Read the updated version of this post: Active Hope and the Benefits of Gratitude
If the news and miscellaneous madness of the world is getting you down, there’s one guaranteed way to cheer yourself up: Gratitude. In fact, gratitude could be seen as a kind of elixir of life. Do you want to be healthier? Practice gratitude. Want to reduce stress, boost your memory and improve your relationships? Practice gratitude.
Numerous studies and controlled trials have shown that regularly counting our blessings makes us happier and more satisfied with life. Gratitude focuses our minds on the positive side of life and reminds us that we depend on each other for so many things. Even if we’re struggling, practising gratitude can make a difference to our mood.
The benefits of gratitude:
- It makes you happier and improves long-term wellbeing
- It makes you healthier, lowers blood pressure, reduces pain, increases vitality and energy levels
- It makes you more friendly and improves your relationships
- It can boost your career by improving decision making and increasing productivity
- It helps you to relax and reduces stress levels by making you feel good
- It changes how you remember the past by boosting recall of positive events
- It boosts your self-esteem and makes you more optimistic, less materialistic, more spiritual, and less self-centred
The easiest way to practice gratitude is to take 5 minutes at the end of each day to note some of the things you’re grateful for. If you write them in a journal, you’ll have a great record of all the good things in your life that you can revisit whenever you need a gratitude booster. The blessings you list don’t have to be big or significant – they could be as simple as watching a bird flying or the awareness of the breath in your lungs or the feeling of being alive.
Consumption and the Law of Dissatisfaction
Another body of research suggests that materialism has an inverse relationship to happiness. Materialism in this case doesn’t refer to the philosophical theory but to a value system that sees possessions and your social image as more important than anything else. You don’t even have to be rich to suffer from materialism, or affluenza, but if you are afflicted, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be miserable.
“The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl’s head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled onto her vast bed… a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She’s alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.”
Those who fall for the blandishments of materialism are more likely to experience lower levels of wellbeing and happiness, as well as more depression, anxiety, headaches, a lack of empathy and destructive relationships. Women who read women’s magazines have lower self-esteem after looking at pictures of stupidly perfect models (photoshopped to within an inch of their lives).
Our habits of consumption are carefully choreographed by the advertising industry which goes out of its way to ensure we hate ourselves just enough to keep buying things which are supposed to make us feel better. Of course, it doesn’t work, so back to the shops we go. The following comes from a marketing website:
“The job of advertisers is to create dissatisfaction in its audience. If people are happy with how they look, they are not going to buy cosmetics or diet books… If people are happy with who they are, where they are in life, and what they got, they just aren’t customer potential – that is, unless you make them unhappy.”
>Click here to read the whole thing – if your spleen can take it!
Is it any wonder levels of depression are reaching epidemic proportions in the Western world? Our addiction to consumption to fulfil needs we don’t even really have isn’t only killing the planet, it’s turning us into miserable narcissists.
Thankfully, there is a way to short circuit this vicious cycle and restore balance and sanity. Gratitude!
Saying Yes to Life
But what about those times when life really does seem bleak? Gratitude is easy when things are going well. How can you count your blessings if you feel you don’t have any?
I confess I struggle with this. I recently experienced a period of turmoil when my life got turned upside down and shaken until (almost) everything fell away. For a long time I couldn’t see the ‘almost’ – my focus was so squarely on what I was losing that I didn’t notice what remained. My mantras became: “Let it go” and “Don’t take it personally.”
Interestingly, this emptying process happened hot on the heels of a surge in practising gratitude and positive thinking, as if merely stating my intentions and opening my heart to the future was enough to unleash the furies. (I want to write a proper post about this, so I won’t go into it here, but the phrase ‘Shadow Attack’ is now firmly in my vocabulary.)
My faith in life and belief in myself collapsed, and I was forced to learn new coping methods. I couldn’t conjure hope to save my life. But at my lowest points I always found a larger perspective waiting to ambush me. At times, I even managed to be grateful for my difficulties because they were showing me things about myself I needed to see. They were pushing me over the edge I had been skirting for a decade.
It is hard to look darkness in the face. It’s even harder when you know that darkness is inside you. But what it revealed to me was how much I denied reality. Even when I thought I was being positive and life-affirming, there was still a part of me that I was pushing away. I needed to embrace ALL of me, not just the parts I thought were good or positive or spiritual or acceptable.
I needed to be grateful for my darkness too.
This is hardcore soul work and it takes time. I’m still processing and learning and growing. But now, for me, gratitude is about accepting reality. To be grateful for something you must accept it.
Gratitude is about saying YES! to life – all of it.
Crisis? What crisis?
When we’re faced with the looming destruction of our civilisation and the earth on which we depend, it can be hard to find space for gratitude. It can seem too Pollyannaish to focus on the good all the time. But perhaps we can learn to be grateful for the crisis too. There’s nothing like being told your life is about to end to make you appreciate it more. We have spent too long taking the planet and our lives for granted.
Maybe fighting for our lives is the universe’s way of making us grateful for them.
Here’s an exercise to try from Active Hope – you don’t have to do this out loud if you’re worried others might think you’re crazy, but then again, it might be a good thing if more people openly expressed their gratitude in this way!
Thanking What Supports You To Live
Next time you see a tree or plant, take a moment to express thanks. With each breath you take in, experience gratitude for the oxygen that would simply not be there save for the magnificent work plants have done in transforming our atmosphere and making it breathable. As you look at all the greenery, bear in mind also that plants, by absorbing carbon dioxide and reducing the greenhouse effect, have saved our world from becoming dangerously overheated. Without plants and all they do for us, we would not be alive today. Consider how you would like to express your thanks.
Thank you for reading this! Without you, this blog would be nothing but empty pixels.
Next time, we continue our journey through Active Hope with: What Ails Thee? Transforming Pain
>More on gratitude from the excellent Zen Habits