I Never Meant It When I Said, “Thank You”

My life is easy.

For the past year I’ve hopped continuously from country to country (15 so far), experiencing awe-inspiring nature, exciting activities, and satisfying food. Before that I got to start a business in a place I loved, and even despite some trying moments, I felt fulfilled and profited enough to travel this year without working.

From birth through college, my life was similarly easy. As a healthy, upper-class, white American male from a loving family, someone else always paid for my elite education in addition to taking care of all my wants and needs. I got to have fun, enjoyed my friends, and never had to worry about much.

Moreover, nothing really bad has ever happened to me. I’ve never been hungry, sick, attacked, jailed, stolen from, morally wronged, discriminated against, nor denied my rights in any serious manner. At worst I’ve felt mild stress and disappointment, maybe most when I didn’t get into my first-pick college and had to settle for my second choice.

Altogether, I must be in the 99.9th or 99.99th percentile of quality of life among humanity. It’s almost all sheer luck—I’ve never done much to deserve my excellent circumstances and all the good others have done for me. Sure, I’m proud of my own effort toward certain accomplishments, but all I mostly ever had to do was play by the rules. And if along the way I struggled, I could always depend on a responsive, caring support system of family, teachers, mentors, and friends to go above and beyond to help me. Not to mention, my gender, the color of my skin, the country on my passport, and the institution on my diploma mean I’d still be far better off than most even if my support system were to crumble.

That’s all nice, but I’ve long felt a lingering discomfort over one problem of paramount importance. Unlike for so many of the inherited conditions fostering for my success and happiness, I am totally responsible for this problem.

For all I have I’m not grateful.

Yes, I know I should be; yes, I comprehend from an intellectual standpoint the unfathomably slim odds that the universe conspired toward my mere existence; yes, I recognize logically how it’s far less likely still that my existence could be so extremely easy. Allowing my mind to occasionally ponder this absurd probability hasn’t made me a thankful person.

To be such a person would require profoundly and overwhelmingly feeling, I don’t feel gratitude.

Upon recollecting times I thought I felt gratitude for my circumstances or selfless and caring acts from others, that sensation hardly ever persisted for more than a few hours. If anything, in those times I instead indulged in relief and joy more than gratitude. After all, my resulting words and actions were absent of a true karmic debt to others and more than fleeting recognition of their hard work and sacrifices that improved my life.

Of course, I offer “thank you”‘s countless times every day to strangers, acquaintances, friends and family while face-to-face, over the phone, and in writing online. Like so many of us, my thanksgiving is meaninglessly and mindlessly automatic, drilled into a regiment of good manners training from youth. Even signing off emails with “Thank you” feels so common that I’ll often add, “I appreciate your time and help,” to curry favor because the former would go overlooked.

My ungratefulness ends now. Or, at least I’m committing to taking the first step toward genuine gratitude.

Why am I doing this? At minimum I want to bolster my mood, as research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex shows gratitude stimulates both stress-regulating and pleasure-sensing areas of the brain. Yet, I hope to reap other wide-ranging benefits of gratitude from less physical pain to higher self-esteem to winning new friends.

My primary motivation is selfish, and for now I’m not ashamed of that, especially if the change eventually stokes me doing some good for others. One example summarized in The New York Times is:

“Researchers at the University of Southern California showed this in a 2011 study of people with high power but low emotional security (think of the worst boss you’ve ever had). The research demonstrated that when their competence was questioned, the subjects tended to lash out with aggression and personal denigration. When shown gratitude, however, they reduced the bad behavior. That is, the best way to disarm an angry interlocutor is with a warm ‘thank you.'”

Simply promising myself that I’m going to reflect on more of the good in my life probably won’t change how I feel. Therefore, I’m going to attempt a structured gratitude experiment inspired by Martin Seligman, founder of a field called “positive psychology” (which focuses on human flourishing in lieu of mainstream psychology’s obsession with our mental defects). In his book Authentic Happiness, he advises practicing the expression of gratitude in letters to colleagues and loved ones.

So, for 30 days preferably as part of my morning routine in order to build a new habit, I’ll express my gratitude to one new person each day. To further quantify my habit but limit the barriers (or excuses) to following through,my goal is communicating 100 or more words of unrestrained gratitude to at least one person per day. My communication may take the form of email, social media message, handwritten letter, voice/video message, or speaking in person. Of course, to reinforce this plan, I’ll share it with my accountability group and keep them updated on my progress.

To add a bit of empirical rigor to this exercise, I’ll keep a log. In it I’ll track the recipients, the medium used, my mood (on a -5 to 5 scale) immediately after each day’s communication of gratitude, and notes on any reactions I receive from the recipients. Afterward, with the key disclaimer of a placebo effect and other variables at play, I’ll search for patterns.

I suspect my relationship with each recipient will affect not only how hard it is to convey my gratitude but how doing so makes me feel. Maybe expressing gratitude to the people I’m most estranged from will make me feel best in the end, or maybe that’ll be true of friends and family I’m closest to but most take for granted. There are undoubtedly many other factors I’m not even considering, but regardless I’ll report back after a month!

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