I always (well, almost always) post my retirement blog entries on Thursdays, and since this Thursday is Thanksgiving, it’s a good time to talk about the importance of gratitude in retirement.
Of course, gratitude is a virtue any day, and in any time of life. It undoubtedly reflects my own bias that I think of it primarily in terms of retirement. But I do think of retirement as a period of life in which, if all is well, we have already taken care of life’s more basic necessities, and so we can focus more on how we conduct ourselves as the wise folks we ought to be at this age. Or if we are living with hardship (insufficient finances, weak health, or whatever), we need to acclimate ourselves to the idea that this is the way it is probably going to be for most or all of the rest of our lives. So either way, there is an opportunity, even a need, for us to use this time to become our wisest, best selves.
And gratitude is an important element of this.
I classify gratitude as being one of the four “essential virtues,” the others being forgiveness, compassion, and respect for others. Exercising these four virtues, we can live good lives almost regardless of our other circumstances. Failing to exercise them, our lives are impoverished, notwithstanding the wealth, health, or pleasures we possess. All four virtues are important, but today is the day of gratitude.
Gratitude comes most naturally when someone else does something nice, especially something unexpectedly nice, for us. But seen as a virtue, gratitude goes beyond that. We can be grateful simply that the other person exists, that that person is who she or he is, and that we have the opportunity to include that person in our lives. Expressing such feelings in words once in a while is appropriate, but expressing them in our actions and our attitudes toward that person matters just as much, and probably more. Gratitude, in turn, will make it easier to feel compassion and respect, and will make it easy to forgive when, as inevitably happens at times, even those closest to us let us down.
What’s more, the feeling of gratitude is just as beneficial to us as it is to those to whom we manifest it. Studies show that people who harbor feelings of gratitude toward others, and even a sense of abstract gratitude for life itself, are happier and healthier. The simple determination to focus on what we have, rather than what we lack, can be the difference between growing older with grace and turning into an old crank.
So, practically speaking, how do we foster gratitude in ourselves? One easy and remarkably effective way is to keep a “gratitude journal.” At the end of the day, every day, simply write in a journal or notebook five things that you are grateful for that day. They don’t have to be major strokes of fortune, or huge favors that someone did for you. They don’t even have to be something special that happened. They can be everyday occurrences that you’ve been taking for granted, but that you realize you should be grateful for.
You might be grateful that a stranger smiled at you, or that a friend passed up an opportunity to embarrass you, or that you had the opportunity to see the moon rise over the trees, or that your car started when you needed to get somewhere, or that you have access to clean water.
We all tend to be most aware of things that go wrong in our lives, even petty things that are just temporary annoyances. Meanwhile, every day, a hundred things go right that we rarely give a thought to. Focusing on being grateful for those things, and taking a few minutes each day to make a note of them, can affect our whole view of life, and make our own lives much better – regardless of how many troubles we still have to deal with.
There’s a surprising amount of information about gratitude out on the internet, and there are entire books on this subject. For links to some of the better ones, see the section on gratitude on my Retirement Readiness webpage dealing with "The Essential Virtues".
Chuck Yanikoski is a retirement adviser who lives and works in Harvard. For more about him, or to contact him directly, visit www.ChuckYRetirement.com