Maggie: One of my friends asked me what she should do to become more patient.
John: The first step in the process of developing a virtue is asking questions about yourself, especially your strengths and weaknesses in relation to that virtue. So we can’t really help your friend, since she is not here to answer these questions. Instead, why don’t we focus on you and discuss the process in connection with a virtue you want to develop.
Maggie: Sometimes I am embarrassed by these discussions when they focus on me. Can we talk about you instead. I am sure I can learn the process from hearing your answers.
John: I understand your embarrassment. It’s hard to open up in a public forum, especially for intensely private people like us. But for the sake of learning, let’s see what we can do. You will need to take my place and ask some of the questions. Can you do that?
Maggie: Sure. Let’s start with a virtue you had to work hard at to develop. Do you have a good one to discuss?
John: Yes I do. It’s gratitude. I have spent more years working on this virtue than any other virtue.
Maggie: Why did you spend so much time on it?
John: Because I believe that gratitude leads to happiness. If we would learn to be thankful for the people and things we have in our lives, we would be much happier. And I don’t mean just the big things, like our jobs and cars and vacations. We need to be grateful for the little things also, like a text from a daughter, or the first cup of coffee in the morning, or the sun on our shoulders, or a simple greeting from a co-worker. When these things make us grateful, we will truly find happiness.
Maggie: Do you think you were ungrateful before you started working on this virtue?
John: No, I don’t think I was explicitly ungrateful. It is more like I simply took things for granted. I didn’t fully recognize the many gestures of others that positively impacted me, I just accepted them and moved on. It was a bad habit. But once I started to pay attention to the importance of being thankful for these things, I started to see their many contributions. And once I started to recognize these contributions, my gratitude grew and my happiness grew.
Maggie: How did you begin the process of developing gratitude?
John: First, I reflected on the nature of gratitude. It is a mean (or mid-point) between ungratefulness (the deficiency of gratitude) and being ingratiating (an excess of gratitude, also known as sucking up). I leaned more towards the deficiency, so I decided to take actions to develop more gratitude.
Second, I reflected on why I was not grateful. And like I said, I think it was because I simply took people and things for granted. I didn’t pause to see or appreciate the many things people did for me on a daily basis, both big and small.
Third, I decided I wanted to do something overt to help develop the virtue. I didn’t want to just be grateful internally, I wanted to express my gratitude to others. I thought by doing so, I could perhaps bring a little bit of joy to their lives also.
Maggie: So what did you do to start expressing your gratitude?
John: Well, as you know, I bought boxes of cards, many, many boxes of cards. I purchased both thankyou cards and blank cards, and I started sending them out to people. It was uncomfortable at first, very uncomfortable. I worried that people would think I was peculiar when they received a thankyou card from me. But it got easier as time went on, and I eventually found out that I was worrying about nothing. Most of the people appreciated getting the cards.
Maggie: Did you just randomly send cards, or did you follow a program?
John: Come on, you know me. Of course I followed a program. I sent out at least one card a week letting people know that I was grateful for their contribution to my life. I sent cards to my old professors, for example, thanking them for helping me with my education, and I sent cards to old friends thanking them for their friendship. I also tried to give one card a week to someone I interacted with on any given day thanking him or her for making my day a little bit better. It became easier and less embarrassing as the first year progressed, and sometime during the second year it became a habit. And an interesting thing also happened along the way: somewhere during the process I started to recognize the many things people were doing for me every single day. I became grateful for these gestures and grateful that I have so many wonderful people in my life.
Maggie: Why did you send cards? Why not just send an email?
John: Email seems depersonalized to me, kind of soulless. Sending a card takes a little bit of thought and effort. I think people understand this and appreciate the time put into sending a card. In addition, I think people like getting mail, especially when it is not a bill to be paid.
Maggie: Do you still send out cards?
John: Yes, it makes me happy to do so. And here is something interesting, I now occasionally get cards back from people thanking me for one thing or another. That makes me happy too.
Maggie: Do you have any other thoughts on developing gratitude?
John: There are many different ways to develop a virtue like gratitude. Sending cards is the way that worked for me. Each person needs to figure out the ways and means that work best for him or her, which may be different. The important thing is that we engage in the process of developing virtues, because, in doing so, we will become happier.
Maggie: Okay, I think I understand the process for gratitude. Next time, let’s talk about the virtue you are working on this year.