My grandmother was born the year World War I started. The youngest in a family of 11 children, she lived through the 1918 flu pandemic and spent her childhood in what could have been spirit-breaking poverty. Near the end of the Great Depression, she and my grandfather's economic circumstances were dismal; as a boy, my father remembers shivering in his bed as snow blew through gaps in the wall and onto his thin blanket. Grandma lost many close family members during her lifetime including a young son. She faced myriad other challenges and disappointments. She patiently endured my grandfather's daring winter adventures in Yellowstone and Teton National Parks. In later years, she experienced the ravages of arthritis and devastating memory loss.
In every photo of her I've seen––from the time she was 10 months old to shortly before she died at age 92––her face radiates joy and good cheer. Being in her presence was an experience to be savored. She delighted in friends and family and made us all feel welcome, loved and valued. While she was yet alive, I was privileged to learn the reason for her ability to maintain her grace even during severe trials: gratitude.
Self-help author Melody Beattie, her own life riddled with pain and challenges, tells us, "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.”
How well Grandma realized the verity of those words! She lived each day with thanks brimming in her heart by demonstrating gratitude in word and deed. From her example, I've learned three ways to do the same.
We live in a consumer-driven society. We're increasingly accustomed to getting what we want when we want it. We may believe we deserve to have everything we desire––no matter the monetary cost, or the cost to our health and well-being. It’s easy to become convinced we need more and more stuff in order to feel good about ourselves and be happy.
If you find the focal points of your life are shopping for items that aren't necessities, working harder and longer so you can have more possessions, and constantly struggling to care for the possessions you already have (think dusting, cleaning, organizing, and paying insurance for valuables), you're likely to feel stress. What's more your children are apt to adopt the same desires––and stresses.
Begin by practicing heartfelt gratitude for possessions you already have. Shift your focus away from buying to the joy of living. Rather than getting more, determine to give more: more time, love, and attention to those you care about. Instead of shopping trips with family members, plan a day together to visit the beach, take a hike, or have a picnic at the park. Visit the elderly. Help the homeless. Do something kind for someone.
A marvelous benefit to practicing gratitude is that it brings us happiness, which then increases our capacity to feel more gratitude––and, ultimately, greater happiness. "We didn't have much," my grandmother always said of her childhood, "but we were happy." Happy because she and her family viewed the gift of life––and each other––as mortal existence's true treasures.
Challenges help us grow and learn as we discover how strong and capable we really are. If from the day we're born to the day we die we chose to never walk, our legs would atrophy. Yet if we choose to do all we can to keep our legs in shape, we afford ourselves the chance not only to walk but to perhaps run marathons and climb mountains. Likewise, when life's trials press in, we can resolve to find ways to survive and thrive, thus gaining the opportunity for substantial personal growth and development.
Practice giving thanks for the life you have now. Call it positive thinking or finding the silver lining in every cloud, but what I learned from my grandmother is that the way we choose to perceive our circumstances––rather than the circumstances themselves––is what allows us to experience true and lasting joy and peace. Gratitude indeed unlocks the abundance life has to offer.