For my fourth challenge, I have decided to begin a daily gratitude exercise.
“A daily what?”
“What kind of new age bullshit is this?”
If those are your gut reactions, I can’t blame you. Gratitude sure sounds like the latest fad, except that it’s not.
One of the main reasons so many people in the first world are so unhappy is that we spend much of our lives swayed by feelings of envy, anger, scarcity and fear.
We compare ourselves and our possessions to others (envy), we get upset because our lives and circumstances don’t match our expectations (anger), we feel who we are and what we have are not enough (scarcity) and we avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable (fear).
It doesn’t take Anthony Robbins to make us realize what a toxic cocktail of emotions that is. And it’s why most of us are so unhappy so much of the time.
There is a mountain of evidence that proves being grateful makes us happier, more appreciative and less angry, fearful and materialistic.
So in theory gratitude sounds pretty good, but how does it actually work?
Gratitude works to improve our lives through two main mechanisms.
Firstly, it’s not actually possible to feel gratitude at the same time as fear, envy or anger. They’re mutually exclusive, because the exist at the opposite ends of the spectrum. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself. The next time you feel fear, anger or envy, try to feel gratitude at the same time and see if they can co-exist. You’ll see that they can’t.
So you can feel fear or gratitude, but you can’t feel both at the same time. In other words, the more time you spend feeling grateful, the less opportunity there is for you to feel fear. The same applies for anger, envy or scarcity.
Secondly, the more time you spend doing something, the more your brain starts to notice those patterns in the world around you. This is known as the “Tetris Effect”, named after studies that have shown that people who play Tetris for a prolonged amount of time then find themselves thinking about ways different shapes in the real world can fit together, such as the boxes on a supermarket shelf, squares in Excel or the buildings on a street.
The Tetris Effect applies to every part of your life, including gratitude. The more time you spend identifying things in your life that you can be grateful for, the more your brain starts noticing similar patterns in your life.
The feelings and thoughts we rehearse and focus on are the ones that shape our attitude and our actions. How many times a day do you ponder the limits you face, the people who cannot be trusted, the problems that are in your way?
Seth Godin puts it well:
“The problem with problems is that they always keep us from focusing on opportunities, on a chance to contribute and to make something better. Focus on our opportunities doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist, it merely means that we are far more likely to do something that matters.
Gratitude and opportunity create more of the same.”
Putting Gratitude Into Practice
After doing research on gratitude, it seems the most common way to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. Opinions differ on how often one should update the journal (ranging from daily to weekly), but I’ll stick to the tried and true daily formula I’ve used for all the other challenges so far.
In practice this means I will keep a daily journal of things I feel grateful for, and each day I will write down 3-5 things. The objective is to not write the same things over and over again, but to each day find new things in my life to be grateful for. The idea being that by doing so, I will train my brain to notice more and more things in my life that I can and should be grateful for. There will also be focus on being thankful for the hard stuff – the disappointments and setbacks that give birth to learning and growth.
I don’t believe just writing them down is enough, so the objective should really be to think about and feel (so my objective is to really think and feel) the emotion of gratitude as deeply and intensely as I possibly can. Because ultimately, it’s the emotion of gratitude that propels us forward, not the logic of it.
The Endgame of the Challenge
One of the key aspects of this challenge is to see how big of a change can be created in 30 days of gratitude exercises. Much of human suffering comes from having far too many expectations and not nearly enough appreciation for what we already have. This is the reason why so many rich and famous people are so miserable. To paraphrase Australian comedian Jim Jefferies “I’ve come way further than a man of my intellect and looks should have ever come. Yet I’m going to cry myself to sleep tonight because I’m not a movie star yet!”
In may ways, practicing gratitude is for the mind what the cold shower is for the body – it revitalizes, freshens and gives us resilience to take on the challenges of the day.
By practicing gratitude, it is my hope that I will train my mind to become better at identifying opportunities, reducing the impact of negative emotions and become a more content, empathetic person. If I am able to achieve this, I will be another step closer to my goal of becoming a better man, a better friend and a better companion.
Whether gratitude can have an impact on me or not, we’ll find out in 30 days.