, you can be both grateful and thankful that it’s over.

When you change the things you look at, the things you look at change.

And when you see hardships for the reality of what they are, in the moment—opportunities to grow your gratitude—you will start to feel a shift in the way you perceive these obstacles. Instead of being one more problem, they’ll become a chance for you to blossom. You may not find looking at a challenge the most pleasant experience in the world, but you might find looking at struggle from a point of gratitude doesn’t allow the challenge to upend your world.

Beth Morrow is a middle school educator, blogger and co-program director for Camp Hamwi, a residential camp for teens with diabetes. Connect with her on Twittter: @BethFMorrow.