Lessons from the bottle depot

My friend James is a positive guy — always looking on the bright side. When times get tough at work, he is the first person many folks will seek out for a pick-me-up. One day, I asked James how he managed to stay so upbeat. He just laughed and said it was no big secret — just something he learned while working at the bottle depot. I asked him to explain.

“Learn to appreciate what you have before time makes you appreciate what you had.”

— Author unknown

My friend James is a positive guy — always looking on the bright side. When times get tough at work, he is the first person many folks will seek out for a pick-me-up. One day, I asked James how he managed to stay so upbeat. He just laughed and said it was no big secret — just something he learned while working at the bottle depot. I asked him to explain.

“Years back, when I was out of work, the only job I could find was at the bottle depot.”

James told me that the work was hard, most patrons were grumpy, bored or uninterested in conversation, the building was stifling in summer and freezing in winter, and each night he would arrive home feeling exhausted, sticky and badly in need of a shower.

“I told myself, when I find another job, I’m never going to whine or complain. In fact, each morning and every night I’m going to express appreciation for my good fortune.”

I asked James if he felt working at the bottle depot had damaged his self-esteem. He thought about it for a while and then responded with, “At first I felt really down but the longer I worked there and the more I came to know some of the workers, the better I began to feel. I began to appreciate the people, the stories and the difference we were making for the environment.”

It occurred to me that even before James found other work, he had begun to shift his thinking. Though his current situation was less than ideal, he made an effort to appreciate aspects of it.

Many of us fail to appreciate the moment because we’re too busy looking at or longing for what we can’t have, don’t have or don’t have any longer. When we can focus and show appreciation for all the good things we have, we feel happier, less stressed and more thankful.

Someone told me once the grass only looks greener on the other side of the fence because the neighbour invested a tremendous amount of time and effort into fertilizing it. How much effort are you willing to put into lawn care or, more specifically, life care? Being appreciative takes work. If you’re fixated on what’s missing in your life or blaming others and feeling cheated or envious, you’re going to miss out on all the blessings that already surround you.

You might be thinking, “What do I have to be grateful for?” and yes, there have been a few times when I thought the same thing. Sure, I always appreciated my family and friends but never really acknowledged the degree to which I was buoyed and blessed by their love, understanding and support. For me, broadening my awareness helped me take less for granted.

Sometimes — as James suggests — a lack of appreciation results from the lack of a reference point.

A broader view tends to bring with it a broader understanding. To fully appreciate joy, we must also experience sadness. To fully appreciate abundance, we must experience lack.

Many of us are locked in a state of longing — longing for more money, a bigger house or a better job.

We chase things we’re supposed to want only to discover — upon acquiring them — that we don’t feel any greater sense of joy, happiness or fulfilment. Studies have shown that people with a lot of desirable possessions are often no happier than people with much less. The “I’ll have more appreciation when I have more to appreciate” argument holds little water.

If you’d like to enjoy a greater appreciation for life and all it has to offer, here are a few techniques I’ve picked up that have helped me develop a deeper sense of appreciation.

l Practice gratitude: say thank you to life.

Research has shown that people who express gratitude on a regular basis are happier in their relationships, experience less stress and depression, feel more in control and enjoy a higher level of self-esteem. They’re also able to rebound more quickly from setbacks as they focus on what they have or lessons learned rather than on what they’ve lost. One way I express gratitude is by writing daily in my gratitude journal. I start with the sentence stem “Today, I am thankful for …” and then capture the events (big and small) that have shaped my day.

l Volunteer to help the less fortunate.

Spend some time helping out at the local food bank or homeless shelter. If you’re handy, offer your services to a group such as Habitat for Humanity. In this way, you’ll be doing what James did by creating an invaluable reference point. Help out but also talk to people. Listen to their stories. What’s life like for these people? What challenges do they face that you may never have considered? It’s a fact that connecting with people from different walks of life broadens our compassion and awareness and deepens our sense of community.

l Express appreciation by giving.

Volunteering your time is a great way to give but you can also express appreciation in a monetary sense. I’m not talking about donating a fortune toward a building that will bear your name — though if you can afford to do so, more power to you. I’m simply suggesting that the next time you feel the urge to splurge, set the money aside and donate it to a worthwhile cause. In an experiment conducted by the University of British Columbia, participants were given a small amount of cash with the option of spending it on themselves or using it to help someone else. Those who spent the money on others noted a significant increase in happiness levels.

“Happiness cannot be travelled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed,” wrote Denis Waitley, American speaker, consultant and best-selling author. “Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.”

When you appreciate all that you have, life becomes a lot more fun. So, don’t wait for tomorrow; be grateful for what is in your life right now, this very moment. And the next time you’re at the bottle depot, take a moment to express appreciation to the hardworking staff.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

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