If someone gives you a present this holiday season (or any other time, of course), you will say “thank you.” It’s ingrained in most of us, after all – but are you just saying it because it’s a non-optional social convention? Being honest, most of us have received a gift that we didn’t like or understand. It’s hard to be really grateful when you have no idea why the person would choose that gift. I realize “it’s the thought that counts” but still… Life is that way: you can choose to fully enjoy the gifts of your life while still working to improve yourself, or spend your time wondering why things happen to you and wishing it were different.

Don’t worry, this isn’t another screed on “be happy because there are always those who have it worse” – although that is true. However bad your situation may feel, I can almost guarantee someone has it worse. We know this, of course, but knowing this and acting like we aren’t the center of the universe are two different things.

Get Over Yourself

Understanding that not everything is (or has to be) about you is actually very freeing. Humans are selfish by nature. It’s a survival instinct – your brain protects your body – but most of us are not in fight or flight situations every day. Instead our brains like to turn any situation around into a personal issue. The key lies in recognizing the line between self-care – making decisions that are the best choice for you – and selfishness – making it all about you. Setting aside the selfish response of “what about me” and helping another is the first step of getting past that.

Maybe that’s why we hear stories about people surviving serious illness or near death experience and looking at life differently. After beating the odds, you are bound to look at daily annoyances in a new light. For example, why stress about spilling some wine (or more likely in my case, vodka) when you’ve made it through a real danger. Clean up the mess with whatever you have handy, and move on.

Gratitude is bound to come easier for those folks – created by the knowledge they might never have taken another breath. They savor each day, each moment – now that is truly living. The rest of us should take a hint here. We can stress over daily drama – or get over ourselves, take ownership and live our best lives.

Change Their Expectations

Watching The Boy interact with his friends, I realize that a lot of the same stupid things we used to do and say are still part of junior high life – Flinch, for example. You pretend to throw something at the other person; if they react you punch them in the arm while gleefully shouting “two for flinching!” Brilliant game, right?

That flinch is an instinctive reaction and formed by expectation. Often rescue animals from abusive homes will react to a quick movement by cowering, even when they’ve been in their new loving home for years. People are no different; we have physical and emotional reactions based on how we’ve been treated. If you are used to being an afterthought, it can be hard to overcome when a new person acts against what you expect.

Having no or low expectations means even something we think of as minor or unimportant can be really moving. The simple act of receiving a gift, for example, can be an event. Those people deserve to be treated with kindness and respect – the ones who are truly grateful for even the smallest courtesies.

Adjusting their expectations will take time, especially if they are deeply ingrained. The payoff, though, is huge. You can change their life, and at the same stroke your own as you recognize what true gratitude looks and feels like. It will help you value the good in your life and recognize “the thought that counts” – not things or money or status, but people who care about you, and you about them.

Cover Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash