Chances are, when you were a kid, someone raised you right and taught you to say “thank you” when someone did something nice for you. If you forgot, you got a little (or not so little) nudge from the grown-up side to do so. As adults, most of us are pretty good at remembering to say “thanks” when it’s appropriate, and may occasionally even do it without realizing it, or perhaps without even really meaning it. We say thanks almost reflexively when someone holds a door or passes the salt or picks up something we’ve dropped. We’re especially good at expressing gratitude for things we weren’t expecting. A kind gesture or comment that catches us by surprise, a piece of great news or a gift we didn’t see coming usually elicit a deeper gratitude – a combination of feeling special and also feeling momentarily more connected to the person responsible. Of course, there are also moments of gratitude that take our breath away. These moments bring us close enough to something difficult to almost experience it, only to be spared the pain of having it become reality. The depth of that exhale freezes time, and leaves us aching with grateful relief in the powerful moments that follow. But those moments are rare. For the most part, our gratitude is reserved for quick, daily exchanges and for gifts, which are nice, but can also be pretty superficial. Even more complicated, the more we encounter those moments, the more we tend to expect them, and the less likely we are to remember the manners those grown-ups taught us and say “thanks” for them.
In MBA life, striving for your next step is how you stay alive. If you’re content where you are, you had better be really content because before long, you will find yourself alone there, as your classmates and colleagues keep pushing ahead, deciding how to take everything they are experiencing, planning and dreaming to the “next level.” So where does gratitude fit in? Is it possible to be both grateful and ambitious?
The answer, I think, is in observing the little things, and through mindfulness, cultivating a natural sense of gratitude throughout the day. As you walk down the street, look up from your phone and notice the beauty, the kindness and the humor that constantly surrounds you. Make your ambition purposeful, and when possible, compassionate. In a New York Times op-ed piece from last summer, David Brooks considered two types of people – those who are situationally grateful, and those who he calls “dispositionally grateful.” This second group “takes nothing for granted. They take a beginner’s thrill to a word of praise, at another’s good performance or at each sunny day. These people are present-minded and hyperresponsive.” Present-minded, he said. People with a naturally grateful disposition are engaged with the present moment, noticing small beauties around them and taking pleasure in others’ success, as well as their own. They are good teammates and friends. They are mindful.
One common mindfulness practice for cultivating thankfulness is creating a “gratitude list.” The idea is to spend time in a focused manner detailing various things, people and truths, large or small, that you’re glad you have in your life. It’s a super effective way to gain some perspective quickly when you’re feeling dissatisfied, or sad, or jealous of that annoying co-worker who seems to wake up naturally perfect every day. When you look at the list and consider your life without the things on it – well, it’s like a pep talk you just gave yourself. As the saying goes, if all the world put their problems in a pile, you’d gladly take yours back.
Mindfulness can help us be more attuned to opportunities for gratitude in each day, and also more thankful for both small kindnesses and big successes. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to actively pursue our dreams, we can never say – or feel – that “thank you” enough.
“In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love)
Photo credit: Cecil Vedemil (Stocksnap)