SAN DIEGO – This Thanksgiving, as I ask my sister to pass the mashed potatoes, I’m going to worry less about being thankful and focus more on being grateful.
Here’s how I see the difference: When someone opens a door for you, or answers your sneeze with a “God bless you,” you might say “Thank you.” Then you move on. You don’t spend all day feeling in debt for the gesture. Gratitude is something you feel deep inside, not just for one thing but for the quality of your life and the quantity of its blessings.
Dictionary definitions boil down to this: Being thankful means you are pleased that something you hoped would happen has actually come to pass. Being grateful means you appreciate something done for you or something you have.
What the Pilgrims were feeling in their new homeland during that first winter was probably closer to the former.
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This year, many illegal immigrants may well feel grateful to President Barack Obama. They are thrilled that he sidestepped a do-nothing Congress and, through executive action, offered them “deferred status” so they can’t be deported, even if many of them were probably in no real danger of this happening.
I’m not good at being thankful. There have been years when, as my family gathers, we take turns saying what we’re thankful for. It feels cheesy, like a reverse Christmas list.
I’d like to think I’m better at being grateful. And this would be fortunate for me because, I have learned, it’s hard to amount to anything in life if you don’t have gratitude. This simple concept could be the key to happiness, success, and fulfillment.
Human beings like to complain about what we think the world owes us. We’d be better people if we thought more about what we owe the world. At least this is the message someone, or something, has been trying to send me for a while now.
About a year ago, I was giving a speech to real estate and banking professionals and the conversation veered off to how we’re raising our children and the lessons we’re trying to teach them. A man in his 50s said that while he thinks he does a lot for his teenage kids, he wouldn’t mind it so much if they were able to do one thing for him.
“I just want them to be grateful,” he said. “They seem like they’re entitled, like they just expect the world to give them things. I just want them to show gratitude. That’s all.”
Good luck with that. My children are 5, 7 and 9. Just about every day, it seems, I’m lecturing them about how they need to be more grateful for the little things – for going to a restaurant, or getting a toy from an aunt or uncle.
A few months after the speech, I was listening to talk radio and found myself taking in wisdom from Dennis Prager about the connection between gratitude and happiness. The syndicated radio host – who is also the author of the book, “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” – believes: “All happy people are grateful, and ungrateful people cannot be happy. We tend to think that it is being unhappy leads people to complain, but it’s truer to say that it is complaining leads to people becoming unhappy.”
So, I began thinking, maybe gratitude has practical benefits. It could actually make us happier.
And, last week, on impulse, I bought the current issue of Fortune magazine. On the cover was someone I’m curious about: Tony Robbins. The story was about how the dynamic speaker and former infomercial pitchman who travels 200 days a year – a recipient of the “gift of gab” if ever there was one – has quietly transformed himself into a highly effective and well-paid coach for CEOs. Robbins claims that his companies have combined revenue of more than $5 billion a year.
One of his secrets: According to the article, “[Robbins] takes 10 to 20 minutes a day to put himself in a positive state of mind” by focusing on one emotion. You guessed it.
“I prime gratitude,” the self-improvement guru told the magazine. “Because of all the human emotions, you can’t be angry and grateful simultaneously.”
When mega-successful individuals tout the benefits of gratitude, and when others talk about how they crave it from others and why it is essential to happiness, it’s time for the rest of us to make a conscious effort to express it more often.
So, this holiday, besides giving thanks, let’s remember to also show gratitude.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.