Cultivating Gratitude While on the Road
Gratitude has always come more easily to me when I’m away from my usual surroundings. I find myself acutely aware of my environment – the crackle of leaves underfoot, brightly colored tiles set in cobblestone, or fresh croissants wafting from a nearby bakery.
The effect lasts for a little while after my return. Home seems somehow cozier, and for a while I relish routines like that first glorious cup of Seattle brewed coffee. Gratitude is a slippery thing, though. Before long, I’m ruminating over the project I’m behind on, the stacks of neglected mail, and the inevitably gained vacation pounds.
Positive psychology research points to gratitude as a cornerstone of health and happiness. Exercising gratitude may be particularly valuable for our kids, since a lack of gratitude is one symptom of narcissism, reportedly on the rise in young people today. So what it is about travel that makes this mindset easier to come by?
- Vulnerability. When we’re outside of our element, we find ourselves in situations that require us to rely on people we’ve never met. I’m often caught off guard by the generosity of strangers in my travels, most recently, when our family was riding a very crowded subway. The proverbial sardines in a can, I wasn’t sure how we’d manage to squeeze through the crowd in time to get off at our stop. The moment we started shuffling towards the door, however, the passengers around us inched over as far as they could to clear a path, so that we could all stay together as we exited. Invasion of personal space notwithstanding, several passengers smiled at the kids as we exited. In her blog GoTeamKate, Shanell Mouland recounts a touching story about the kindness of a stranger sitting next to her daughter, who has autism, on a flight home from Philadelphia.
- Novelty. Ordinary circumstances put me on autopilot, going through the motions, while mentally either planning a future event or rehashing something already past. Navigating a new environment demands attention, however, lest we wander into a sketchy neighborhood or stumble over an unexpected cliff. Our senses are more alert, and gratitude often surfaces when we simply start noticing what’s around us. So instead of falling off said cliff, we appreciate the valley it overlooks. The sketchy neighborhood should probably be avoided altogether. Novel situations may also bring to light qualities in our loved ones that we normally overlook. Free from all of the distractions, I’m much more likely to appreciate my son’s curiosity, my daughter’s enthusiasm, and my husband’s ability to think on his feet during a travel snafu.
- History. When we visit ancient ruins, castles, museums and the like, what we see is pretty bleak – wars, natural disasters, the odd beheading. We’re drawn to the drama (reality tv at its finest), but we’re also reminded that despite the tyranny that still exists, the world is, in many ways, less barbaric than it once was. Yes, that traffic jam on the way to work is irritating, but being burned at the stake is probably outside the realm of possibility. History cultivates gratitude by offering the big picture. There is nothing like the uncovered remains of a lost civilization to remind us that we’re all here temporarily, so we may want to appreciate the time we have.
Have you found ways to disengage the auto-pilot of everyday life and cultivate more gratitude? I’d love to hear your story.