Gratitude: How to surf on the waves of life

10 minute read

Gratitude

We try to be faster, smarter and stronger. We plan and prepare, strive and reach. We do this in an effort to stay ahead of the ‘game’ and other people. Unfortunately, no one can win or beat life, things happen that are out of our control all the time. However; If we practice gratitude; I believe that we can ride the turbulence of life with grace. And, maybe we’ll actually enjoy the journey.   

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be better. Everyone should try to be a little bit better than they were yesterday. We start to run into problems when we place personal achievement at the pinnacle of our lives. When we do this, we end up entitled and discontent with what we have, and; most concerningly; with who we are.

Being grateful is not ‘normal’

Not a grateful person? Don’t beat yourself up,  it’s not your fault. We are wired to focus on the negative. Our limbic system,  the primordial part of our brain, uses negativity as a survival mechanism. It tells us what to stay away from so we won’t get hurt, or worse, get killed.

Humans shaped their environment and advanced technologically at a rapid pace. This left no time for evolution to facilitate the necessary adaptations for our brains to cope effectively. What we are left with is called negativity bias, and it becomes a downright pain in the ass when you remember that one time Bob hurt your feelings when he criticized your project. Now, when you do similar work, you feel the need to shelter yourself from hurt – meaning that you are less vulnerable, less creative, more defensive, uncertain and anxious. 

Research shows that we have an anxiety epidemic on our hands. There are more reported anxiety issues today than there were in The Great Depression. We don’t really know why this is the case yet, though, theorists believe that the huge spike in anxiety is due to:

  1. Constantly chasing wealth and prosperity
  2. Consuming too much information

As a current urbanite and entrepreneur, I rely on money and information. So, does that mean the only way to avoid anxiety is to reside in a hermitage or find a monastery to live in?

As a sufferer of anxiety, I can say that practising gratitude was the unrelenting advantage that helped me take ownership of my feelings. Gratitude put me back in the driver’s seat.

How?

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

Lori Chandler at bigthink.com 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).”

Every time that I start to feel the symptoms of anxiety creeping; (tension, shortness of breath, defenselessness…) I thank my brain for have a mechanism that is vigilant of danger and keeps me safe. I frame my anxiety into a moment gratitude. This means that I have a choice of whether to accept the approaching anxiety or choose again. We, humans, have the ability to question our beliefs, trash ones that aren’t serving us anymore, and construct new ones that help us become better. This is the massive power of our brain!

Remember that: We don’t want to just cope, we want to thrive.

“The upset always comes from a mistaken belief that I have about myself.” Diederick Wolsak

Why is good will important?

In the western mind, we praise ambition and achievement. We place it on a high pedestal and think that a person’s achievements directly correlate with their ingrained value. This idea becomes problematic; not just in how we view people, but for ourselves; when we are the ones who have failed, fallen short or been embarrassed. 

When we set a standard of ‘ambition x achievements = perceived worth’, what inevitably follows is a feeling of shame and worthlessness.

If we’ve set a harsh standard for someone else, how much more harshly do we hold ourselves to that standard?

So now, we have a cultural movement of people, especially the tech entrepreneurial movement, who believe that they need to achieve more things at a faster rate. They think that failure to achieve means that they are losers – and being a loser means that they have less social worth – which means that they should be ashamed of who they are.

I need to clarify something. Failure doesn’t make you a loser. Thinking that you are a loser makes you a loser.  If we measure ourselves with a scale that ties our self-worth to our achievements – we’ve only failed ourselves. 

“Our ego thinks that it has an unfailing radar on what the cause of the upset is, when in fact, it has no idea.”

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.

The statistics speak for themselves. What an absolute tragedy. 

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 impacts 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, self-acceptance, 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.

The blame trap

Like anything, we need to actually practice gratitude if we want to see any benefits. For many starting out practising gratitude, it can initially feel 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. Practising 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 can change for us, nothing will get better.

How to practice gratitude

3 ways to start practising gratitude: 

  1. Find something to pat yourself and others on the back for every day, no matter how small.
  2. Keep a gratitude journal to review during times of stress.
  3. Write a Gratitude mantra and recite it regularly. Revise it regularly to include new things. 

Simple right? The only problem is that your ego doesn’t want to let go and give up its control to gratitude. So, prepare to feel uncomfortable, prepare to feel like you’re ‘being weak’ or ‘soft’. Just remember that it’s going to be challenging – keep going.

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 would 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. I’m so much better off because they were courageous enough to leave everything behind for a better life, for me.

At some stage, we’ll all face hurt that seems unbearable. We need to have a mechanism to face that hurt and deal with it in a healthy way.

My suggestion is to start with small moments of gratitude. Start to practice by being grateful that your horrible day came to an end. Be grateful you miserably fail at something because the situation gave you some valuable information you didn’t have before. Be grateful that you have a choice to choose again, in all your circumstances. 

“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 want. 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. We punish ourselves because of an egotistical belief that we are never enough and that we are unworthy of love, so we have to keep striving toward achievements in an effort to prove to others that we are worthy. When anxiety raises it’s ugly head, we can ‘choose again’ because we take responsibility for our feelings. 

When you are grateful, you accept this moment and your part in it – you are thinking of 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 nothing has gone wrong. 

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing, below.

*Subscribe to our mailing list