The power of gratitude

Beautiful cave in Bulgaria

We continuously take stock of our lives, our situations and our interactions, engaged in an ongoing process of comparing what we have with what we want. There are two main “zones” that this perceptive process falls into: the zone of gratitude and the zone of aspiration. With gratitude, we see either things we have that we want, “Hey I really love this new dishwasher I just bought” or things we don’t have that we don’t want, “I am so relieved I don’t have a huge zit tonight because I am going to the Prom”. Then we have the aspiration zone, which is populated by things we don’t have that we do want, “I wish I had a Maserati” or things we do have that we don’t want, “I gained 7lb over the holiday!”

I think we don’t spend enough time in the zone of gratitude, but there are reasons for this. Usually the mind looks for things that it wants to change, and if everything is as it should be, we move on to looking toward things that could improve our situation. When you think about it, if we always lingered in the zone of gratitude, our species would still be living in caves, huddled around a fire, wearing the latest in hyena pelt fashion. We’re not built like that–humans have a very unique approach to existence in that we always strive to make things better. This involves spending comparatively less time being grateful and more time being dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction is an impetus for growth, so don’t beat yourself up too much for being unhappy with what you’ve got. It’s in our biology to be that way and it’s one of the reasons why we aren’t all still using rotary phones and sending hand-written letters as our primary mode of communication.

I do, however, believe there is a difference between aspiration and negativity, and this is where I would like to challenge you. When you find yourself thinking about what you don’t have that you do want and what you do have that you don’t want, try to take an agentic orientation. Don’t dwell on things you want others to change, resentments, the past, or blindly longing for betterment. Take an accounting of what you can do to realize the improvement. Make a plan, don’t waste energy on anger and self-pity, turn that energy into a proactive innovation and action. For instance, if you don’t like the way your girlfriend ignores you when you talk, try thinking of two things you can do to help her improve her ability to listen. Ask her when the best time to talk to her would be, make sure there are minimal distractions, emphasize to her how important her listening to you is, and try to make what you talk about more interesting to her. Solicit feedback on what would make it easier for her to hear you out. “Well you always talk to me when I am doing dishes or cleaning and I have kind of a one track mind, so wait until I am finished with everything” or “It would help me if you included me in the dialogue rather than giving me a one-sided speech about your day”.

Despite the fact that we naturally are deficiency-attentive, embracing a grateful perspective is really important too. Gratitude gives us a foundation of positive security upon which we can build our motivation and positive energy, thereby actualizing our aspirations. The trick is to make a concerted effort to first list the most important things you are grateful for, then move on to making plans that are reachable, specific to you, controllable. The worst thing to do is waste energy and attention wallowing in unhappiness, so be sure to redirect yourself when that pathway is activated. Being gratefully aspirational will ultimately lead to the realization of positive change.

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