In the coming weeks, the No. 1 question most of us will be asked is, "What did you get?" While the Christmas season is rooted in the Christian faith -- a faith that teaches benevolent and charitable giving -- Buddha, too, offered a succinct lesson in giving and getting.
When we give to others, we give without expectation of reward. We give without attachment to either the gift or the recipient. The practice of giving is thought to be one of the most basic human virtues, a testament to the depth of our humanity, and for Buddhists, one's capacity for self-transcendence.
Author Karen Armstrong makes the observation that the concept of self-transcendence is bound up with the golden rule: "Treating others as you yourself would like to be treated." When we transcend our limited self, this rule becomes an inherent part of our own nature, and other people an extended part of our own reality. For this reason, learning to receive is equally vital.
When we say, "Please don't get me anything... I don't want or need anything" -- while that may be intrinsically true, or we don't wish to burden someone who is stretching an already tight budget, we are essentially shutting that person out. Giving creates a relationship between the giver and receiver. Giving is a way people participate in our lives, a way people honor us. And when we say no, we deny them the opportunity to do so. Generosity, both in giving and receiving, opens the heart. We must learn to accept gratefully.
When we are grateful we experience grace. The words "gratitude" and "grace" share a common Latin origin -- gratus, meaning "pleasing" or "thankful." When you are in a deep state of gratitude, you may feel the presence of grace. Reflect on this. As we become more mindful of the present moment, we begin to recognize the things around us that we may have taken for granted.
Psychological research finds that people's happiness levels are remarkably stable over the long-term. A possible explanation comes from studies in the psychology of gratitude. Yes, you read that correctly -- being thankful just may be the secret to happiness. One study found that people who were in the gratitude condition felt fully 25 percent happier -- they were more optimistic about the future; they felt better about their lives.
Learning to practice gratitude is one of life's most valuable lessons. As Aristotle taught us, all virtues have value and the virtue of gratitude helps to increase feelings of satisfaction with our lives and keeps us from falling into the excess of a greedy or entitled frame of mind.
There are many simple, yet powerful ways to practice gratitude on a daily basis.
• Thank, separately, both the cashier and the bagger at the grocery store.
• Send a hand-written "thank you" note when you receive a gift, however small.
• Make "thank you" a common phrase in your vocabulary.
• Give someone a heartfelt compliment.
• Keep a gratitude journal. Each night write one to three things for which you were grateful during the day.
Developing a regular habit of being grateful is a discipline well worth the effort. As Cicero wrote: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others."
Rita also conducts stress management and resilience-building workshops funded by the Massachusetts Dept. of Industrial Accidents. She is actively involved with Maine Resilience, a program coordinated with the effort, materials and information offered by the American Psychological Association and the Maine Psychological Association through their Public Education Programs. Rita is an Associate Member of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). Visit her online at her personal website and at Red Room, where you can buy her books.