Get Grateful

A few weeks ago, I was in Maine with my mom. I walked into a boutique and saw this sweatshirt that I automatically felt attached to. I knew I would wear it everyday and thought it was unlike anything I had before. That day, I tried to talk myself out of it, and tell myself I didn’t need it. However, the next day, I found myself returning to the same store, ready to get the sweatshirt. I was super excited to get it, and told myself I’d wear it all the time. It was fairly expensive, but my mom bought it for me as an early birthday present, and I told her I really, really wanted it. I got the sweatshirt, put it on right as I was walking out of the store, and loved it. 

The next week, it was hanging up in my closet, and was nothing special to me. I had wanted it so badly, begged for it, and finally got it, but within a matter of days I wasn’t especially appreciative or grateful that I had it. It was just another sweatshirt that I didn’t need. 

Looking back on this, my gratitude probably ended with me saying “thank you” to my mom. However, I’ve come to realize through writing this article that gratitude is necessary in everyone’s life, and it is closely tied to happiness. I believe we all, including myself, should be more appreciative of what we have, and strive to practice gratitude more in our everyday lives. As a generally affluent community, we as Oyster River students aren’t always being aware of the value of what they have and how gratitude will benefit them. Around this time of year, gratitude is especially important. 

In today’s society with so many innovative and exciting things coming out each day, month, and year, it is easy for us to blow off gratitude, and forget its importance. To me, gratitude is being thankful and appreciative of what you have in your life, regardless of outside factors. According to “What Gets in the Way of Gratitude?” by the Greater Good Magazine, “a society that feels entitled to what it receives does not adequately express gratitude. Seen through the lens of buying and selling, relationships as well as things are viewed as disposable, and gratitude cannot survive this materialistic onslaught.”

Going along with this idea of “disposable” items, there are so many options and versions of products to get that many people are constantly searching for the next best thing, and discounting the value of what they have. This leads people to being unappreciative of what they have because it is never good enough compared to what they could have. Tessa Lippman (‘21) said, “we are never satisfied. I think it comes from a place of insecurity because we don’t feel confident with the things we have. It’s kind of like we are comparing ourselves to each other, which is never healthy.”

This feeling of dissatisfaction can lead to people just buying more, in an attempt to reach that level of satisfaction they desire. However, just buying more is not possible for a lot of the students in this community. “There are a number of students here [at Oyster River] who can’t financially compete. If you don’t have means in this community, this can be a really hard place to be,” said Brain Zottoli, ORHS humanities teacher. 

This issue of being able to keep up financially is related to school culture. Scott McGrath, ORHS humanities teacher spoke to the idea of certain trends, like AirPods, and how, “students receive praise for having attained those items.” When this is the case, and students are gaining attention for certain products they own, it fosters a sense of competition and necessity to get that thing. 

McGrath spoke to how this relates to this community. “Oyster River is comparatively, with neighboring towns, among the more affluent districts in the state of New Hampshire (NH). It’s also one of the most high performing districts in the state of NH, and I think that definitions of popularity and status are embraced by the community here.”

If the items people have are centered around competition and popularity, no wonder people aren’t being grateful. It seems to me that often times we become blinded by the idea of something trendy and popular, we lose sight of being appreciative for it, and realizing that they’re lucky to have it. 

However, this phenomenon of being so focused around getting new things is not the case in all cultures. Zottoli has had the opportunity to travel to and experience many cultures over the years. He’s traveled to Tanzania with a group of ORHS students the past two years. “What I see in these cultures is that there’s a huge mentality around maintaining what you have for as long as you can, especially if it’s nice.”

Where this differs from the United States is that when people have something that is deemed “nice,” it seems like it doesn’t carry the same weight as it would there, and it’s not all about maintaining it. More often than not, the specific item, whether it be a shirt, phone, or bag, doesn’t seem so special after you actually own it. 

Hannah Jeong (‘21) gave an example of how she has seen the idea of things not being “good enough” in her life. “In my closet, I’ll be like ‘I have nothing to wear. I need a bunch of new clothes, and I want a new wardrobe,’ but I probably have a bunch of completely fine, usable outfits that I could wear,” she said. 

This mindset leads to a constant cycle of things never being good enough, because people are always seeking a new standard for what is considered good enough. 

Hadassah Ramsay, a local psychologist who owns her own practice in Durham, spoke to this idea of standards. “In terms of people always wanting more, if someone is setting their goals for higher and higher they might get that, but then after a while it’s not going to feel new anymore, and so they’re going to be unsatisfied again,” she said. 

With a constantly changing baseline of satisfaction, I believe that a lot of things are taken for granted. “People who are often not feeling satisfied, are also not feeling grateful for what they have,” Ramsay said.

