Let gratitude be the tail on your kite

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, July 14, 2005

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Chances are that you are familiar with these inspirational words. They were penned by Emma Lazarus in 1887 and are now carved into a bronze tablet at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The words pay tribute to the freedom that we celebrated as a nation this past week on July 4. Independence day is a reminder to us to be thankful for our freedom, especially when many in the world are still enslaved.

Although the memory of bright colors bursting and streaming across the dark sky is already fading, the message of the day is important to keep sharply in focus. You are free! Be grateful!

While you are appreciating your freedom, you might also want to consider the other blessings in your life. Your family. Your friends. Your job. And, yes, even the basics like your health.
If you really do feel grateful, then you are likely to maintain a positive attitude and perspective on life. When life gets difficult, you remain emotionally strong. As positive experiences and opportunities present themselves, you are open to them.

Then again, you might feel more like a walking dark cloud. You might believe that there is nothing to be grateful for in life. If this is the case, you will, at best, think life is an empty and meaningless experience. At worst, nothing will keep you from feeling blown unmercifully out of control during life’s stormy times. As you read this, you are probably cynically thinking, “If I could feel grateful, I’d be happy to do it. But I don’t feel it.”

Most of us have been there at some point—when the lack of gratitude for anything feels like a part of you. However, even if you do not “feel” thankful, try intellectually recognizing things for which you are grateful. By itself, this exercise will help provide some balance for your negatively skewed thinking.

Whether gratitude comes naturally or is an effort, you can benefit from incorporating it into your daily life. One way to do this is to simply recognize the things for which you are grateful as you move through your day. If you are religious, you might already be doing this in your prayers. For those who meditate, gratitude can be the focus of daily sessions. Some people keep gratitude journals that they write in every day. Whatever method works for you, the more you do it, the larger a place it will have in your life.

As you practice being grateful, pay attention to how you feel. You might experience the immediate effect of feeling happier or viewing life more positively. If so, enjoy it. Or, you might remain steeped in more negative feelings. This does not mean your practice of gratitude has failed you. Much like the tail of a kite, gratitude provides stability. So, even when you are sad, hurt, or angry, gratitude can help you maintain some positive perspective. Thus, you are better able to reconnect with more of the good things that life has to offer.
Toward this end, practice allowing yourself to acknowledge and accept all of your feelings—even when they are clearly ungrateful ones. Feelings don’t have to make sense or even be what you would want. In fact, imposing the feeling of being grateful on yourself is dishonest and manipulative. For example, you cannot make yourself happy by saying, “I shouldn’t be angry with my husband; he is good to me.” You are much better off with the more honest, “I am thankful for having such a wonderful husband, but I am angry with him right now.” The bottom line– practice thinking grateful thoughts while accepting all of your feelings.

If you feel stuck in being distressed, depressed, or generally ornery with life, then there is more that you need to do to help yourself. Talk with a friend to get validation for your feelings or to get advice. Commit to making needed changes in your life. Do whatever it takes. And, for a little extra help through the bad times, do it while continuing to be thankful for the positives in life.

Face the fact that you will not always be happy (really, how could you be in touch with reality and always be happy?). However, you can try to always be grateful. Being grateful is a decision about how you want to live your life. If you are not sure how to begin, let me help. During this week in particular, be grateful for living in a country where we value liberty.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