Gratitude: An unrelenting advantage in a chaotic world

Gratitude is something that we often overlook. Instead, we often try to be better, faster, smarter and stronger, in an effort to stay ahead of the game and other people.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be better, but, we start to run into problems when we put personal achievements ahead of gratefulness. When we do this, what we end up with is entitlement and discontentment with what we have, and most concerningly; with who we are as people.

Here’s the truth, it’s not our fault if we are not ‘grateful’ people. We are wired to be negative because our prehistoric primordial mind uses negativity as a survival mechanism. This is called negativity bias, and it becomes a downright burden when you remember that one time someone criticized your work, and now that’s all you remember when you do similar projects.

Being grateful is more than just being thankful. ‘Gratitude’ in the Latin root, simply means good will.   

Lori Chandler at reminds us that “gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our “reward circuitry” that produces the sensation of pleasure).”

Why is good will important?

In the western mind, we praise ambition and achievement. We put it on such a pedestal that we think that a person’s achievements are in direct correlation to their ingrained value as a person. This idea becomes problematic; not just in how we view people, but for ourselves; when we are the ones who have failed or disappointed someone we look up to. Because we have set the standard of ‘ambition + achievements = perceived worth’, What inevitably follows is a feeling of shame and worthlessness.

If we have set a harsh standard for someone else, how much more harshly do we hold ourselves to that standard when we have failed to meet the set criteria?

So now, we have a cultural movement of people, especially with the internet entrepreneurial movement, who believe that they need to achieve, and that failure to achieve means that they are losers, and, being a loser means that you are worthless which means that you should be ashamed of who you are.

Failure doesn’t make you a loser. Thinking that you are a loser makes you a loser. And, when we set ourselves up against a moving scale, where our actual self-worth is tied to an achievement – we have already failed, whether we feel it now or next year.

The problem with feelings of worthlessness

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that each year approximately one million people die from suicide, which represents a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000 or one death every 40 seconds. It is predicted that by 2020 the rate of death will increase to one every 20 seconds.

I’m not saying that all suicides are a result of people being ungrateful – I’m saying that our culture is broken and we’ve strayed away from the importance of genuine human connection.

Why we need to a culture of gratitude

Gratitude is a stabilizing and sobering force that tells us two things:

  1. That there is good in all our lives, no matter how small.
  2. That there are sources of good outside us that positively impact on our state of being.

Science has linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation, and energy, better sleep and health, and reduced stress and sadness. Grateful people are much more engaged with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning, and specialness.

Gratitude provides catharsis for those who are dealing with strong emotions. Emotional stress can be extremely damaging if kept unchecked. Yet, a lot of us tend to push our emotional needs to the wayside in order to complete a project or make a deadline.

Practicing gratitude is not a new or revolutionary concept. It has been used for thousands of years by philosophers and religions to build empires; instead of using coercion.

How to practice gratitude

Like anything, we need to practice gratitude if we want to see any benefits. For me, practising gratitude initially felt silly and arbitrary. I believe that this is because we use another form of catharsis to release our strong emotions – blame.

We shirk responsibility to someone or something else. It’s easy and sickly gratifying to frame another person or thing as the cause of our distress. Practicing gratitude is difficult because we are so used to practising blame, but, here’s the problem with blame (aside from the fact that it’s pathetic). When we blame someone else, we are saying that “I’m a victim and I can’t do anything about this situation that has happened to me.” In essence, we give up control and responsibility of our own progress. And when we do this, nothing will change for us, nothing will get better.

  1. Find something to pat yourself and others on the back for everyday.
  2. Keep a gratitude journal to recite regularly.
  3. Write a Gratitude mantra.
    *say what you are grateful for regularly. 

What I’m grateful for

For me, the practice of being grateful was an uphill battle. I’m a fixer – I have to successfully solve problems, and I’m someone who has to exercise control over a situation. If a situation didn’t go as planned, then I would start the cycle again – of putting in twice the effort to gain back control. The result is massive burnout and emotional depletion.

For me to be grateful, I have to think about the sacrifices my parents made to get me here. My parents moved out of post-Apartheid South Africa to New Zealand when I was 4 years old. As a result of their decision, I got to have the opportunities that they never had and be shielded from things that wouls cause me pain. 

I’ve never had to deal with issues of race and segregation like they had to. I’ve never felt discrimination because of the colour of my skin, but they did. And I’m better off because they were courageous enough to leave everything behind for a better life, for me.

Your source of gratitude doesn’t have to be as dramatic as mine. It can be small and simple. You can even start the practice being grateful by being thankful that your horrible day came to an end. Even when you fail at something, be grateful that the situation gave you some valuable information you didn’t know before, which means that you have an opportunity to grow as a person. It may sound ridiculous, but the point is to start and to practice.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Grateful people are generous

When you are filled with joy at what you have and how you got here, you feel an obligation to help others. Being grateful means that you are contented with yourself in this present moment. It means that you acknowledge the people, situations and phenomenon that brought you here, today – alive and with potential.

The great Stoics sought to mitigate the ‘hedonistic adaptation’. It was a tendency that people always wanted more. We are never satiated, more possessions breeds more wants. The Stoics saw this pattern and devoted themselves to moderation and contentment – because (unfortunately) more stuff doesn’t mean more happiness.

The Daily Stoic sums up the philosophy of generosity as:

What we give to others is far more valuable than what we might try to take for ourselves. When we relinquish the pursuit of more—yearning for what might be ours or fearing what might be taken away—we gain the freedom of being present in the here and now, present to our relationships and to the opportunities to do good in each moment.

In theory, we all know that it’s better to give than to receive, right? But how many of us can really say that we are generous people? I would argue that we all want to be generous, it’s our ingrained attitude that stops us from seeing it through. So, the attitudes should give us an edge and a leg up – pride, ambition and satisfaction, are really the crutches that bar us from deeper human experiences – freedom, mindfulness and generosity.

A final thought

When we forget about gratefulness, we really end up hurting ourselves. We deny ourselves peace and contentedness and actually punish ourselves because deep down, we believe that we are never enough and that we are unworthy of love.

When you are grateful, you accept this moment and your part in it – you are thinking what came before you and wishing well those who will come after. You are coming to terms with the fact that it’s okay to feel content with who you are and where you are in life. And, you are cultivating the best kind of humility, that recognises that you are worthy and enough, and it’s ok to have no fucking idea what you are doing – because achievement has nothing to do with your worth as a person.

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