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Giving Together

Finding the “perfect gift” every holiday season can be a stress-provoking experience! Will she like this? Does he already have that? Is this really what they want? Do they need another one of those? This is costing me too much! I can’t afford all these gifts!

Now imagine that this year your gift-giving can be a very different experience. Imagine that every gift you give will be appropriate, heartfelt, personal, have real value, and—catch this—you won’t have to spend a dime!

What I’m about to propose can apply to every person on your gift list—your family (your kids, your partner, and every one of your relatives), as well as the people outside your family circle—teachers, doctors, trash collectors, the person who delivers your mail, and the clerk behind the counter in your local post office.

It is the gift of gratitude.

While “gratitude” might seem simplistic (Isn’t it just saying, “Thank you”?), one of the leading scholars in the positive psychology movement, Dr. Robert A. Emmons, says “. . . gratitude is a deeper, more complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in human happiness. Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change people’s lives.”

So how can you make gratitude your gift of choice this year?

First, understand that expressing, offering, or giving gratitude is a three-step process: First, you acknowledge that you have received something from someone; next, you recognize the value of what you’ve been given; and lastly, you appreciate the intentions of the person who gave you the gift.

While you may have thought this post was going to be about gifts that you give people, I’m suggesting that you first realize how much you are actually receiving from others.

When your ten-year-old cleans and straightens up her room, she’s not only learning the disciplines of personal hygiene and keeping order—she’s contributing to the cleanliness and order of the household. When your partner cooks your favorite meal, when your friend sends you an email to find out how you’re doing, when your teacher offers you helpful comments on a term paper—they are giving you something. Their gestures have value to you.

The next step in this process is expressing your gratitude. This can be done in different ways, and here’s where giving “the gift of gratitude” comes in.

I’m going to suggest two practices for giving the gift of gratitude. One you can do when you’re in a group, and the other on your own.

In a group . . .

When you are gathered for a holiday meal, have each person around the table write his or her name on a slip of paper. Fold all the slips and put them in a bowl. Now, pass the bowl around. The first person picks out a slip, unfolds it, and reads out the name on the paper. For example, Susie picks out “John,” her brother. Susie expresses her gratitude to John like this: “John, you gave me so much support when I was very anxious about my final exam in math. You were so patient and understanding and you helped me through that very difficult time. I know I can count on you when I need help.”

Notice that Susie is following the formula for giving the gift of gratitude: (1) she acknowledged that she received something from her brother; (2) she recognized the value of what John gave her (attention and understanding); and (3) she appreciated the intention John had in giving her help.

You can pass the bowl of names around more than once! The web of appreciation and love that’s woven through this experience is palpable and memorable. You will notice that expressing gratitude actually prompts more giving. Everyone’s spirits will lift. Much better than unwrapping a new pair of socks!

As an individual . . .

Call me “old school,” but my next suggestion might sound radical to some readers. It’s to send a card or handwritten note—through the mail—to someone to whom you want to give the gift of gratitude. In your note, follow the same formula: acknowledge, recognize, and appreciate. Here’s an example: Dear Jacqui. I want to tell you how much your friendship means to me. Even though we haven’t seen each other for over a year (oh dear, the pandemic!), every time you leave a voicemail or send me an email, I feel happy and my heart opens. I appreciate every expression of your care and love. Your oldest(!) friend, Sharon.

With instant messaging, texts, emails, and social media posts, we have all but forgotten how nice (even wonderful!) it is to receive a real-deal, personalized piece of mail. You may not have purchased a stamp in ages, but I guarantee you that making the effort of finding some nice paper or looking for the right card in a local CVS or Walgreens, taking the time to compose what you want to say, writing out your note of gratitude, putting in an envelope, stamping it, and then sending your gift through the mail is a real gift to the person who receives it. I can guarantee you that they will feel your gratitude.

In his book, Thanks! How the Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, psychologist Robert A. Emmons writes about the “profound truth” about gratitude: “When we give the gift of gratitude, with the right spirit, genuinely from our heart, we get as much or more in return for giving the thanks as the receiver gets from receiving it. When we are truly grateful, we are left to experience life situations in ways that call forth from us an openness to engage with the world in order to share and increase the very goodness we have received. It is the experience of connection with humanity emerging from a sense of wonder and joy that participating in an intricate network of existence brings.”

During this holiday season, when all of us are challenged by so many complex and troubling events in the world, let us each return to the calm, still, center of the heart, and from there give each other the priceless gift of loving gratitude. We are—each and all of us— truly fortunate.

BEN BERNSTEIN is a veteran psychologist and educator specializing in top performance. His client list includes CEOs, dentists, athletes, attorneys, physicians, business executives, opera singers, and actors. He lectures worldwide to audiences of business executives, professors, parents, and healthcare professionals at conventions and onsite at corporations, universities, colleges, and hospitals. “Dr. B” is the author of three Familius titles on stress, Crush Your Test Anxiety (2018); A Teen’s Guide to Success (2014); and, with Michelle Packer, Stressed Out! for Parents (2015).
Dr. Bernstein can be reached via his website: DrBYourBest.com

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