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When I was 10 years old, I remember walking into my father’s study on a Saturday afternoon. My father was the co-founder and president of the Sheraton Hotel chain, and at this moment, he was at his desk, surrounded by papers and ledgers and books. 

 “Daddy,” I asked, “How come you’re working? It’s the weekend!” 

“I’m reading through charitable requests,” he answered, looking up from a letter he was reading. “I’d rather be doing this than anything else.” What followed were the words that influenced me for the rest of my life: “The greatest pleasure my money has ever given me is in giving it away.” 

MEET THE AMERICAN WHO GAVE THE NATION OUR THANKSGIVING ORIGIN STORY: PILGRIM EDWARD WINSLOW

The act of giving created meaning in his life. He got to experience the joy of knowing that in his own small way, he was making the world a better place. He was grateful that he could do this. It was then I began to truly understand how generosity and gratitude lead people to greater happiness.

The lesson I witnessed in my father rings true across time, culture, and fame. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte and Mother Teresa: how did their graciousness, or lack thereof, affect their lives— and what can we take from their experiences to bring greater happiness to our own?

Mother Teresa in an undated photograph

Mother Teresa in an undated photograph

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A little more than 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte ruled an empire that spanned France and a large part of Europe. As Emperor, he had glory, power, riches, and status to a degree that is almost inconceivable. This is a man whom you’d think had it all.  

Mother Teresa’s life was the opposite. Because of her vow of poverty, her physical possessions consisted of three cotton saris and the sandals on her feet. She ate the same food the poor ate. As for glamour, she spent most of her life ministering to the poorest of the poor. A large part of her work was taking care of dying lepers.  

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Here’s a man who had all the money, power, fame, status and glory that the world has to offer, and a humble woman who committed to a life of poverty, unselfishly caring for others. So which of these two had happier lives?  

November 1960: Mother Teresa (1910 - 1997), the Albanian nun who dedicated her life to the poor, the destitute and the sick of Calcutta, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. 

November 1960: Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997), the Albanian nun who dedicated her life to the poor, the destitute and the sick of Calcutta, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. 
( (Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images))

Well, Napoleon said that in his entire life, he couldn’t count five consecutive happy days.  

Mother Teresa, on the other hand, described her life as “a feast of unending joy.”  

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You may wonder how this could be the case. How could someone who has the riches of the world be so miserable, while another who sacrificed so much is so joyful? 

FILE – A portrait of Mother Teresa is pictured behind a crucifix, during a holy Mass dedicated to her on the main square in Skopje, Macedonia, Sunday, Sept 11, 2016. Hundreds of people gathered Sunday at the main square in Macedonian capital Skopje for a ceremony of gratitude dedicated to Mother Teresa who Pope Francis has declared a saint last week in Vatican.

FILE – A portrait of Mother Teresa is pictured behind a crucifix, during a holy Mass dedicated to her on the main square in Skopje, Macedonia, Sunday, Sept 11, 2016. Hundreds of people gathered Sunday at the main square in Macedonian capital Skopje for a ceremony of gratitude dedicated to Mother Teresa who Pope Francis has declared a saint last week in Vatican.
(The Associated Press)

But there is a crucial difference between these two. Everything that Napoleon had he got by taking. Everything Mother Teresa had— love, approval, fame—she earned by giving. 

This Thanksgiving weekend, we can all take a lesson from Napoleon and Mother Teresa—and even from my father.

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Let’s aim ­for a life that’s a feast of unending joy! The more we’re busy feeling thankful, the less room we have for feeling down. 

This Thanksgiving, as families come together to share bountiful home-cooked meals, giving back may be the most surefire way to feel satisfied this holiday season. 

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