Gratitude

A white belt student asked to speak to me after class one evening. Owen was an unusually articulate adolescent with a bearish build. The only child of a single mother, he seemed eager for a male role model. We sat in my office, and he described some recent conflicts at home and at school. The common theme was his frustration with the behavior of others. I reminded him that he couldn’t control other people, and we talked about how he could have dealt differently with the conflicts. As he stood up to leave, his large arms suddenly enveloped me in an embrace. “Thank you,” he said.

As a martial arts instructor, I have had many conversations like the one with Owen. Adults and children alike commonly confide in me. Many of my students have come from single-parent homes, and more than one concerned mother has apologetically asked me to act as a father figure for her child. So my talk with Owen was unremarkable and would not by itself have lingered much in my memory. What made our exchange meaningful to me was not the content of our conversation but Owen’s unexpected expression of gratitude.

Gratitude as a Gift
We normally think of gratitude as reciprocity: You did something for me, so I owe you my gratitude. But saying “thank you” can be more than a polite recognition of someone’s generosity. Gratitude can itself be a gift. Often when we do something for others, we have no way of knowing how much they value the favor. And many times, it means more to them than it does to us. So when they express their gratitude, they are not merely recognizing what we both already know. They are making us aware of just how valuable our gift to them was.

I knew that I was doing a nice thing by sitting and talking with Owen. But until he impulsively hugged me, I had no idea quite how nice my actions had been in Owen’s eyes. Learning how much the conversation meant to him made it more meaningful to me, as well. His gratitude, then, was more than a reward for my sympathy. It was in itself a favor to me, because it made me feel even better about what I had done for him.

Imagine you buy a raffle ticket and win two tickets to a rock concert. You are not particularly passionate about the band, and in any event, you are busy that evening. You didn’t spend much on the raffle ticket and didn’t expect to win anything, so it doesn’t hurt you to part with the concert tickets. You offer them to a friend. Now imagine three possible responses:

  1. “Sure.”
  2. “Thanks. That’ll be great.”
  3. “Wow, that’s our anniversary and my wife loves that band. She’ll be so excited. Thank you!”

The first response obviously is the least gratifying for you, because it’s not apparent that your gift even means as much to your friend as it does to you. The second response is nice, but it is mere reciprocity: Your friend is acknowledging that you have done something for him.

Maybe it doesn’t matter to you whether you get the first response or the second: Since the joy for you was in the giving itself, you may feel you need no validation from your friend. Nonetheless, upon hearing nothing more than “Sure,” you quite understandably might have wondered if your friend is happy with the gift. And if making your friend happy brings you pleasure, then giving might bring you less joy if it doesn’t seem to bring him any.

The third response, though, is itself a gift. It makes you aware that what you have done is much more valuable than you realized. Your friend’s gratitude has made your decision to give him the tickets much more satisfying and meaningful to you.

Gratitude as Conditioning
Gratitude also reinforces positive behavior. It is therefore a helpful tool for anyone in a leadership position, at work or elsewhere. This notion has its roots in behavioral psychology. The basic idea is fairly simple: If you are rewarded for a particular act, you will be more likely to repeat that act. (The converse, though, is not necessarily true. B.F. Skinner, an early behavioral psychologist, argued that punishment does not always reduce the frequency of the punished behavior.)

When I am teaching children, I use gratitude as a reward for good behavior. My Tiny Tigers program, for instance, includes many children who are only three or four years old. Many of them have an extraordinarily difficult time sitting quietly for more than a few seconds. When I notice this problem arising, I often will say nothing to the disruptive students. Instead, I will turn to a more controlled child and say, “Dominic, thank you for sitting so quietly.” Instantly, the rest of the class is still and silent. Everyone else wants that recognition. And Dominic is sure to repeat his good behavior, too. On the other hand, if my only response had been to chastise the misbehaving children, they might have complied for a short time before once again becoming noisy. And Dominic might have learned that the way to get attention was to be disruptive like the others, making him less likely to continue acting as a role model for the rest of the class.

