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Gratitude is a Lifestyle, Not a Time of Year

Note: This article was originally published in November of 2018 for Milken Community Schools.

We lost my uncle Mike three weeks ago. Heart attack, at the age of 49. He was a father to three, a husband to one, the youngest of nine, and the baby of the family matriarch, my petite and powerful Polish grandma. Eight years prior, at the age of 41, Mike’s twin brother Mark had a heart attack of his own. Fortunately, Mark made it through. Given their youth, most families would be shocked by such attacks and ours was no exception. Still, this family is all too aware of the possibility of such tragedies occurring. At the age of 54 and before I had the chance to meet him, my grandpa Joe, also lost his life. The cause? You guessed it, another heart attack. Suffice it to say, given our family history, I am acutely cognizant to not take my days for granted. My genes leave me little choice.

We hear, see or read this sort of cliche all the time, though; to “live life to the fullest”, to remember, “life is short”. For those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, “carpe diem” (seize the day) was a common catch phrase after hearing Robin Williams character in Dead Poet’s Society inspire his young English students with it. Most of us inherently agree with these sentiments. We know, on an intuitive level, we need to value each day, relationship and experience. But, what does it look like to live that way?

The scientific field of Positive Psychology, the empirical study of optimal human functioning and well-being, provides one potential answer to this question; gratitude. While this article is conveniently published near the Thanksgiving holiday, I want to be clear. The rigorous research on gratitude reveals it is about a great deal more than just giving thanks for one month of the year. Gratitude is not just action, it is an orientation; an orientation toward appreciative living. In other words, to effectively avoid taking each day for granted, we need to function with what Dr. Robert Emmons, the guru of gratitude, calls a “grateful disposition” in how we live our lives. 

Many of us cultivate this disposition organically, often after times of struggle or hardship, such as the loss of a loved one. This past April I was in Poland with a group of Jewish teens and Survivors. One morning, I had the opportunity to walk one of the Survivors, Eva, to the local Jewish museum. During our mile-long walk through downtown Warsaw, Eva noticed one of the walk lights had gone from red to green just before we reached it, allowing us to continue forward without slowing down or stopping. Eva turned to me and said, “I thank god every time a light goes green like that”. Her rationale? When you have been through what she has been through, you tend to appreciate a lot more of life, even the little things like a green light. She too, had grown in her gratitude as a result of negative experiences. 

Like both my mom and Eva, a significant number of the families in our community have also experienced how quickly life can change and not always for the better. Ours is a community largely made up of immigrants who have had to leave everything they have ever known to come to this country. Our community is filled with descendants of survivors of the Shoah. We are also a part of a larger community that has experienced hardships. Most recently, the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. These are, understably, experiences that cause us to reactively cultivate gratitude and not take each day, person or experience for granted.

Fortunately, the research has also shown us we do not have to wait for tragedy to strike in order to live more appreciatively. Further, it is actually in our interest to do so. A slew of empirical research from Dr. Emmons and others has demonstrated having a grateful disposition or practicing gratitude can lead to increased levels of well-being and life-satisfaction. It buffers against stress, anxiety and depression. It makes people more compassionate and motivated to contribute to their communities, which, in part, probably helps explain why we see a surge in volunteerism around Thanksgiving every year. It can even improve heart health.

This research has also revealed some strategies for practicing and developing gratitude. These practices have primarily been broken down into two exercises. Each has been rigorously studied and each has demonstrated the ability to create some of these positive effects. 

The first, is gratitude journaling. This practice is simple. Take time each day to write down three-to-five things you are grateful for. Early on, you will likely identify things like your family, friends, job, health, or the family dog. My dogs make my list at least once a week (See above).

As you continue to practice though, challenge yourself to get more granular. Can you notice and appreciate the simple pleasures like Eva and her green lights? At Milken we have our students practice this strategy by keeping a week-long gratitude journal and then turn those individual appreciations into a wall of gratitude. This Thanksgiving, why not join your students in truly cultivating gratitude keeping track of your own appreciations? 

If that is not your cup of tea, consider a second practice. This exercise is what Dr. Martin Seligman, “father” of Positive Psychology and former president of the American Psychological Association calls a “gratitude visit”. With a gratitude visit you hand write a letter of around 300 words to someone who has positively impacted your life. You express your gratitude specifically for how they impacted your life and what that impact led to. However, you do not just mail this letter. No, instead of the informal approach, gratitude visits involve reading the letter to them, face-to-face. We do this with the Milken seniors as a part of their senior Shabbaton. Many of them say it is the single best experience they had in their four years at Milken. It is an incredible moment of vulnerability to express such extreme gratitude to others, but remarkably cathartic and a huge well-being boost. So, who can you give a gratitude visit to this Thanksgiving?

There is no reason to wait to appreciate the ins and outs of life until tragedy strikes. You can take action now and most of us inherently know we should do just that. As we begin to enter the holiday season, and spend time with our families, take time to be mindfully appreciative of the good in our lives.  But, do not stop there. Think of this time as a way to build this orientation toward your daily existence by trying out one of the practices we have shared here. If we do not take the time to be mindfully appreciative, we allow life to pass us by. We allow the things that make life valuable and worth living go unnoticed, often until it is too late. I think most who have suffered such loss would tell us they wish they had been more appreciative of those things before they were taken away. Thanks to the research from Dr. Emmons and others, we now have a much better idea how to make that happen, and all it takes is a few moments out of your day.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,

Dr. Holton

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