A Gratitude Experiment

Woman smiling serving customer
Photo Credit: nichole.c “Family run business” via Flickr CC BY 2.0

“Thank you.”

Two words most of us say countless times each day.  Saying ‘thank you’ recently came up in a client session and we started processing what that phrase means.  Are we saying the words when we are expressing gratitude or just out of habit?

I remember my mother (as many parents do) training me as a young child to say “thank you.”  It’s polite and the ‘right thing to do.’  But outside that force of habit, what does “thank you” really mean?

Gratitude Experiment

As part of a practice of expressing their truth, my client took as a therapy homework the task of being specific when saying “thank you.” To offer specific gratitude for a specific aspect of someone or something spoken, done or experienced.  I decided to join my client in this homework.

It has been a curious experiment. The first time I did it, I was buying something from a retail clerk.  I automatically said thank you, and completely forgot the homework I assigned myself.  After I left the store, I reflected on the transaction and contemplated, “What am I grateful for?  Why am I expressing thanks?”  In that case it was prompt, courteous service.  I vowed to myself that the next time I had such a transaction I would be more specific.  That opportunity came up quickly.

I remembered my homework before finalizing my next transaction and was surprised at the amount of nervousness that came up inside of me.  There is something vulnerable about being specific, even with a relative stranger.  Unexpected anxieties arose: “Will they think this is weird?”  Will they think I am being inauthentic?”

I’m generally pretty calm, so this unexpected anxiety was a surprise.  I was committed to trying the homework and realized in the moment that my anxiety had nothing to do with the other person. When the time came, I somewhat awkwardly said “Thank you for the fast and very friendly service.”  The clerk, who probably also hears “thank you” many times a day, paused, broke into a large smile, looked me in the eye and held my gaze for a gracious moment.

Connections

We connected!  It was 7 extra words, and it made a difference.  It made a difference to me, and while I don’t know the clerk’s experience, I think it made a difference to her.

I felt connected.  I felt my ability to positively affect another person—perhaps in a small way—but still it was a positive exchange.  It was also an experience of being present to what was happening, as I got in touch with what I was grateful for in that transaction.  I felt good about trying the experiment (and decided to continue it although I still probably forget to be specific more than 50% of the time – old habits sometimes take a lot of conscious effort).  My client also reported feeling clearer, feeling more in their truth saying “thank you” only when they really meant it, and feeling more connected with others as part of the practice.

We (me, my client and maybe you) live in metropolitan area of over 10 million people. It’s easy to feel disconnected even as we are surrounded by thousands (millions).  Most of us, on some level, want to feel appreciated.  When we receive specific feedback (in this case, a specific thanks) it’s easier to know what we did that was appreciated.

Now, “thank you for fast and very friendly service” still seems to be somewhat a surface-level thank you.  I know I could go deeper, even in a simple transaction.  But maybe in this simple practice, we can find a way to express our truth and connect to each other in our interactions — to let others know they are valued and appreciated.

As we enter the Thanksgiving season, gratitude seems to become more of a conscious focus for many.   I invite you to join this gratitude practice and experiment with it.  Experiment with strangers, co-workers, friends, and family members.  I’m guessing they will notice.  I’d love to hear how it goes.

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About Carrie Jameson, LCPC

Carrie Jameson joined the LifeWorks Psychotherapy team in May 2012. She trained at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and the Shalom Mountain Retreat Center in New York. Carrie is a member of the Illinois Mental Health Counseling Association (IMHCA), the American Counseling Association, the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS) and Kink & Poly Aware Chicago Therapists (KPACT).