In the throes of the holiday season, it’s easy to generalize when you’re asked (over and over again) what you’re thankful for this year. I know I’m prone to saying something like My wonderful family whenever I’m asked what I’m most grateful for. And while that’s absolutely true–my husband and children are the very best part of my life–it’s also kind of generic. Very few people wouldn’t say the very same thing, whether they actually meant it or not.
It’s hard to remember that gratitude feels best when it’s specific. When someone says Thank you for being a wonderful friend, that’s nice to hear. But when someone says Thank you for bringing us dinner the night my mother died, that tells you many things. It tells you that your kindness was seen. That it was memorable. And, yes, that you’re a wonderful friend. That expression of gratitude does more than make you feel good; it reinforces a behavior you’re likely to repeat.
In other words, gratitude is one of the many ways that we make the world a better place. This holiday season, more than ever, that feels like an effort each of us needs to make.
Even if you aren’t a person who’s comfortable expressing your gratitude in words, there are lots of ways to show those around you that you appreciate them in particular ways. The important thing is to say just a little bit more than thank you.
How? I’m glad you asked.
Go old school and write a thank you note.
It doesn’t have to be long–two or three sentences are plenty, as long as they’re specific. Whether you send that note by email or snail mail is your call. I tend to think an actual thank you card feels more sincere than an email. (A word to the wise: packs of thank you notes go on sale all the time. Companies trot out new designs far more quickly than the old ones move off the shelves. Buy them on the cheap and you’ll always be prepared.) I used to put a new package of thank you notes in my kids’ stockings every Christmas, a gentle reminder to write those notes after Christmas.
Remember the things that matter.
One of my nephews is allergic to down-filled pillows. Whenever he comes for a visit, I make sure we have a foam pillow available for him. That’s one way of making sure he knows that I appreciate him making the trip to visit us (which involves a plane ride and, therefore, a significant cost.) It also tells him that I care about whether he comes back. Sure, he could remind me–but the fact that he doesn’t even have to ask for a foam pillow is, I think, important.
Food allergies fall into a similar category. I went to a party this past weekend and was deeply touched by the fact that the friend who was hosting the gathering had made an effort to provide gluten-free options. That gesture said so much about the way she values our friendship.
Finally, if you know a particular date is important to someone, be sure to check in with them. Depending on the significance of the date, you might just send a “Thinking about you” message. You might propose meeting up for coffee. The important thing is to make it clear that you remember why that date matters.
Do something just because.
I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. Enforced gift-giving just doesn’t mean as much as a small, spontaneous gesture of love and appreciation. Again, this doesn’t have to be anything major. When my husband brings home my favorite candy bar from the convenience store (not because I asked him to, just because he saw it sitting there on the counter), it tells me I’m important enough for him to think about me all the time. When my kids come home for the weekend, having their favorite snacks on hand tells them that I appreciate them making the time to visit. After all, they could be doing any number of other things.
Be the safe place.
One of the best ways to show others that you’re thankful for their presence in your life is to accept them exactly as they are. That might mean listening to stories you don’t really care about (but which obviously matter to the storyteller), or keeping a secret that someone isn’t ready to share with others. It might simply mean being a person others can turn to when they’re upset. When friends and family members know that you care about them even when they’re not at their best, they know you must appreciate their presence in your life. Otherwise, why would you bother?
If giving thanks were as easy as we sometimes make it seem, we’d probably do it far more often. But being thankful actually takes a little effort and a lot of attention. Those are the two things we should try to offer those we care about every single day.