Last time we looked at the spiral of transformation and how we can become more resilient during a crisis. It may be surprising, but this process always begins with gratitude. In fact, if the news and miscellaneous madness of the world is getting you down, this is one guaranteed way to cheer yourself up. Gratitude could even be 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 your blessings will make you happier and more satisfied with life. Gratitude focuses your mind on the positive and reminds you of the interconnectedness of life. Even if you’re struggling, practising gratitude can make a difference to your mood. Here are some of the benefits of gratitude:
- makes you feel happier
- improves your long-term wellbeing
- makes you healthier by lowering blood pressure, reducing pain, increasing vitality and energy levels
- makes you more friendly and so improves your relationships
- boosts your career by improving decision making and increasing productivity
- helps you to relax and reduces stress levels by making you feel good
- changes how you remember the past by boosting recall of positive events
- 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 five 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 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.
You might end up including some of the ‘stuff’ you own on your list. For example, I’m grateful that I have a computer and broadband access so I can write this and connect with you. (hello!) But be careful about focusing too much on material goods – there’s a serious downside.
Consumption and the Law of Dissatisfaction
There’s another body of research that suggests materialism has an inverse relationship to happiness. The more materialistic you are, the less happy you will feel. 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 have to be rich to suffer from materialism, or affluenza. But if you value appearance over substance or measure your self-worth through your possessions or level of income, you’re guaranteed to be miserable – whether you realise it (or admit it) or not.
In his article One Rolex Short of Contentment, George Monbiot illustrates this socially destructive mindset with images posted on Rich Kids of Instagram:
“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 that 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.”
Recently, ex-Facebook president Sean Parker revealed what we kind of knew already: that Facebook was designed to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology” and to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.”
Another former Facebook executive said the platform was “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” It was deliberately designed to manipulate the way you think in order to extract personal data and then sell advertising to make you buy more stuff. Facebook was never about connecting people. It’s an advertising delivery system and a surveillance tool designed to mess with your head.
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 really have isn’t only killing the planet, it’s turning us into miserable narcissists.
Thankfully, there’s 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. A few years ago I 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. It was as if merely stating my intentions and opening my heart to the future was enough to unleash the furies. This happens sometimes on the spiritual path, usually when you believe things are going well! Old fears resurface to be purged so you can finally leave them behind. (You can read more about what happened here.)
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’s hard to look darkness in the face. It’s even harder when you know that darkness is inside you. But what it revealed 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 for me, gratitude is about accepting reality. To be grateful for anything you must accept it.
So gratitude is about saying YES! to life – all of it, not just the bits you like or the bits that feel good; the whole stinking mess of it too.
Crisis? What crisis?
When we’re faced with the possible destruction of 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 feel 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.”
Finally, I must express my gratitude to you, dear reader! Thank you for reading this. Without you, this blog would be nothing but empty pixels and me talking to myself…
Next time we’ll explore the healing power of transforming pain