Trash Cans and Elbows

Every Wednesday the garbage truck drives down the street, picking up the trash cans each household has placed at the corner of their driveway, dumping the contents into the back of the truck to be delivered to the landfill. Normally, the trash can is put back in relatively the same place it is picked up. But, for some unknown reason, yours is not. Instead, yours is put back in the middle of the driveway, blocking your entry. Now, each Wednesday upon arriving at home, you must get out of the car, move the garbage can back to where it is supposed to go, then get back in the car and then pull into the driveway. Argh! What a pain, especially in dress clothes, especially during a snowstorm or rainstorm!


The first thoughts that run through your brain might be “Why would they do this to me?” and “Why is it only my trash can they do this to?” And you probably feel at least some level of irritation, frustration, or even anger.


What does this story have to do with gratitude? At first glance, not much. There’s no good reason for the trash can to be put back in the wrong place. After talking to the trash hauler, they say they will do better, but it doesn’t change. There are two paths to take now. You could take your issue up the chain of command at the trash company, demanding it not happen again. Or you could re-frame the scenario and choose to focus on gratitude.


Choosing gratitude does not come naturally for many people, especially when stressed or irritated. It’s a choice you actively make. The goal is to find the blessings in an irritating situation, to find the good in the bad, to find the joy in the mundane.


Let’s reframe this story using an attitude of gratitude. What is there to be grateful for? First, you actually have someone come to your house weekly to remove your trash! And, you are well off enough to create such waste to need this service. And on top of that, you have a house, a driveway, and a car! It is absolutely a choice to focus on the bigger picture and find the positive aspects of a situation versus only seeing the negative.


There are many proven benefits to practicing this positive focus. People that live with an attitude of gratitude report greater happiness and optimism, less depression, and even a higher self-esteem. They demonstrate more kindness and empathy, even in the face of negativity from other people. They experience stronger relationships. When there are hardships, they have greater resiliency and can deal with problems effectively. Even physically they benefit. They are shown to be more physically active, sleep better, have fewer health care visits, and better nutrition.


There are two basic ways to develop an attitude of gratitude. The first way is just like the example above. When things seem bad, step back, acknowledge your irritation, but then re-focus on the big picture and find the positives and be grateful for them. The second way is to actively pick a focus area. Again, acknowledge imperfections and irritations but then let them go and chose to focus on the good parts.


Let’s dig into the second option for practicing gratitude. Start by selecting a focus area, which could be any aspect of your life. For this example, let’s focus on your own body. Acknowledge that some body parts may not work like they used to; maybe you may have bad knees. Now let that go and focus on what parts do work well. How are your elbows? Elbows are very helpful. Think of all the amazing work your elbows do! They allow you to reach into the refrigerator for a tasty beverage and then get it to your mouth. They also are crucial in pulling up your pants, playing cards, scratching an itch, and petting a dog. Elbows are very underappreciated! While your entire body may not be perfect, you can still find many aspects of it that serve you well. Practicing gratitude is all about appreciating the things we often take for granted.

Practice makes perfect. When something gets you down or irritates you go ahead and recognize those initial thoughts of annoyance. Then, re-look at the situation with the attitude of gratitude. Are there some underlying parts of your life that are going so smooth that you’ve not even noticed them? And when things are going well you can still actively seek out opportunities to be grateful. Practice by picking out any area of your life. Your body, your home, or your friends and family. Nothing is perfect, let the imperfections go and attend to the positive attributes.


Focusing on blessings doesn’t mean that there aren’t real problems in life. It’s ok to consider what’s wrong, but then look for what’s right. Then celebrate what’s right by focusing on it with gratitude and thanks!

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