The Gift of Gratitude

Throughout my childhood, my parents, teachers, and ministers always taught me that it was more blessed to give than to receive.  I would benefit through a generous spirit, their teaching hopefully reinforced by parental example.  And regardless of what was given, I was told, “It’s the thought that counts.”  I believed this was taught so I would appreciate every gift, especially when I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas.  My parents certainly played their parts. My mother, in retrospect, did seem more grateful than I would have expected for the two-dollar perfume I bought her and my father for the Hawaiian print tie I bought him one year.   Their thank you was a gift of gratitude.

I know now what they felt, as I feel something of the same when someone expresses gratitude for a gift or favor I’ve given them, or the opposite when someone doesn’t so much as thank me for a gift. Having said this, though, I know the purest form of the virtue is to give not expecting anything in return, even an expression of gratitude.  But I haven’t achieved that level of virtuousness yet, so gratitude is still important to me.

President Reagan’s speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, once told a story about her reaction to such an expression from the President.  She wrote many speeches for Reagan, and most of time they would come back with a lot of edits and not much else.  One day, she received a speech back with a note on the top that said, “Thanks, this is good.”  Ms. Noonan claims to have cut out the note and pinned it to her blouse for several days.  Motivational, yes; a source of positive feelings and loyalty to the President, yes; job satisfaction, yes.  The power of gratitude at work.

Some people just seem to be exceptionally good at gratitude.  They say the right things, write the perfect thank you notes, and always express their appreciation of others.  The chances are they have learned these skills, what took me several years to learn myself. 

In my twenties, I was into self-reliant masculinity, which meant I didn’t need any help from others. I could do it myself, “Thank you very much!”  I had difficulty accepting favors, gifts, and even compliments.  A typical response might be, “I can’t accept that,” or “You shouldn’t have done that for me,” or I would just flat out disagree with a personal compliment.

In hindsight, I think one of the reasons I had that attitude was my feeling that I didn’t deserve it, any of it.  But, what I didn’t appreciate was the idea that the greatest gift you can give the giver is gratitude.

John Steinbeck in "The Log from the Sea of Cortez" said this about gratitude:

“It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding.  Receiving on the other hand, if it is to be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness.  It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships.  In receiving, you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.  It requires self-esteem to receive—not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.”

When I teach a leadership course with MBA students at Houston Baptist University, I tell them that if they only remember one principle from the class, remember the power of gratitude. To reinforce this teaching, I require students to keep a leadership journal. After every journal entry they must list three things for which they are grateful.

For another assignment, I assign students a handwritten note of gratitude and a report of the results. One student wrote a note to his wife, who started crying when she read it.

Until I developed a stronger sense of my own gratitude, I exercised respect for others and humility—conceptual close cousins of gratitude—that served me well personally and professionally.

My first job after college was at Aerojet-General, where I became the shift engineer and supervised production work on Minuteman missiles. At first I knew nothing about making missiles. But as shift engineer and supervisor, I still could have acted arrogant, as if I knew more than I did.

I never did. Instead I was curious, hoping to learn from the people who knew their trade and had the wisdom of experience. I was grateful for what they could teach me. In turn, people responded with kindness and a willingness to help.

I have always admired and respected people with the skills, knowledge, and abilities I do not possess, particularly craftsmen. Maybe this was because of my father’s work as a plumber, which is, as Dad always said, “a poor man’s chemical engineer.”

Dad was extremely handy, whereas I had very little mechanical ability. My hands were not much good for anything but eating, shaking hands, and writing. This should have given me a clue that chemical engineering was probably not my destiny.

Over the years, it has become more and more evident to me that gratitude is one of the keys to a happy life.  Now, I embrace the wonderful power of gratitude. When offered with sincerity, gratitude changes my life and the lives of others in ways that bring more joy and happiness.

Doug Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Baptist University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at dbgehrman@hotmail.com.