Gratitude in the Lean Times

There is a reason we say grace before the meal, not after.
Gratitude in the Lean Times
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Tell me this hasn't happened to you: family and friends gather around an enormous table decked out with the season's best fare. Somebody clears their throat and says, "I thought we should take some time to go around and say what we're thankful for." At that moment your mind goes blank while you scramble to think of something—anything—for which you are truly grateful without sounding like the greeting card you just picked up for Aunt Millie.

Moments like this challenge even the most cheerful.

Among the great ironies of life is that just when our gratitude is at its lowest, we are required to give thanks. And just when we feel the least charitable, we are required to wrap and distribute presents. Too often Thanksgiving feels less like we're "giving" thanks, and more like we're "paying" it when we didn't have it to begin with. And Christmas sometimes feels less like giving joyfully and more like culturally required debt enhancement.

All of us eventually go through seasons of unhappiness, sorrow, and even despair. It's impossible to be thankful, cheerful, and charitable all the time, and these times of emotional and spiritual emptiness come on us all. They can be as brief as a few moments or as enduring as decades—or even a lifetime—and each Thanksgiving or Christmas presents fresh challenges to personal joy during "the most wonderful time of the year."

The stresses certainly are enormous: the costs of travel, food preparation, and Christmas gift-giving can break a family's bank; few things can push one to the brink like dealing peaceably with difficult and irascible family members; and those with physical, spiritual, and emotional health problems can feel painfully alone, isolated, and misunderstood while all the celebrations are going on around them.

But that doesn't have to be the case.

In a New York Times Letter to the Editor, psychiatrist Sheldon Cholst, M.D., wrote that unhappiness is best described as those symptoms which occur "when expectations are not met." Indeed, most unhappiness seems to grow out of some essential form of unmet expectation. Dennis Prager, author of Happiness Is a Serious Problem, lists three: comparing ourselves to others, striving for images of perfection, and the "missing tile" syndrome.

Comparing Ourselves to Others
My family went through a recent year-and-a-half long bout with unemployment. During those long, long months, I frequently struggled with the temptation to become bitter and unthankful because my friends, and even strangers that I'd met, all had steady, reliable jobs, were able to make rent, and even had the luxury of buying nice things now and then. Meanwhile, we ate macaroni-and-cheese and scrambled to keep our heat going. The temptation to compare my situation to that of others was ever-present and alluring. But such comparisons (even when they seem most legitimate) make us even unhappier because this is the mother of jealousy. And jealousy never has its fill.

Once we begin comparing ourselves to others this way, no improvement in our circumstances will satisfy the green fire of jealousy. And if your circumstances don't change—or get worse—bitterness flares so much brighter it may never be extinguished. We begin to suffer from the myopia of the afflicted: everybody seems so much better off that our own circumstances seem perversely unfair. But even dramatic success and improvement doesn't guarantee the elimination of unhappiness.

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