A few years ago, a friend of mine inspired me with a daily habit of gratitude that struck me as both profound and simple. He said the first thing he focuses on when he wakes up each day are five things he’s grateful for about his life. When he goes to bed, he gives thanks for five things about his day.
Though I have no way of truly measuring such change, I believe this habit of daily gratitude, which I’ve been doing now for the last five years, has changed my life and my brain. Even now, when my husband and I are embroiled in an argument (What? The parents of a toddler fighting?) we try to pause and remember to say, ‘”Name ten things you’re grateful for right now.” We then rattle off our list—at first, peppered with sarcasm (Me: I’m grateful that you’re no longer driving like a knucklehead. Him: I’m grateful that you’re no longer giving me directions about my driving). When we finally get serious, usually by number five, a curious thing happens. We slow down. We disconnect from the emotional fire and keep another war at bay.
By the time we complete our list of gratitudes, we’re in a completely different frame of mind. This really works. We need to do it more. Along with a good therapist, gratitude might be saving our marriage.
What are You Grateful For?
I love learning what people are most grateful for and was struck recently by the guiding life principles of William (Bill) Hughes, whose essay Chocolate Milkshake was published last week on This I Believe, and reprinted here with his permission.
Bill’s essay touched me in many ways. First, because I know Bill. He’s the father of Peter Hughes, a dear friend I met many moons ago when we were young and free to ride our bicycles a hundred miles or so each weekend. The was our life B.C., before children, but it’s because of our children that Bill wrote this essay based on a tradition he shares with his grandson, Zachary, Peter’s first son.
The relevance to Thanksgiving is two-fold, not only thematically, but also historically. One of the most special ‘orphan’ Thanksgivings I have ever spent on the West Coast was with Bill and his family at their friends’ ranch, Vanumanutagi, (apparently the former estate of Robert Louise Stevenson’s widow, Fannie). I will always be grateful for the way Bill and his wife Mary welcomed me and another dear friend Amy to the table there, and in later years at their Palo Alto home. I had no idea at the time that Bill had come from such humble beginnings and the more I’ve gotten to know him, I’m reminded to give thanks for all that I have, my family, my health and my life.
One Orange and A Chocolate Milkshake
Bill Hughes was born July 23, 1928 in Lafayette, Indiana, attended Catholic grade school and high school in West Lafayette, where he was named to an All-American baseball team. He attended Purdue University, joined the Marines, then studied again at University of Kentucky.
After college, he worked for Holiday Inn, headquartered in Memphis, then was offered a job with “a fledgling hotel company in California with an unusual name, Hyatt” where he spent 15 years, ending as senior vice president. He then became president of two companies, Round Table Pizza in Palo Alto, for two years and later at Oravisual, an audio-visual manufacturing company in St. Petersburg, Florida. In 1982, he founded Snoopy’s Ice Cream and Cookie Company with Charles Schulz, the cartoonist.
Bill Hughes’ life epitomizes the great American dream. His “rags to riches” story is as rife with triumph as it is tragedy. Bill’s mother was struck and killed by a car the day she crossed the street with a bag of oranges she had just bought for him, then 12, who was in the hospital with a ruptured appendix. Natives of rural Indiana, Bill’s family was poor (so poor they could not afford proper medical treatment which lead to Bill’s appendix bursting), and the orange became a symbol. As an parent, Bill began placing a single orange in the toe of his children’s Christmas stockings to remind them of all that they have and to remember the grandmother they never knew. Now adults, they have adopted the tradition and are teaching the story to their own children. The legacy of the orange continues, along with Bill Hughes’ newest ritual of the heart.
“Chocolate Milkshake” by William Hughes, Palo Alto, California as it appears on This I Believe November 14, 2011
I read where one of the big investment houses on Wall Street handed out billions in bonuses, and one fellow treated his cohorts to $1500 bottles of pinot at one of New York’s finest restaurants. He had a good day.
Today, I had a good day! I took my three year old grandson, Zachary, to the creamery for a chocolate milkshake. As the waitress served the silver metal canister brimming with vanilla ice cream mixed with thick chocolate sauce (the preferred recipe), with a dollop of whipped cream on top, his eyes grew bigger with anticipation. At 83, the latter is something I deal in often, at the expense of reality. But the actual in this case, a chocolate milkshake in hand, is simply the best. Seeing the pleasure on his dear little face, smeared with chocolate, beats pinot every time!
The realization of how precious and fleeting times like this are, turned to sadness for me because I will not be here to see him grow up; that I will not be able to assuage his hurts, to encourage after disappointments, and to bore him with homilies from an old warrior who has seen too much of life. In the meantime, when he falls off his bike, the best I can do is pick him up, exhort him to try again, and apply a little mercurochrome to a scratch.
And when he’s a little older, I want him to know about what it was like when his “papa” was a child, to know about things that were so much a part of my life to this day. I want him to know about horse drawn milk wagons with balloon tires, quarts of glass bottled milk with three inches of cream frozen at the top (best consumed by spoon before your mother catches you), sycamore trees, burning leaves, hollyhocks,lightning bugs, street cars, 10 cent stores and small town main street.
Zachary’s growing up will be “whiz bang” faster, with technology driven in ways impossible to imagine by my generation. But I shall remember this day at the creamery and the values learned in a simpler time, values I believe transcend all the things I don’t understand in this age.
I asked Bill how much he believed gratitude factors into a person’s happiness. “I liken gratitude to kindness which translates to humility, in my opinion, the greatest of all virtues,” he wrote in an email last weekend. “If you are not a kind, caring person, you don’t understand what gratitude means because you do not have humility, and if you are not humble, you cannot be completely happy.”
Bill has obviously seen a lot in his life and I wondered what he might tell his grandchildren about the value of simplicity in regard to gratitude. “In 83 years, you would think that you’ve learned a lot, though number of years lived does not translate to prescience!” he commented. “I want my grandchildren to have awareness, to appreciate the bounty of wonderful things around them. I want them to know that for all that we feel we must achieve in life, it is often the little things that mean the most, things like a raisin cinnamon bagel on a Sunday morning or a chocolate milkshake.”
Last Saturday night, my husband and I had the pleasure of soaking up the Hughes’ hospitality again at a Friends Thanksgiving where 25 of us, most of whom share a decade-long friendship that began on a bike ride, gathered to acknowledge the value of these deep roots and give thanks. Perhaps we will tell Bill’s story to our own children each Thanksgiving and remind them of David Steindl-Rast’s poignant words, “it is not happiness that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us happy.”