When we spend time thinking about (or obsessing over) what other people have, we lose out on recognizing the value in what we have right there in front of us. And what we have must be good enough. Of course, there is room for improvement — hell, I’ve arranged (and rearranged) the same space in my house over and over again just so the area can look and feel different. But I didn’t go out and buy a new couch or new coffee table or new chairs every time my heart felt a need for change. Of course, I’d buy something every now and again, but nothing on the regular. Over the years, honoring and being grateful for what I have is a lesson I wanted to instill in my kids, and in turn, I too learned how to incorporate more gratitude into my life.
Being grateful is a state of being — a kind of contentment that it seems we, as humans, are always chasing. When we’re always envying what others have that we don’t, we tend to completely overlook the good things in our own lives, and feel endlessly unsatisfied. But when we practice gratitude, it also supports our social and emotional growth, and even our health. An article published by Harvard Medical School outlines the findings of several studies and research projects that looked in-depth at how gratitude affects our overall well-being, and how it can improve emotional maturity, interpersonal relationships, and even bolster health.
The genes we carry may play a role in what kind of grateful disposition we may have. For example, in a study conducted by Dr. Sara Algoe, an expert who studies emotions and relationships, the differences in one’s “grateful” genes were associated with the quality and frequency of the expression of gratitude. Basically, the gene responsible for secreting the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin plays a critical role how much we express gratitude and how satisfied we are by those expressions.
We cannot overlook one’s personality traits when it comes to understanding (and being) grateful. A study conducted by Dr. Jo-Ann Tsang, Associate Professor of Psychology at Baylor University, found that people who reported being less envious and materialistic also reported being more grateful. The opposite was also found to be true; people who reported low satisfaction about their own lives also felt less grateful. And according to a study by psychologists at Eastern Washington University, there are four traits closely associated with feeling ungrateful: narcissism, indebtedness, materialism, and cynicism. People who display these traits are more likely to feel unsatisfied with what they have in their own lives.
The notion of being grateful for what is right in front of us, begins in childhood. Growing up, I was not the kid on the block who had the latest whatever. My grandparents (who raised me) invested in the things I needed — and all else, as we know, is a want. I loved riding my bike up and down the block, so they bought me a quality bike. Because my wants weren’t all treated as needs, I was much more grateful for the wants I did get.
We live in a society that supports the idea that a 5th grader needs an iPhone. Or that a high schooler needs a new car just because they got their driving license. The pressure for “the next” or “the it” item is heavy. If we aren’t careful, we can easily fall into the trap of acquiring more and more for absolutely no reason.
It’s all a very basic notion, this gratitude thing. When your heart or mind constantly whispers “more, more, more” you go out and get more — whatever that “more” means for you. Maybe it’s the newest car, or the new clothing that came out for the new season, maybe it’s a bigger house because the housing prices were stellar for a moment. Whatever that looks like for you, ask yourself three questions: 1) do I need it? 2) why do I think I need it? and 3) what is it that I am currently missing out on? Truly listening to the answers of these questions will help you become more grateful for what is right in front of you.
Some people choose to keep a gratitude journal to remind themselves of what they have, and to guide them towards contentment. Some simply set aside a small block of time to consciously think about the people and things that make them happy. Some write thank-you notes, and those who are religious may use prayer. But no matter what avenue we use, gratitude starts from within, and we can all get there if we open our eyes and appreciate what we have in front of us.
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