I’ve been thinking a bit more about the question Lizzi at Considerings posed over the weekend. My short answer, on my last post, was no. When I’m happy, gratitude comes more easily, and gratitude makes me feel happy. I’m not sure why I’d forgotten that a post I’d written a few weeks ago, Thankfulness is a Breeze, and Sometimes a Hurricane, was about this – about how when we are happy, we just are grateful, often without even being fully aware of it. And several years ago, I wrote a post about how when we feel guilt it makes it harder to feel gratitude, yet we often try to guilt-trip ourselves into feeling it. At the time I wrote that post, there were a couple of comments, along the lines that: if we don’t teach children to say thank you, we breed ungrateful kids. This is a common perception and, at that time, I had no answer. I really wasn’t sure. But Lizzi’s question kept coming back to me over the weekend and eventually the thoughts began to form into a post, with the result that I now see there is another way.
Fear of Lack of Gratitude
What most of us fear is that if we don’t teach kids to be grateful, or if we allow ourselves to experience life without consciously choosing to acknowledge gratitude, we will breed a generation of “entitled” kids or end up feeling that way ourselves. We will be selfish.
That could be true. You only have to watch one episode of, “My Sweet Sixteen” to see the effects of feeling entitled. It’s not pretty. If you don’t know this series – in it kids turning sixteen get to throw lavish parties and receive huge (or hugely expensive) gifts. They come from very wealthy backgrounds, and they have apparently been materially indulged most of their lives.
I’ve only ever watched one episode, but what struck me was the girl turning sixteen was not happy throughout the entire show. She snapped and snarled, and told the camera that if things didn’t work out how she wanted she would be so furious.
Let’s think about that for a moment – have you ever been able to be angry tomorrow? Or even in a few hours time? Have you ever been able to feel angry any time other than in the moment that you are?
Have you ever been able to have any feeling any time other than now? So what the girl was really saying was:
I am expecting that things won’t work out the way I want them too, and so I feel angry. I am afraid that unless I get what I want, I won’t be happy in the future, and that makes me feel unhappy now. I think that I need things to go the way I’ve planned for me to feel happy, so I am desperately trying to control everything, and that makes me feel unhappy now. It also makes me very self-absorbed and not able to think about the consequences of my demanding behaviour. And if someone suggests to me that maybe I don’t need all this to feel happy, I hear that as them saying that I shouldn’t want it, or shouldn’t have it, so I resist what they say.
Now I think about it like that, instead of feeling appalled by that girl, I can empathise. I can see that there have been times I’ve believed I needed to get what I wanted to feel happy. I can see that there have been times I’ve thought people were telling me I shouldn’t want something. If I think that girl should change, can I start by letting go of my own beliefs and feelings that echo hers? Returning to gratitude (oh how I love to do that) certainly there’s a lot of evidence, both in researched studies and anecdotal observations to suggest that feeling grateful makes us more generous and kinder. However, I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea that forcing kids to say thank you somehow teaches them to feel grateful. It seems more likely to teach them to feel shame, to feel not good enough, and to stifle their own innate gratitude. Let me take you back a few years to one of the best lessons I ever learned about gratitude.
I am sitting in a park, and my kids are playing somewhere nearby. A man comes into the park with his little boy, aged 2 or 3. I know the man a little, the boy a bit more, since I’ve chatted with his mother more often than his dad. They come over and sit with me. I have a carton of cookies that my girls and I baked earlier. The little boy looks hungrily at them. I say he can have one if that’s okay with his dad. The little boy takes a cookie, and his eyes are shining. I can feel his gratitude. It is in his entire being. I feel so pleased by it, by the sense of connection. His dad says, “What do you say?” He looks at me, and says, “I’m sorry he’s not usually so rude.”
I say, “It’s okay, I can see he’s pleased.”
The little boy looks crestfallen, and mumbles, “Thank you.”
The connection felt broken. At the time, I didn’t understand that, I just knew I felt embarrassed, and I guessed the father did too. Soon after that they got up and left.
How to Teach Children Awareness of Gratitude
Perhaps we could acknowledge children’s unspoken gratitude? When we see a child light up with the joy of receiving, instead of admonishing them for not speaking it, we could name it for them? Imagine if we said to a child, “I can see you grateful you are for getting that, I can see how thankful you feel.” Wouldn’t the child then agree? How much more peaceful that would be than, “And what do you say?” Wouldn’t it help them make the link between gratitude and happiness? If we feel the need, we could add, “When we feel really thankful, sometimes it feels even better when we let people know, and people like hearing that we feel thankful.”
Returning to Lizzi’s question, I guess perhaps there are two kinds of happiness – the short-lived kind that comes from getting what we want – the momentary pleasure that “sweet sixteen” felt when her parents unveiled the car she’d been so desperate for. And then there’s the kind that comes from gratitude, that is perhaps homage to life. We don’t maybe notice this as often, because it is, as I wrote in that post a few weeks ago, “woven into the cloth of daily life.” This second kind is, to me, the kind that is worth cultivating, and that I think Lizzi is cultivating with her Ten Things of Thankful blog hop.
This morning one of our cats came trotting into our bedroom before I got up, and instantly I gushed at her, “Hello gorgeous!” I felt thrilled to see her. (I read recently that we should be more like dogs, who feel thrilled to see their owners, even though they saw them 5 minutes ago, so perhaps I’m turning into a dog!) I know not everyone feels this way about the ordinariness of life. I certainly didn’t used to. This can’t be faked, we can’t make ourselves feel it and trying to force it just creates internal struggle. For me these feelings are not constant, but they occur far more often than they used to, and that’s got nothing to do with me being a nice person and everything to do with years of learning to allow all the crappy negative feelings, of questioning beliefs and of learning to have compassion for myself.
Gratitude is our natural state.
We don’t need to teach ourselves or our children to be grateful, but we can learn to let go of all the layers of beliefs and resistance we’ve built up over the years and we can guide ourselves and our kids to awareness of gratitude.