Making my rounds to drop the kids at school each morning, I pause to wave at each volunteer crossing guard. On especially frigid mornings, I fling a vigorous wave -- not an anemic royal one -- towards these altruistic souls. Recently my 6-year-old son asked, "Mom, why do you always do that?"
It is my way of saying "Good morning!" I told him. In a deeper sense, I explained, it is how I express to them: "I see you there, doing what you're doing, and I am grateful." Without fail, the older gentleman stationed at Elliot and Union, and the other posted at Union and Western, wave back and flashes a cheery grin. I imagine each is thinking, "Thank you for seeing me here." I love the ritual of it: Making genuine eye contact with another human being first thing in the morning. Through that effortless gesture, I strengthen the tenuous connection that exists between nameless strangers as we face the day's certain labor and its possible delights. We are here. Together.
No matter how irritated I feel in the moments before my wave, I invariably feel better afterwards. The argument with my 3-year old daughter over why she can't be Lady Godiva and go to preschool naked, and the agonizing cajoling with my 6-year to please, please, PLEASE back away from his perfectly arranged Playmobil wooly mammoth set up -- complete with Lascaux-esque cave drawings -- all fade away. I am still, at heart, an impatient former New Yorker who struggles to keep my lurking aggravation in check (Peasants! Make way! I am very busy and very important!), but that daily moment of frank human connection forces me to acknowledge that -- no matter how harried I feel -- there is always time for respect and kindness.
In that initial hour after "thanking" the crossing guards for their service, I am a happier, more contented driver. I am apt to pause and let drivers stuck at the Citizens Bridge pull out onto Western Avenue or I might slow down to signal to a driver on Putney Road that she can pull out from the Marina entrance. I assure you, this is not my usual driving mode; I am often the one scolding hesitant drivers: "Commit, would you?!" Research on gratitude supports my hunch that expressing thanks helps me feel more positive and relaxed.
Dr. Robert E. Emmons of the University of California, Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami -- who have done the bulk of the current research on gratitude -- asked participants in a study to jot down a few reflections each week in a journal. One group was specifically asked to write about what they were grateful for; another recorded what irritated them; the third could write about any events of the previous week that affected them, either positively or negatively. Ten weeks later, the ones who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic, reported feeling happier about their lives, and were healthier; they also exercised more and had fewer doctor's visits than those who'd exclusively written about their aggravations.
Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania -- whom I've referenced before in this column -- researched the impact of several different positive psychology interventions on more than 400 participants. Each intervention was compared to a control assignment of simply writing about early memories. When participants were asked to personally deliver a note expressing their gratitude to someone who'd never been adequately thanked for their thoughtfulness, participants' happiness scores shot up. The influence lasted for over a month; it was the most effective positive psychology intervention of any of those tested.
I have experienced the deepest gratitude when I have felt the most vulnerable. Once, when my whole family was sick, I had to schlep the kids to the store to buy a few staples. The checkout clerk at the co-op -- sensing both my misery and exhaustion -- was so kind that I nearly cried. Another time I felt sheer panic in the pediatricians' office as I tried to comfort my alarmingly feverish son while occupying my fidgety daughter. The doctor and nurses were entirely professional, yes. But it was the tenderness with which they cared for all of us that touched me.
The act of writing a thank you card in both instances declared my acknowledgment that I am grateful they are in the world. I have never once regretted sending a thank you note.
Although it is satisfying and rewarding to express thanks to a stranger, friend or acquaintance, it is just as important to adequately thank those who work for you. Not surprisingly, employees work harder for those who show gratitude. A study at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that university fundraisers who were told by their boss that she was personally grateful for their hard work made 50 percent more fundraising calls than those who did not receive a message of gratitude. This is not shocking: It feels good to be thanked for our efforts.
I am imperfect, despite my regimen of "thank yous." I can still be impatient and judgmental, moody and intense. I make mistakes and say things I shouldn't. I expect too much of my kids and myself, at times. But despite my shortcomings -- or perhaps because of them -- I am dogged in my commitment to gratitude.
Tomorrow morning, as I once again scramble to get my boisterous rapscallions into the car, I know that at the corner of Elliot and Union I will gladly take a brief respite and enjoy the opportunity to wave "thank you!"