For Thanksgiving: A Practice Of Gratitude

Do you ever wake up in the morning feeling worried? Wondering what could go wrong? Depressed about your life? For years I woke up with some worry that I had been ruminating about in my sleep or in those half-conscious hours before I was completely awake.

Here is a practice I started several years ago that dissipated those worries.  Each morning I take five minutes before rising to list all the things I am grateful for in my life: good health, my wife Penny, two sons with strong marriages to amazing women, four wonderful grandchildren, opportunities to work with great teachers and students at Harvard Business School, chances to help leaders become authentic and perform their best, and the potential to make a difference in the world.

I find that this simple practice energizes me for the day ahead. It enables me to approach each day with joy and a positive attitude, and keeps me from worrying about what could go wrong. Rather than thinking about the latter, I have adopted the philosophy that “I will cross that bridge when I come to it,” feeling confident that I can find a positive way through, even in the worst of circumstances. And I can also help others find positive approaches to the difficulties and challenges they face.

In the evening, prior to going to sleep at night, I also conclude the day with prayers of gratitude. These positive approaches are a response to my own life experiences – having faced the sudden deaths of loved ones, disappointments at work, rejection from others, and hearing the life stories of many people who have faced far greater challenges and difficulties than I have. The longer I live, the more I feel deeply blessed.

I have learned the hard way that life is not always fair, and that good things don’t always happen to good people. For example, in my mid-twenties I experienced the deaths of both my mother and my fiancée just eighteen months apart. As painful as these deaths were, they helped me to appreciate the impermanence of life and the need to cherish each day the time we have with our loved ones. As a result, I treasure the great love of my life, my wife Penny, and relish each minute we have together.

Simply acknowledging that unfair things and unexpected difficulties can happen at any time enables me to accept these things when they occur.  This acceptance can then give way to learning from these experiences, a process in which pain is transformed into wisdom and ultimately serenity – qualities that have helped me to live a fuller life and do more to help others.

In my teens, I faced rejection after losing seven elections in a row. As an adult in my mid-forties, I lost my way in my career. When I look back, these hardships and disappointments laid a foundation for a more mature understanding of myself. They also enabled me to empathize with others facing difficulties.

I also recognize that the difficulties I may be facing at any point in my life pale by comparison with what others have gone through and how they emerged to achieve great things in the world. On our 50th anniversary trip in August, our whole family visited Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a small jail cell for a crime he did not commit. In emerging from this terrible ordeal, he had the courage to transform South Africa into “a united, democratic and non-racial South Africa.” His example along with those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy – along with modern day leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Merck’s Ken Frazier, PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, and Unilever’s Paul Polman – shows that great accomplishments often result from challenges faced earlier in life. Ironically such challenges often create gratitude in leaders for the opportunities they do have, and they forge the moral force of character to pursue their beliefs in the face of opposition.

As you approach this Thanksgiving, take a few minutes to appreciate all the things in your life for which you can be grateful. Then, commit to yourself to use your gratitude and your opportunities to make this world a better place to live in. You will find that gratitude centers you. It also emboldens you to face any challenge with courage and perseverance.