The Most Important Gift
By Janet Joyce
Every year under our Christmas tree we have a box. The same box. It’s wrapped in red and gold paper and it has a little string tied around it. The box is empty, but we place it carefully under the tree year after year because it contains something inside that is more valuable than all the gifts we’ve ever exchanged.
The gift inside is invisible and we don’t need to unwrap the box to enjoy it. In fact the whole point is that box never needs to get unwrapped at all because the box is a reminder of our gratitude.
Gratitude is a feeling of thankfulness and appreciation that comes automatically when someone pays you a compliment or does something kind or thoughtful, such a giving you a gift. But gratitude isn’t only a feeling that you get when someone else gives you a gift.
It’s also a gift that you give to yourself. Gratitude has the power to change your life in small and large ways. Like gratitude itself, some of these gifts come automatically and others you need to deliberately cultivate.
Research studies show that feeling grateful triggers your body to produce a bonding hormone called oxytocin that actually increases your feelings of warmth toward others, no matter whether they are your children or the check-out clerk at the grocery store. But the studies show that gratitude does more than improve your social relations. Expressing gratitude can also enhance your immune system, reduce your risk of heart disease, improve your marriage, and even add years onto your life.
You’ve probably felt gratitude many times in your life when people have done something nice for you. But I’d like to focus on a slightly different kind of gratitude that doesn’t come from an external source at all.
Instead, it comes from within you. This deliberately cultivated inner gratitude has the power to transform your most pessimistic moods and the worst moments in your life into positive ones so that you feel joyous and content instead.
This kind of inner gratitude comes from your own feelings of thankfulness for anything that you cherish, such as your relationships, your job, and your community, right on down to the smallest things you normally take for granted in your daily life.
Always Blessings, Never Losses
Inner gratitude is something you can access at any time during your day, and it can be especially useful when you are in a stressful situation or you find yourself frustrated with something.
For instance, we recently learned that Matthew’s mother has a brain tumor. The tumor is very large and needs to be removed. We could have chosen to feel horribly about the news—and I admit we did feel that way when we first heard it—but then we realized there was still something to be grateful for. The tumor is benign.
That might not seem like much of a silver lining when you are contemplating neurosurgery, but the relief and gratitude we felt after learning it was not cancerous was profound. On hearing that news, my shoulders relaxed and tears welled up in my eyes. Then I began to feel a sense of warmth in my abdomen that spread to my chest and eventually made my whole body feel just a little bit lighter.
Surprisingly, if you deliberately cultivate gratitude it can be nearly as profound over something small. Not long ago I had to replace the heating fan in my car because it began making the most horrendous screeching noise when I turned it on. This squealing went on and on incessantly and it put me in a bad mood as I drove around town. But when I recognized what was happening, I opened up my gift of gratitude and changed my perception of the situation.
Since it was snowing and 15° F (-9° C) here in Boulder, Colorado, I quickly realized that having a working heating fan in my car was something to be grateful for even if it was making noise. And my gratitude was all the more profound after my mechanic replaced the fan. So sometimes the object of your gratitude can be something so small and seemingly unimportant that you rarely notice until you don’t have it any more.
What Can You Feel Grateful For?
Here’s a brief exercise to help you access your inner gratitude and bring it to the forefront of your awareness. Take a moment to read the next few paragraphs. Then close your eyes and do the exercise.
1. When you start, pause for a moment and observe how you are feeling and what you are thinking about. This is just to get a baseline for comparison.
2. Then when you’re ready, think of something you feel grateful for. It could be something large, such as your home, or significant such as your marriage. It could be something profound like finding out someone has come safely home from the war in Iraq, but it can also be something that you don’t often acknowledge, such as your eyesight that has allowed you to read this article.
3. Once you pick something to feel grateful about, close your eyes and really focus on it. Think about how grateful you are for this thing in you life.
4. Breathe deeply three times and allow the depth of your gratitude wash over you.
5. Notice that when gratitude is genuine, a feeling and sensation well up inside you. Watch for this sensation and really notice where in your body you feel it.
6. Do you have thoughts or emotions that accompany the feeling of gratitude? Most likely you will have sensations, thoughts, feelings and also an overall sense of well-being that will be generated from inside.
7. Also notice that it does not matter how significant the thing is that you are grateful for. The sensation of gratitude can have the same magnitude whether you are thinking about your family or you are thinking about having access to good dental care or a decent pair of shoes.
8. When you are ready, open your eyes and compare how you feel now to how you were feeling before. This is a small taste of how gratitude can change your experience.
Putting It into Practice
When you think of all the things you have to feel grateful for every day, remember that not everyone has all the things you do. When you focus on the object of your gratitude, ask yourself if this is something everyone in the world has. When you recognize that not everyone has a car to drive around town (never mind the heating fan), or not everyone has good eyesight, or any of dozens of examples you can come up with for yourself, you begin to get the idea.
As you begin to practice bringing the feeling of gratitude into the foreground of your awareness, you will find that the traffic jam you’ve been grumbling about can also be an occasion to feel grateful that you are not walking to your destination. The stressful situation at work can be cause to feel grateful that you have a job, and the tense moment in your relationship can leave you with profound gratitude that you have someone you love to share your life with.
The more you bring gratitude into your life, the more you will find that feeling grateful is an enormous gift to yourself and to everyone around you. And best of all it’s the kind of gift you don’t have to unwrap in order to share.
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