I had some time before officiating a wedding one evening and stopped to get something to eat at a McDonald's. This was something I hadn’t done in a long time and I considered it a treat. When I went to the fountain to fill my drink, there was a very well dressed, older man there in the corner who started a conversation I will never forget.
Our chat started predictably. He asked how I was and I smiled with a, “Great, how about you?” He replied, “I am blessed and so are you!” This opening comment typically tells me everything I need to know about how this kind of small talk will go. I was wrong. He looked down at my ring and asked about my husband, which lead to some generalities and chuckles about marriage. Then a smile of gratitude and tears came to his face as he explained that his wife had made her transition not even a year ago and his daughter and grandchildren do not live in town. In just a moment, I felt like I knew them all. His love for his family had such form and substance, that they could have been sitting there at the table with him, old friends I had just run into.
The conversation was only a couple of minutes long and as I started towards a seat, something in my head was still trying to tell me I knew what this was all about. I told him to have a good evening and turned to go when he said, “Thank you... Enjoy your life.”
I felt really connected and happy that I didn’t just shuffle by like I sometimes do, but took time to meet this man. Then it hit me, what he said, “...Enjoy your life.” It almost didn’t register. I was expecting a, “Have a blessed day,” and there was part of me that still believed that’s what he said. “Enjoy,” the word didn’t make sense to me. To do life “in joy,” to infuse life with joy. I was coming to these ideas with new eyes, as if I’d never heard the word before. I certainly could use more joy in my life. I was working so much and was so tired, I couldn’t bring to mind even one thing I would do just for enjoyment, but sleep! Somehow this was supposed to mean more.
What does it mean to truly enjoy life?
In the upcoming weeks I thought more about what I enjoy about life. I realized the connection I was missing was about gratitude. I often found things in the day to be grateful for, but true joy, love, and appreciation with no prompting, pure enjoyment, is something I was not experiencing. There is a connection between gratitude and enjoyment that goes beyond counting blessings at the end of the day. It’s unlocking the power of gratitude by sharing it with someone else.
In that short conversation, the man at McDonalds shared his gratitude for his wife and family with me in a way that was formative. He gave me the gift of his experience as he allowed himself to be vulnerable and express it openly. The gift he received in sharing glowed in his face and his entire energy. He was light, happy, and uplifted. I could tell he shared my feeling that his family was with us in that moment and he was so joyous to be with them.
Authentic joy can not be contained. It’s expansive. The kind of joy generated from a gratitude practice must be expressed and shared or its effects will begin to wear off. When gratitude is shared, it grows. It has a ripple effect and like radiating light it is a continual process. I had been doing gratitude like it was something to check off the list: Gratitude journal, done. To see the opportunity to enjoy, I had to stop long enough to experience gratitude in the moment and be vulnerable enough to let it show to the people around me.
It’s scary to be vulnerable. This practice isn’t just about a polite thank you. It’s sharing part of who I am. When I show authentic gratitude, the joy that comes with it doesn’t come from me. It is greater than me and I don’t do it, it does me. It is a choice. I can choose the fear that keeps me from enjoying life or choose the love that allows me to live a life in gratitude and joy.
Stopping to be grateful during the day brings the opportunity to see where I can enjoy life. If I cultivate that gratitude in me I feel happy, but after awhile it is a bit like hoarding. I start using gratitude to make happiness and security and, like hoarding money or things, I start becoming numb to it. When I outwardly show my gratitude, I release it as a flow of energy. What I’ve noticed is it returns to me as joy--A joy that is not prompted by anything, but a pure love of life itself.
A life in gratitude is as much about sharing my gratitude for those who hold a door for me or serve me in a restaurant or checkout line, as it is about telling the loved ones in my life why I am grateful for them. It is telling others about how someone in line at Starbucks paid for my coffee or how I was able to stop and watch the sunrise this morning. Sharing gratitude is contagious. Have you noticed? Sharing gratitude prompts those around me to join in the energy and tell about similar blessings in their own lives. There are certain people I talk to in my day that generally connect by complaining. Offering something I’m grateful for can change the entire experience from heavy to lighthearted and I go from trying to avoid them to enjoying to be with them.
The biggest thing I’ve learned about the connection between gratitude and enjoying my life is that it is always changing. It’s not something I can check off on my to-do list and it’s not something for me to figure out. Instead, it is something that will continue to enrich my life as I stay curious to how it shows up and the next lesson it has to show me.
This Thanksgiving I hope you share your gratitude with someone and think about the connection between gratitude and enjoyment in your life. I’m open to learning more. Comment and share your own ideas.