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Gratitude: your way of life!

Few months back I received a letter by post (yes you read it right, not an e-mail, but one that was actually hand-written and sent by post), one that made me feel very happy and definitely made a very meaningful difference in my life. The best part is, it came from someone who I had met just once prior to that day and one who is half my age.

Until then I, like many of us am sure, had heard others talk about gratitude and also had read about it. But then was not sure what it really meant, or what kind of emotions it would instil in me. This letter from this young chap taught me way more things than what any college curriculum or best selling book ever did. I still am not sure what made this chap write all what he had written to me in that letter. But while reading that letter I realized that it was a very genuine one, and that he meant every word of what he had written. So then I realized that if, with that minimal acquaintance, I was able to instil in him whatever little of that emotion, then I am sure I would have felt the same about so many people around me, in the last so many years of my life.

This got me thinking and I re-read that letter multiple times. The more I read it the more I understood what gratitude really meant. I realized that gratitude is an emotion expressing an appreciation for what one has/receives, as opposed to what one wants. Hmm, looks straight out of a dictionary. I realized, again thanks to that letter, that if I want that word to make a meaningful difference to my life, I need to practically do it, that is, actually express an appreciation to someone for something that I had received in my life from that person. Ok, sounded very interesting. Now the question was, how do I actually go about doing it?

I decided to do a simple exercise. To write my first letter of gratitude, to show my appreciation for someone who had made a meaningful difference in my life. I reminisced the last few months of my life and identified someone who had done and said things (tangible and otherwise) that had made a difference in my life. Soon I realized that it can be anyone, a relative, colleague, significant other or friend (it could also be someone who you might have met just once, but if you are just attempting your first letter of gratitude I would strongly suggest someone who you know well). UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s step-by-step guide helped me write my first gratitude letter. I am pasting those steps below: (source:https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/gratitude_letter)

How to write a letter of gratitude?

  • Write as though you are addressing this person directly, ie. “Dear ______.”
  • Don’t worry about perfect grammar or spelling.
  • Describe in specific terms what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person’s behavior affected your life. Try to be as concrete as possible.
  • Describe what you are doing in your life now and how you often remember his or her efforts.
  • Try to keep your letter to roughly one page (approximately 300 words).

    Next, you should try to deliver your letter in person, if at all possible. To do this, consider the following steps:

  • Plan a visit with the recipient. Let that person know you’d like to see him or her and have something special to share, but don’t reveal the exact purpose of the meeting.
  • When you meet, let the person know that you are grateful to them and would like to read a letter expressing your gratitude. Ask that he or she refrain from interrupting until you’re done.
  • Take your time reading the letter. While you read, pay attention to his or her reaction as well as your own.
  • After you have read the letter, be receptive to his or her reaction and discuss your feelings together.
  • Remember to give the letter to the person when you leave.

As much as I wanted to deliver my letter in person, due to the current pandemic situation that the whole world is going through, I had do this via a video chat. The emotion that I experienced was beyond words. What I realized was that as much as it was not easy to start practicing gratitude by looking into one’s own deeds and the good things in one’s own life, it can be very easily done by identifying the good in others. Writing a letter of gratitude to someone who made a difference in your life will bring out the strongest positive emotions within you and also in the person to whom you are writing. Robert Emmons once said that people are more likely to feel grateful when they put their focus on others. Empathy for others can trigger a sense of gratitude, and people who have an outward focus tend to experience stronger benefits.

Now, you may be wondering what is the difference between being grateful (writing a letter of gratitude) and being thankful (writing a thank you note). At least I did. Though all of us tend to use both these words interchangeably, there is a thin line that demarcates the two. You are grateful to someone when you have been affected by what that person has said or done. Being grateful is about appreciating what one has, as opposed to what one wants. Being thankful or thanking someone, on the contrary, often implies that you are acknowledging your thanks for something that someone has given/done for you. To give you some real-life examples, you are usually thankful to someone who holds open a door for you when you walk into a restaurant or to someone who stops his car to let you cross the road. You are grateful to a mentor of yours who has guided you through your days in college, or your initial days at work, etc. Thankfulness usually lasts for only few moments, while gratitude is something that you feel at a much deeper level, grows in you over time and hence lasts for a much longer period of time, in many cases for your whole life.

Gratitude, apart from the very important benefit of keeping you happy for a longer period of time, comes with its own health benefits. It relieves you from stress and depression. Gratitude helps you with your sleep. It improves your social relationship index and makes you more patient. Few things that you can build into your regular routine in life are:

  • Every day express aloud gratitude to three people. This can be a fun activity to do with your kids, maybe.
  • It has been proven by various studies that keeping a gratitude journal brings in lot of positivity into your life.
  • Say thanks to your spouse/partner.
  • Send out at least one gratitude message per day.
  • Look outward, not inward — it is always easier to identify the good in others.
  • Last, but definitely not least, thank yourself.

Remember that the key to gratefulness is simple — it’s practice. The more you integrate gratefulness into your life, the easier and more routine it will become. It won’t take long for you to notice a change in yourself and others.

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