Friday, April 4, 2014

Gratitude: Little Things with Big Results

One night, before I went to bed, I knelt to offer a personal prayer to God as I usually do to end the day. I was tired, and the day had been frustrating. I was ready to tell God about all the bad things that had happened to me that day, and ask Him for strength to overcome my challenges the next day. Just as I was about to begin my prayer though, I stopped. The thought came into my head: How would the Savior pray? Surely the Lord, whose every act called out "Not my will, but thine be done", would not even think of complaining to the Father.

What can I pray about, then? I asked myself. I was answered by a memory of something that another missionary shared with me. He had shared that every once in a while, it is beneficial to try to pray only in gratitude, to not ask for a single thing. So I decided to try it.

"Dear Heavenly Father," I began, "Thank you for the wonderful day that I had and the opportunities you placed before me. Thank you for the snow that we've received. Thank you that we were safe as we went through our day and that we were able to complete everything that we needed to accomplish. Thank you for my companion, for his spirituality and ability to influence those around him for good. Thank you for putting me here in this part of the world..."

It did not take long for my attitude to change. It is obvious that our thoughts direct our actions, but I'm amazed at how the reverse is sometimes true. By challenging myself to be more grateful in my prayers, I was able to change not just my words, but my way of thinking.

If I had said the prayer I originally intended to say, I would have ended the night frustrated, fatigued, and bitter. Instead, by assuming an "attitude of gratitude", I was able to fall asleep peaceful, happy, and content. It set the right tone for my next day and made a lasting impact on my effectiveness - and satisfaction - as a missionary!

What is it that makes gratitude so important? Why can such a simple thing make such a big difference in our life? While I don't have a full answer, I think that PART of the answer is that gratitude influences the way we view the world around us.

In the New Testament, the Apostle James teaches us how small things can make a big difference in our lives. While he was talking specifically about the way we speak, I think his words can apply to gratitude as well:

Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.
Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.

So how does gratitude "turn about" our view of the world? Here are a few ways:

Increases our Charity:

Charity is defined as "the pure love of Christ" (Moroni 7:47). To many people, charity is simply money that we give to the needy. It can be so much more than that! It is something we feel towards the people around us that is manifest in the things we do and the words we say. 

When we go out of our way to be grateful, and EXPRESS that gratitude, it helps us appreciate others more, and can improve our relationships with those we care about. When we try to be grateful towards God, we begin to view the people around us as blessings, rather than burdens, and our actions towards them will change accordingly.

Decreases our Pride:

When I say pride, I don't mean school spirit or our loyalty to your government. I mean the feeling that we are better than others, that we don't need help, or even that we don't have to listen to God. It is the pride spoken of in the scriptures that led people to ignore the prophets and often resulted in complete destruction.

Gratitude helps strip us of pride. It takes us out of the "me" mindset, and helps us reject the notion that we deserve more, that we're held back by our circumstances. It allows us to humbly thank God for the blessings we do have, instead of demanding more. It can also help us see the good in others instead of focusing on the bad and trying to elevate ourselves.

Builds Self-Esteem:

Now, some of you are probably saying "Wait! How can gratitude decrease pride and increase self-esteem? Well, hold your horses, I was getting to that.

Part of my frustration when I first began to pray in the story above was a feeling that people didn't value or appreciate me. Paradoxically, I felt worthless and undervalued at the same time - I had too much pride and a low self-esteem at the same time. However, when I began to count my blessings, I realized that even if other people didn't value me, and they did, I was still loved by God. Why else would He give me so many opportunities and blessings? As we are grateful, we begin to "collect" evidence of God's love for us, which helps us feel valued and important.

Improves Satisfaction:

In this month's Ensign, a magazine published by the LDS church, there is a wonderful article on "Lasting Happiness". It describes the way having "things" doesn't make us happy. It sites both religious doctrine and scientific studies to show that we get pleasure from the necessities of life, not from the luxuries. "Lasting happiness" is something we chose to feel, and that's what I mean by satisfaction.

When we stop looking at the things we DON'T have, we're able to spend more time appreciating the things we DO have. Looking at what we want makes us feel upset, stressed, ashamed, fearful, discouraged, and fatigued. Looking at what we have (or being grateful) makes us feel content, happy, optimistic, and just all-around good.

So, obviously being grateful has a LOT of benefits. Why is it so hard then? Well, human nature wants us to feel victimized or slighted, and it leads us to always strive for more "things". In order to step out of that mindset, we need to take a step back and count our blessings, in one way or another. Like I did, you can say a prayer of gratitude. You can also keep a notepad with you, and list the good things that happen to you each day. You can pick a person that you're close to, and list all of the things you like about them. You can even sit down and force yourself to write out 50 or 100 or 500 blessings you have in your life! Whatever the method you use, it is important to be sincere, but have fun as well! Appreciate the little things.

I know that God has blessed us with everything we have in this life, including each breath we take. He loves us so much, and the least we can do is acknowledge all that He's given us. The world is a beautiful place!

So, sit back and smell the roses. Watch the sunset. Kiss your spouse. Savor your favorite meal. Look for good in every moment, and you will find it.

Please, leave a comment and share what some of the greatest blessings are in your life!