This principle is not limited to preschool children. I am fortunate to have several dedicated students in my Leadership Program who routinely exceed my expectations. Not only do they assist with class instruction and set positive examples when in class. They also stay after class to clean the floors or to work with lower-ranked students. They talk to parents and encourage them to enroll their children in Black Belt Club. When prospective students walk in the door, they greet them and politely answer their questions. They do this without being asked (and without being paid). During a particularly hot summer, one trainee instructor even came into the school one weekend without my knowledge and installed ceiling fans.

This behavior has many motivations. The students like the dojahng. They enjoy taking on leadership responsibilities. They feel it is their obligation to assist their instructor. But I doubt those motivations are enough. If their efforts went unnoticed, I wonder how long they would persist. Presumably they would begin to feel unappreciated, and their enthusiasm would wane. So I try never to take their help for granted. I am meticulous about thanking for their work. And I believe my gratitude is one reason for their continued commitment to the school.

Gratitude as Attitude
Gratitude also can transform a half-empty glass into a half-full one. It can help you to appreciate experiences that initially seem regrettable. For example, you would not normally consider it a good thing to be kicked in the head. When that happens during sparring practice, though, the student who has been kicked often will say to the kicker, “Thank you, Sir.” As I suggested in Chapter Two, this is in part a gesture of respect. But it also recognizes that the kick to the head taught a valuable lesson: Keep your hands up. By exploiting this defensive vulnerability, the kicker has helped his partner to become a better fighter. Viewed in this light, the defender’s gratitude is understandable.

Gratitude, then, reflects your attitude: Do you see the kick to the head as a frustrating failure to defend yourself, or as an opportunity to improve your skills?

Nearly thirty years ago, my parents befriended a family whose grateful attitude I still remember. We had recently adopted my older brother, Michael, from Cambodia. Under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, Michael’s family had perished. Michael had survived on his own before arriving in his early teens at a refugee camp. After adopting him, my parents sought other Cambodian immigrants who might form a community for Michael.

We met a family who had recently arrived in the United States, having endured many of the same traumas as Michael had done. Over the next couple of years, we had many dinners at their cramped apartment in Albuquerque. For Christmas, my parents gave them our old Volkswagon Beetle. Their children were the playmates of my siblings and me. And when one of the women in the family became pregnant, my father was her doctor.

My father is a family physician who has delivered thousands of babies. Occasionally, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, complications develop during childbirth. Sometimes the baby is born with a medical problem or the mother suffers severe tearing that causes extreme pain long after the delivery. Most Americans, though, expect things to turn out well for them. They expect a trouble-free delivery. If something goes wrong, then someone is to blame. And so, difficult deliveries often produce lawsuits (which make malpractice premiums skyrocket and discourage many doctors from going into obstretics).

Our Cambodian friend’s childbirth was especially difficult. I was too young to know the details, but I was aware that she and her baby nearly died. In the end, though, both mother and child were fine. And if they had been the typical American family, that might have been the end of things. The happy outcome would have been precisely what they expected. Anything less would have caused them to call a lawyer.

But this family was deeply grateful. For the next few years, whenever the baby’s birthday approached, my father would receive a letter from the family, thanking him for what he had done. As soon as the child himself was old enough to write, he began to send my dad annual cards saying, “Thank you for saving my life.” To that boy and his family, the birth of a healthy baby was not simply a normal outcome. It was a gift, and they appreciated it.

The happiest people sometimes seem to be the ones with the least to be thankful for. They are happy, I think, because they manage to find silver linings around the darkest clouds. This grateful attitude enables them to appreciate the positive parts of their lives and to overcome the negative experiences.

A few years ago, one of my students literally dropped dead during class. He was 53 years old and had begun training with me in order to lose weight. Dangerously obese, he had already had two heart attacks. When he first enrolled, he found it impossible to get through the class without frequent breaks. Even after a few minutes of static stretching, a puddle of sweat would form at his feet.

