Headlines from First Thoughts

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sacrificial Gratitude

This week, we gather around tables and televisions to remember the things, people and country for which we are thankful. Thursday, however, could be more than a sentimental journey through the Norman Rockwell moments of life. This day we should be grateful for gratitude.

Robert Emmons has studied gratefulness in his book "Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier." He explains scientifically that the right kind of gratitude is actually good for your health. Gratitude can sustain us through the struggles of life and improve our well-being.

Our cultural concept of thanksgiving, however, is usually limited to a form of reactionary self-gratification. We wait for good things to come, and we appreciate what has happened to us. We list the standard faith, family, friends and freedom elements, "count our many blessings" and enjoy the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" style moment. We are the recipients of the gifts; and in reality, we are thankful because someone has been looking out for me.

This attitude of gratitude wears off as soon as the Macy's Parade is over. The sentimental journey of personal blessings does not match up with reality. Life is a complex series of simultaneously exhilarating, exhausting and excruciating events. When you get the promotion at work, you arrive home to find your kids are out to get you. The moment that your son passes the test, the volunteer in the community foundation pulls his funding for a project. Success and sadness go together. If we wait to count our blessings just once each year, we will continue the vicious cycle of struggle, stress and selfishness.

Another form of thanksgiving can actually transform life. Instead of a sentimental version of gratitude, we need sacrificial behavior. We set aside what has happened to us and look to others. We seek ways to express gratitude to people for the things they have done for someone else. We are not being thankful for what we have received; we are grateful to have the chance to thank someone else for who they are.

Consider how this might work in a marriage. Psychologist John Gottman suggests that successful marriages are marked by a 5:1 ratio of positive-versus-negative communication. For every one negative thing spoken or done, a marriage needs five good things to offset the negative. Married couples can strengthen their relationship by finding ways to say thanks before the other person does something for which she is thankful. Instead of waiting to respond to a meal that is served or a car that is washed, successful spouses thank each for being who they are or appreciating something the other person has done for someone else.

Imagine how sacrificial gratitude could affect the office, school, university, athletic field and government. Instead of sending a thank-you note for a present, we offer unconditional gratitude to another person before a gift is given.

Last summer, my church collected backpacks for underprivileged kids unable to afford school supplies. I received a note from a woman who contributed to the project because she was grateful for the chance to give. She wrote, "One year my family picked 100 gallons of blackberries which we sold for 10 cents per gallon to pay for our school books. I was one of a family of ten children, living in a rural (poverty) area. A hint at how long back that has been: I just celebrated my 82nd birthday. Enclosed is a check in honor of my five sisters and four brothers."

True gratitude can give someone more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling. This kind of gratitude can change your life.

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