To me, something that is really important to seek in any situation is happiness. An example of this could be getting a new bag. That happiness you get from the bag is most likely short term. You buy the bag, excitedly carry the bag for the first time, love it, get a lot of compliments that day, but then that happiness might go away after that first day. Soon enough, you’ll think the bag isn’t good enough, and you will turn to the next bag, or item, you want. Speaking to Tanzanian culture again, Zottoli shared, “I just feel they’re happier, you know there’s not this need to kind of always get new things, and I think there’s a level of happiness that goes with being content with what you have.” 

Often times many people search for happiness in materialistic things, so they always buy more to seek that. For richer people, a category that many ORCSD families fall under, this is possible, and most likely occurs a lot more. However, “there can be people who are very wealthy and have everything in the world they’ve ever wanted monetarily, and then you can find people who are in extreme poverty […] but those poor people, if they’re very grateful for what they have, they’re gonna have overall higher life happiness and satisfaction than the wealthy people who have everything but aren’t satisfied,” Ramsay said. 

Regardless of wealth levels or social class, most everyone loves receiving gifts. I always find myself wondering what the gift will be, and excitedly anticipate receiving something new. I’m sure this is the case with a lot of people, and Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist who studies dopamine release in the brain, has conducted research to back this up. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain most notably known for being responsible for pleasurable reward and feelings of happiness. According to “Shopping, Dopamine, and Anticipation,” by Psychology Today, through an experiment with monkeys, Sapolsky found that dopamine is released in anticipation of a given reward, and not when the reward is received. 

If someone asked me and my peers when we are most happy about a reward, I think most of us would say when we get it and then are able to use it. Jeong had a similar thought, and said, “I think when you get it [is when you are most happy] because you’re excited to use it, and it’s kind of fun to have someone give it to you and [for them to] do a nice thing for you.” However, if this research is really considered, I think most of our excitement really does come in anticipation.

Thinking about the recent holiday season, this aspect of gratitude often comes out when giving and receiving gifts. There is something about that image of the wrapped presents under the tree, ready to be opened, that leads to so much anticipation and happiness, at least for me. It’s always been exciting for me to think about what could be under the wrapping paper of each present. 

While a lot of the anticipation is before, there’s also a window of happiness once the gifts are in our hands. Zottoli spoke to this idea of that initial happiness. “Right when we get stuff, like with the holidays, we’ll get a whole bunch of stuff that we don’t need, and we will be super psyched that morning, and then we’ll get bored by the afternoon, and then we’ll be moving on to the next season’s fads…and that mentality of not really appreciating the things that you have, or not being content, is a hard mentality to maintain.” 

This research on when the happiness and excitement is in full effect provides an explanation as to why we so often find ourselves always buying more. It’s an inevitable reaction within our brains. However, everyone can try to combat that by taking a step back, and trying to introduce gratitude more regularly into their lives. 

Before getting into ways to practice gratitude, it’s important to note some things that have potential to get in the way of this practice. According to “What Gets in the Way of Gratitude?” by the Greater Good Magazine, entitlement can be a factor as to why it is hard to be grateful for some. The article said, “this attitude [of entitlement] says, “life owes me something” or “people owe me something” or “I deserve this.” In all its manifestations, a preoccupation with the self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel that we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to feel thankful.”

If we all try to take a step back from our lives, and acknowledge that we may be acting in this manner, it will allow for a more successful pursuit of gratitude. I recognize that this is not easy to do, and I’m sure I will struggle trying to take this step back as well. However, it’s evident that it is necessary to implement gratitude, so I feel it is worth a try. 

There are a number of ways to achieve gratitude, and everyone will have a slightly different way of looking at it. It doesn’t have to be becoming grateful for everything you have at once. It could work to start small, and just try to be grateful for one item, or one area of your life. For some, this may be going out of your way to thank someone for a gift, or something they did for you. For others, it could be looking at what you have before purchasing something and considering if you’re being appreciative of what you have, instead of just buying something new. Another strategy that Ramsay suggested is every night writing three to five things that you feel grateful for. “I think if people did that, they’d come to really appreciate what they have,” shared Ramsay. I had never really done any of these strategies before, or been aware that this may help me in other areas of my life. I think I was absorbed in everything else going on around me that I forgot how important gratitude really was. However, now, I realize that is a valuable practice to implement into my life. 

I have not, by any means, mastered gratitude. By looking into this subject, I have come to realize that I’m not as grateful as I should be, and I definitely didn’t realize how important it was, and I think this is something I have in common with a lot of my peers. To me, it seems like a really big task to try to break the habit of being ungrateful. I’d encourage you to do the same: to look at yourself objectively and ask yourself if you’re practicing gratitude, or taking what you have for granted, and if so, how can you implement it into your life for the better?

Artwork by Hannah Jeong