Over the next few months, his stamina improved. Soon he could get through the entire class without a rest. He stretched regularly and gained flexibility. He lost weight. But it was too late. During class one day, I watched him perform a one-step sparring sequence. I then turned to observe another student and heard his voice behind me: “Excuse me, sir.” When I turned around, he fell to the floor. Within seconds, he was dead.

It fell to me to notify his family. He was single and childless, so I called his sister. As I dialed her number, I tried to imagine how she would respond. I anticipated her pain and anguish. And I worried that she would blame me. I even allowed myself a moment of relief that he had signed a carefully-written liability waiver upon enrolling.

Her response surprised me. “We knew it was a matter of time,” she said. “His heart was so weak already.” She added sympathetically, “It must have been really hard for you to see it.” And then the gratitude: “Thank you for everything you did for him. I’m just glad he died doing something he loved.”

Other family members repeated that sentiment when I attended a memorial service for him and presented him posthumously with an honorary black belt. They were grateful for my presence, grateful that he had been able to take my classes, grateful that he had died doing an activity that meant so much to him. The memorial became an occasion to celebrate his life, rather than mourning his death. And his family’s grateful attitude made the difference.

Gratitude as Awareness
One reason that gratitude can affect your outlook is that it heightens your awareness of the good things in your life. This is true whether you are the giver of thanks or the recipient. Being thanked makes you happier, and so does being thankful.

At my dojahng’s holiday party one year, a parent approached me as I stood at the edge of the mat watching the kids play and eat cake. Her two sons had been training with me for three years. Earlier that evening, I had awarded them their first degree black belts during a traditional candle ceremony. The boys were two years apart in age, and both were in my Leadership Program. The older one, whom I’ll call Ethan, had an eye for detail and was always eager to notify me if a lightbulb needed changing, or if anything else was amiss in the school. He loved being in control, and was quick to ask if he could lead warm-up exercises at the beginning of class. The younger one (I’ll call him Dan) was physically confident but quieter than Ethan. Dan could smash boards with ease at the age of eight. But although he and his brother were the same belt, Dan always allowed Ethan to stand ahead of him when the class lined up by rank.

What Dan and Ethan’s mother told me at the holiday party was this: Ethan had not wanted to join Taekwondo in the beginning. He had only come along because his younger brother was doing it. He had some speech problems, which made him self-conscious about talking in public. She thanked me for Ethan’s growing self-confidence and his ability to take on leadership roles in the dojahng.

Having known both boys for several years, I had observed their development. So it was not a complete surprise to hear their mother say that Ethan had become more confident. But her gratitude affected my awareness: It focused my attention on Ethan’s growth and enabled me to fully appreciate how he had changed. Since then, I have taken an even greater pleasure than before in teaching Ethan. And I have enjoyed teaching all of my students more than ever, because I have been more attuned to the small changes in them.

The general point of what I’m saying may be obvious: It feels good to be thanked. Less obvious--but equally true--is that it feels good to be thankful. “Positive psychologists” study what makes people happy. And one of the tools they have identified is a gratitude journal.

A gratitude journal is like a diary, but instead of recording your daily experiences you write down the things that make you feel grateful. In one study, it took only six weeks for the people who kept gratitude journals to feel significantly more satisfied with their lives. Amazingly, gratitude journals also can improve your health and boost your energy levels, according to research by Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis.

At first, keeping a gratitude journal may sound like a strange exercise. Surely, you may think, after a day or two you would run out of things to write in it. And on the first day, you might only record the things you already appreciate: your health, your family, the weather. But with practice, you begin to notice things that you didn’t previously appreciate. You become highly attuned to the minutiae of each moment. Little details gain significance: The crispness of the city sunlight as it strikes the downtown buildings. The feel of eucalyptus leaves crunching beneath your feet on a walk through the park. The way dozens of kites dance through the air at the beach on a windy day. You stop focusing on the things you want but don’t yet have, and begin to fully enjoy your life as it is right now.

© 2008 Jordan Schreiber