Cultivating gratitude

One of the most powerful tools in our emotional arsenal is the ability to look at our experience in the present and find something within it to be grateful for.

Cultivating gratitude

People have talked about the importance of gratitude for almost as far back as we can see. The great stoics such as Seneca saw gratitude as the key virtue in the foundation of any successful civilisation. Sartre saw it as a character strength. Buddha said it was integral to being virtuous. But what does it mean to have real gratitude?

When we are constantly wanting the next thing, we are chasing the horizon. And when we finally obtain the object of our desire, instead of being present with it in the moment, instead of experiencing gratitude for this new thing we have in our lives, we throw it aside and aim for the whatever’s next on our never ending list.

It can be material, it can be professional — all these things that we have fail to satiate us. Then, when we eventually get to the top of the ladder, we realise that there’s nothing up there anyway. So we find another ladder, a taller ladder, and we start furiously climbing that instead.

Guess what? There’s nothing up that one either.

This behaviour is known as hedonic adaptation, or running on the hedonic treadmill. It’s our innate tendency as human beings to return to a level state of happiness when the excitement of the new thing has dissipated. And so, being back to that normal state, we grow dissatisfied. We focus our gaze on the next shiny pearl and run towards it.

We’re not entirely to blame for thinking like this. The culture in which we live has a proclivity to escalate it. We’re bombarded with all the nice things that we could own and convinced by some clever marketeers that what they’re peddling us will be the cure to all our ills. We’re taught in school, and later in work, that performance is the key to happiness and success.

Now, I’m sure you’ve all experienced what it feels like when we get that promotion at work, or the excitement of the new car on the driveway. And I’m sure you’ve all experienced what happens when the excitement fades, and how everything feels all “back to normal”. So off you go again, as if nothing had ever happened in the first place.

I’m sure we’ve also all experienced the pitfalls of the comparable mind. “She has a nicer house than I do”, or “they’re more successful than I am”. In thinking like this, we are exercising judgement. We are saying to ourselves “if only I have all of these things, then I will be happy”. It is a false way of thinking, and one that we can change through gratitude.

Gratitude requires practise. Saying thank you to someone after they’ve cooked you a meal or bought you a new coat is not gratitude in the sense that I mean it here. I’m talking about real, present, engaged thankfulness. I’m talking about taking stock of what you have in your life and really acknowledging it.

There is something deeply enriching about being gratefully present in experiencing a summer sunrise, or taking time to observe the colourful display of the leaves in autumn. Grateful to be alive and a part of it.

This kind of gratitude is the single, most powerful tool you can cultivate for a grounded and lasting happiness.

It comes down to a very simple philosophy — where we focus our attention is where our energy goes. If we’re constantly focused on the future, on getting our next hedonistic fix, our energy goes there too. Off into the distance to a place that doesn’t exist yet, and may never do..

By being grateful for and focusing on the present, we help to cultivate more of the good things in our lives. We’re bringing our attention to bear upon them, becoming more aware, and more of the moment.

Let me be clear — practising gratitude does not take away the suffering or struggles that happen in life. We all experience them at some point or another, and some more than others. What it does do is allow us to lean into life. It helps us to meet life’s difficulties with an open heart, because it empowers us with perspective and an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all life.

So, now the hard part. How do we become more grateful?

I’m going to borrow a few ideas from Buddhism here, as it has some wise words to say on the matter.

The first thing a Buddhist monk does in the morning is a chant of gratitude for the good things in their life. It sets the tone for the rest of the day, and reminds us of what we have. Food on the table, a comfortable place to live, and the means to enjoy our lives with relative ease. They’re simple, basic things, but how often we overlook them.

You can try it yourself and see how you feel after a few weeks. It doesn’t have to be long — just focus on something in your life that you are grateful for and be present with it for a few moments.

This next one takes a bit more effort and practise, but try to be mindful and grateful for things as they happen in the present. Sometimes our minds can be so stuck on everything that’s gone wrong that day, that we overlook all the good things that have gone right, or the aspects of beauty in the simple things around us.

Now go out into the world and be grateful that you’re a part of it.