Cultivating Gratitude

Cultivating a sense of gratitude and appreciation for your life is one of the greatest skills to master.

It is easy, but shortsighted, to categorize things into simple ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ or positive and negative.  Just like there are elements of the yin in the yang, and vice versa, there are positive elements in negative experience, and negative elements in positive experience.  It becomes a question of relativity; are you evaluating your experience in terms of your ‘right now,’ or are you taking a longer-term view of the situation?  Are you evaluating your life in terms of creature-comforts or best practices?

A simple example to illustrate:  many people shy away from exercise, finding that it makes them sore and uncomfortable – ‘Exercise?  Not for me, thanks.’  In this sense, they are evaluating the sore and uncomfortable as negative things – evaluating things relative to their conception of ‘comfort.’  It is equally possible to understand the sore and discomfort as feelings of progress – the muscles breaking down and rebuilding stronger.  In this sense, it doesn’t become ‘a necessary evil,’ but rather a desired state, for without that sense of discomfort, no progress is being made.   It is much better to evaluate things in terms of ‘progress’ or ‘excellence’ than in terms of comfort, but that ultimately becomes a challenge that each individual must confront in their own lives.

Cultivating a sense of gratitude certainly gets much more subtle than this – Buddhists often refer to this along the lines of finding the flower in the mud of your experience, but recognizing the value in appreciating the challenges we face extends far beyond Buddhism.

Science will continue to prove things like people who are steeped in a sense of gratitude lead physiologically healthier lives – lower stress and blood pressure, for instance, due to having a healthy understanding of the workability of any situation.

When you are grateful even for your challenges, you stop becoming as perturbed by their appearance – you can even smile at them as you see them approaching.  But it doesn’t take a scientist to understand how this could be beneficial to one’s lived experience – you will naturally become more resourceful as you write off less things as permanent road blocks.  By challenging yourself to become grateful for every element in your life, you will bring a spark of mindfulness to each situation that can help illuminate many considerations that would otherwise go unrealized.  It is pretty awesome once you realize you can actively redefine any part of your experienced reality to your liking, simply by changing the attitude with which you approach the situation.

A trick to this is that it can be difficult to recognize all of our good fortune – often it takes some negative experience to help us appreciate what we have.  It is easy to take things for granted when they are working well, often in the form of not coming to a full understanding of a given dynamic – ‘it’s not broke so why fix it?’   In order to be able to fix something, you need to understand it, and you tend to focus on the things that need fixing more than the things that are working well.  So make sure you provide a balance to this natural tendency by taking time to recall the positives in your life and experiencing a sense of gratitude by understanding the implications.   An easy one to do, and a good example of this phenomenon, is to take time to appreciate your range of physical capabilities.

Most of us take walking for granted, up until the time where physical disability, say, a bad hip, makes walking around painful and difficult.  We don’t spend much time during our lives appreciating this wonderful means of transportation, but once we lose it we will spend a lot of time decrying its absence.  If you take the time to appreciate what you’ve got while you’ve got it, it is less likely that you will feel like you squandered it when you no longer do.

Challenge yourself to bring a sense of gratitude and appreciation with you to whatever task you are performing – you will find like any muscle it may be challenging to do at first, but once you get some practice with it there will be very few situations that you cannot find something ‘good’ to work with, by delving directly into the ‘bad.’