Training for Thankfulness

Written by: Christopher Sell

Primary Source: The Wednesday Wake Up

writing

If you weren’t aware, I’m a bit of a freak when it comes to the holidays.

In the Book of Chris, Christmas music plays through the loud speakers starting November 1st. Mashed potatoes have to be served at Thanksgiving. Staple guns are meant for nailing outdoor lights that twinkle in the night to the aged aluminum siding on your house. And yes, since you asked, that is a motorized reindeer with blue LED lights in my front yard.

I’m that guy.

To listen to an audio version of this post, click here: Training for Thankfulness.

I’m not quite sure where my obsession with the holiday season came from. It’s probably part nurture, part nature. My parents were inherently happy to populate our home with holiday decorations, and they certainly nurtured my innate desire to emulate their spirit. As a toddler I vividly remember lighting gingerbread-scented candles and playing Johnny Mathis’ Christmas album in the living room while I helped my sister and parents ensure all the ornaments were in the right place on the Christmas tree. And I wasn’t unlike most kids my age — at least those who celebrated Christian traditions like Christmas — who grew up with unbridled enthusiasm for getting presents on the morning of December 25th.

As I’ve gotten older, however, my perspective (thankfully) has shifted a bit. I still obsess over “tasteful” decor, candles with the Fresh Balsam scent, and finding the newest holiday album for my iTunes playlist. But I’m not overly concerned about getting anything anymore.

I’m more concerned about giving.

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In the last few weeks, as Thanksgiving neared, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about giving thanks. I chewed on all sorts of questions.

What does it mean to be thankful?

How do we express it? 

Is it a state of mind, a gesture, or a philosophy?

I started to wonder if thankfulness is a skill can that can be improved, and if so, how I could go about making progress toward that end.

You see, I haven’t always been very good at being thankful. In fact, during different periods of my life, I’ve felt like I’d been dealt the short end of the stick in life, that my circumstances were more difficult than others’. As a result, I wasn’t as thankful as I could have been. I’ve frequently felt guilty about it.

Sometimes I surmised that my aptitude for being thankful was capped because friends had more money, more stuff, more influence, more excitement, more adventure and more popularity than I did. I’d get caught up (and still do) in what everyone else is doing that I’m not. Facebook and Instagram are pretty good our notion of apathy-turned-resentment. You know, that feeling that we’re not living up to what we’re “supposed” to be doing, which subsequently prompts us to eat a dozen morsels from Insomnia Cookies while watching reruns of “Property Brothers” and cursing all the happy couples who have an extra half million lying around.

Yeah, that feeling.

Paul Angone from AllGroanUp.com refers to this as OCD or “Obsessive Comparison Disorder” — the new disease for Generation Y.

But I’m learning to deal with my tendency to compare myself to others. The most effective strategy? Being intentional about giving thanks.

It turns out that gratitude trumps greed.

Ironically, my ability to feel thankful now doesn’t come from improved circumstances. In fact, if anything, I have less money (those darn student loans), less stuff, and less popularity than I did when I was a wide-eyed undergraduate gangster living the college dream with little responsibilities to anyone or anything other than myself.

One major thing that has changed?

I’ve learned that gratitude isn’t dependent on my circumstances.

Gratitude is like a muscle, and the more I learn to flex it and to exercise it, the stronger it becomes, the more gratitude I feel, and the deeper that gratitude reaches, even when my circumstances don’t warrant it.

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A few months ago, I started an exercise in gratitude. My plan was to pull out a piece of stationary and physically write a Thank You card to someone else every Friday morning. The cards would be brief, concise, and to the point. I saw this as an effective and structured way of expressing thanks to others who had done exemplary things for me — big or small — in the previous days or weeks. I had hoped that my lesson in intentional thankfulness would train my brain to start thinking within a more gratitude-leaning context more frequently.

My plan turned out to be harder to execute that I had originally imagined. Each week I’d sit at my office desk on a Friday morning to pen a few musings of thanks toward someone else. And I’d struggle to come up with someone to thank. Even when I’d finally think of someone worthy of my snail mail stationary, I’d struggle to come up with the words. It was a slow and painful process, like trying to run through a field of molasses.

Trying to identify, on a weekly basis, acts of kindness bestowed upon me was pretty difficult. Not because I hadn’t been around kind and generous people. Rather, it was because I wasn’t used to operating in a thanks-giving mindset.

But slowly but surely, week after week, my exercise in appreciation got better. It became easier to identify note card recipients, and it took less time to pinpoint the right words.

I was getting better at being thankful. 

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I don’t have any surveys or scientific data to back up my claim, but I’m pretty positive that I’m training my mind to be more thankful.

I’ve discovered that when I focus on giving thanks to others I end up worrying less about me in comparison to others. Expressing thanks helps me foster a grateful state of mind.

And paying attention to the small reasons to be grateful in my life, even when they might feel minuscule or unimportant, usually, after awhile, they add up to something big. Slowly, but surely, I’m flexing my gratitude muscle. And it’s working.

So on this Wednesday morning, as you wake up thinking about holidays and presents and the “25 Days of Christmas” on the ABC Family channel, I’d encourage you to think about the underlying current of the season and what it means to you. Consider taking advantage of opportunities to give thanks, express gratitude, and pay it forward.

Besides, motorized reindeer, presents, and reruns of Elf tend to bring happiness for a season.

But learning to be thankful can last indefinitely.

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My name is Christopher Sell and I'm an educator in higher education. At my core, I'm passionate about creating synergy and connecting people to opportunity. I place tremendous focus on collaboration, strategic planning, forward-thinking, and teamwork in any professional environment. As an alumnus of Western Michigan University (WMU) and Michigan State University (MSU), I'm equally committed to leveraging relationships with industry and students/graduates to retain & attract talent in the state of Michigan and contribute to the economic revitalization of the "Mitten State" that I love so much. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of the Pure Michigan campaign.

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