I thought it might be fun to spend some time this month thinking about gratitude. It is, after all, the month of Thanksgiving, which is not just a holiday for large feasts and time with friends (although that is important, too). Thanksgiving is also a prime opportunity for reflecting on what we are thankful/grateful for. The more we count our rosebuds, the more our eyes are open to how amazingly lucky we are. Now, before you delete this, thinking I have lost my mind, hear me out: practicing gratitude is not only good for your mental well-being, but it also provides a calming effect on your brain; can minimize effects of stress, anxiety and depression; can reduce your blood pressure; and can give you feelings of energy and positivity. So … gratitude is literally good for your health! While it is not all about you, there is a piece of it that is!
Let’s look at this a bit. I hope by the end of this, you’ll realize how amazing your own yard looks, instead of peeping over the fence wishing what you saw there was yours.
Think about it: You can’t reach your goals when you’re jealous of or comparing yourself to others. When you're focusing on what others are working on, or looking at what someone else has accomplished or has received, then you won’t see what all you have yourself. The grass is always greener, and all that, right? I'll tell you something right now: You have been impressed with people (perhaps not all, but some) for the wrong reasons. Honestly, my friend, be less impressed by money, titles, degrees, and looks; and be more impressed by generosity, integrity, humility, and kindness. Comparisons don’t ever pay off in the end; inevitably, by definition, someone comes up short.
How does one stop gazing with longing across the proverbial fence line, and focus instead on the wealth you have in hand? How do you stop thinking about what others have, and focus on what you have accomplished? Or what you'd like to accomplish?
A couple of thoughts:
When was the last time you wrote a thank you note to someone? It's probably been a while since you sat down and put some serious thought into saying what someone’s actions mean to you. But listen, while it doesn't have to be Shakespearean prose, taking the time to put into words what xyz means to you helps you to focus on what it is you appreciate, and how good it feels to think those positive thoughts about someone else. You know what? It might even inspire you to do something big (or little) for someone else. And it's not about getting a thank you, or receiving praise. Doing something nice for someone else feeds a part of your mental being that thrives on doing good for other people. If this is not an action that comes naturally to you, the more you do it, the easier it will be. Giving is not actually an act that comes naturally to all people; like all skills, it becomes easier the more we practice it. What does this have to do with keeping your thoughts on your own yard? By being deliberately grateful for what you have, by acknowledging it with a physical ‘thank you’ and realizing the beauty of another person’s contribution to you, you take a step towards being more centered. Gratitude is deliberate.
Do you know how great you have it? I mean, how really GREAT you have it? Do you know how amazing your life/family/job/friends are? Maybe not. A good way to realize just how awesome you have it is to walk in someone else's shoes for a while. No, I am not saying you should run away from your family and job and live on a deserted island. What I am suggesting is that befriending those who might not have as many fortunes as you do (by your definition, not theirs) would help you to get a clearer picture of what it might be like if things in your own life were a little different. Okay, not exactly, as you would not be completely forgoing your situation, but talking with those in different circumstances (read: less fortunate) than your own with help you to realize how great your own situation really is. See things in a different light. Maybe because I spend a good chunk of time around those with less physical comforts as what I have, I see how how fortunate I am… and also how little ‘creature comforts’ one really needs to be happy. Possessions, physical structures, accoutrements .. they are not necessary for you to be happy. Comfortable, sure. But necessary? Hm, maybe not.
When you hear negative comments (or have negative thoughts), a sure way to retrain your mind (and practice being pollyanna-ish, I admit) is to reframe the negative and focus on something positive in the same situation. At first it might feel forced, and come across as fake; even so, please do try to find things you genuinely like about the situation. It can be as small as liking the color of blinds in the conference room you have been stuck in for the hour-long droning meeting, or admiring the rings on the hands of the sole checker in the 6-person deep queue at the grocery store. Little things, but they help refocus your attention. We have a lot of traffic in this town we live in; rather than getting irritated at the delays, I find humor in what the vendors are selling – the options range from tummy toner gadgets to a cornucopia of fruit to various wires and electronic gadgets to things I can’t even identify. Painting, rugs, and thigh contraptions, oh my! It’s completely random and endlessly humorous … and I’d have missed it had the traffic been flowing.
Say something nice to someone. Again, it can be something small (someone got new glasses!), or something big (what a great motivating speech, Mr Supervisor. I really feel enthused about my task!). It should be sincere; this is a real compliment to another person. This is one of my favorite things to do, especially to someone I might not know very well. Why? Hearing a nice comment from someone you don't know well can be a real boon; in fact, oftentimes one will heed a comment from one they don't know more so than they might a comment from a good friend. A positive thought can be what it takes to for us to refocus, and reframe. Isn't it lovely to think you might be party to that?
Bad stuff happens. It does, it can't be helped. But bad stuff happening gives us opportunities to learn. When this does happen, ask yourself: what can I learn from this? What can I do differently next time? What can I change so that this doesn't happen again? Teachable moments really are all around us. It's up to you to make the most of them.
Finally, try really hard not to complain or criticize for 10 days. Yes, 10 days. It takes a lot of energy to focus on the negative and make comments. Couldn't you use that energy for positivity instead? I bet, if you really tried, you could refrain from negative comments. When you do, you are again focusing on the positive aspects. The more you practice seeing that, the more you focus on the glass being half full, the more likely you will be to automatically see that. You're creating a new habit, a positive one. In the end, your ability to see the positive will be stronger than not; you will naturally be more grateful and embrace a positive attitude.
One last thought: Sociology studies are showing that people who spend a lot of time on Facebook are significantly less happy than those who do not. Why might that be, you may ask. Shouldn’t it make us happier to be in such easy and constant contact with our friends? Well, while that might be so, it turns out that constant contact makes us realize how ‘less’ we are; our Facebook lives are, happier, more amazing, more cool and definitely more acceptable than our ’real’ lives. I mean think about it: aren’t you much more likely to post an amazing fun event than you are a Monday afternoon grocery trip? Additionally, seeing and reading about how great our friends’ lives seemingly are can escalate feelings of sadness, loneliness, and even envy. Put Facebook in its place – use it as a tool to keep in touch and not a place for comparisons. Your real life is just as awesome as your Facebook life, if not even more so, trust me. It is, because it is real, and filled with the people most important to you.
We can talk more about goal setting and achievement at some other point. But suffice it to say, if you are happy with what is going on in your own yard, you'll be much less likely to be gazing longingly at your neighbor's, and much more apt to succeed with what it is you want to be achieving. It takes a lot of energy to covet; refocus that wasted energy on something positive for yourself. Focus on what you have. Focus on what you see right before your eyes. Don’t worry about the neighbors or your Facebook friends. Focus on you because you and your immediate family are the ones that are important. Grass is always greener? Maybe, but your grass looks pretty darn good, too. Just take some time to appreciate it.