Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Along with her blogs here on Thriving, you can find her at the Huffington Post and Boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.
Every year on Thanksgiving, as I’m sure many families do, we take a moment before we eat to say what we are thankful for. We go around both tables at my mother-in-law’s, the one in the dining room and the one nearby in the kitchen (we are too many to fit at one table) and everyone says something. It’s mostly what you would expect—being thankful for each other, and all our blessings—but it’s really nice.
And then you don’t hear it again for another year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude recently—more specifically, I’ve been thinking about how we can better incorporate it into our lives, and how we can teach it to our children. My dear friend Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson wrote about a lovely ritual she’d started in her family called “BPOD”, or Best Part of Day, where each person picks one part of the day each day as the best part. “Gratitude is powerful stuff,” she said. And then my friend Dr. Natasha Burgert tweeted about a post by Geoffrey James that says that “the key to lifelong success is the regular exercise of a single emotional muscle: gratitude”
Gratitude is important. Gratitude makes us happy. If we don’t stop and count our blessings, we’re always going to feel like we are one possession or promotion or pound or whatever away from happiness instead of realizing that, hey, there’s some good stuff going on right now. It may not all be big, but every single day contains at least small moments that are worth being grateful for—and happy about.
And gratitude keeps us connected to and aware of others—because most of the stuff we are or should be grateful for involves other people. It’s not just our loved ones. Whether it’s the driver who let us turn left or change lanes, or the lady who told us we dropped our gloves or the guy at the deli counter who gave our cranky toddler a piece of cheese, when we stop for a moment to think about what was good in our day, we can’t help but be reminded of how important and powerful even small interactions between us can be.
James says that gratitude brings success because when people enjoy the fruits of their successes (even when small), they seek more success. And, he says, when things don’t go as planned, they are better able to put failure into perspective.
Happiness, connectedness, and success: what better gifts could we give our children?
Children are more likely to be appreciative—they aren’t as jaded as we grownups—but it’s still something that needs to be reinforced and taught. There was a really interesting study that came out recently that looked at generosity in five-year-olds, as measured by their willingness to give away some of the stickers that the researchers gave them. If the kids they were giving the stickers to could see how many they were giving, they gave more. If they could keep it a secret, they gave fewer. Basically, the kids were nicer if their actions were in plain view—and if they got positive feedback for what they did.
That’s why we need to create public rituals of gratitude. We need kids to know we are watching, and we need to help them see how gratitude makes a difference. We need to do it until being grateful solidly takes root.
The public rituals of gratitude don’t have to be a big deal—and they can be fun. That’s the elegance of Dr. Swanson’s BPOD idea. James suggests in his blog that every night you write down (with kids, perhaps just talk about) all the events that created positive emotions, either in you or people around you.
We used to do this in our family. For years and years, we did nighttime prayers with our various children as they grew. We’d lie on the floor or climb in bed with them and always start with “thank-yous”: we’d say what we were grateful for that day (followed by asking God to take care of particular people and help us with particular things, and then followed by my slightly off-key rendering of Gershwin’s “Summertime”.)
Nighttime prayers have become less frequent these days, as everyone has gotten older and we’ve gotten busier and it’s easier just to send the little ones off to sleep with a kiss…but as I’ve been thinking more about gratitude, I’ve been thinking that it’s a ritual I want to put back in place again. I want to be sure saying thank-you is part of our day, every single day. It may be one of the best things I can do as a parent—and for myself.