“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.” ~Melody Beattie
My title was a little misleading, at least based on my personal beliefs.
I don’t believe the world fits neatly into some massive yin yang with grateful people on one side and ungrateful people on the other; but rather, we all go through times when we feel high and low degrees of gratitude, and that’s only human nature.
It’s okay to feel angry, despondent, and disappointed. It’s okay to wish things were different—that we were healthier, or happier, or generally less lost in the world.
There’s nothing evolved about ignoring reality or repressing our emotions. But there’s a difference between embracing our feelings and stewing in them.
It might not be possible to be feel grateful all the time, but it is possible to be grateful more often than not.
The opposite was true for me for years, but I’ve shifted my ratio of grateful to ungrateful moments by adopting and reinforcing the following beliefs.
1. Everyone has something to teach or offer me.
That person who cut you off in traffic—she’s likely not a selfish jerk, but rather someone who’s having a stressful day and rushing. Annoying, yes, but thankfully this is an opportunity to practice patience.
That person who broke your heart—he’s likely not a sadistic bastard who took pleasure in your pain, but rather someone who was human and hurting, just like you, and did the best he could. Distressing, yes, but thankfully this taught you a great deal about yourself and what a healthy relationship entails.
This mindset was difficult for me to adopt. For a long time I felt convinced that some people were beyond understanding. And, I thought, like Miley Cyrus, some of them came into my life like a wrecking ball and provided absolutely no value.
I now see that I’ve learned something from every broken heart, broken hope, and broken promise. It’s all helped me become a stronger, wiser, more compassionate person, and the same is true for anyone who chooses to see it that way.
2. There’s something valuable in every challenge.
Just like every person can offer us something valuable, every challenge can contain an opportunity as well.
To be clear, I don’t think we need to see everything as a blessing in disguise. In her book Bright-Sided, author Barbara Ehrenreich shared her resentment for the implication she should see her cancer as a gift. I understand why she felt that way.
This goes back to what I wrote in the beginning—there’s nothing worthwhile about pretending we’re not shocked, saddened, and disappointed by the hardships that come our way. It doesn’t benefit anyone to ignore our natural feelings in the face of trauma and tragedy.
But it is possible to acknowledge that, while some things just plain suck, good things can come from them.
When my grandmother passed away several years back, we all wished we had more time with her. But that began a new tradition for my extended family. Once a week, on the day when my mother previously took my grandmother out to dinner, my aunt, uncle, cousins, parents, and siblings get together for “family night.”
It was a tradition born from tragedy, but one that’s brought everyone closer.
On the other side of loss there’s an opportunity for gain, if we’re willing to seek or create it.
3. Even if I don’t have what I want, I’m fortunate to have what I need.
Very few people have everything they want. True, some may have a lot more than others, but the vast majority of us have hopes that have yet to be fulfilled.
We have dreams, and goals, and ambitions. We want things and experiences and opportunities. We want to be a little richer, for life to feel a little fuller, and to generally get the sense that we’re moving forward, not backward.
Still, amid all the ups and downs and highs and lows, many of us have everything we need, or at least most of it. We have somewhere to live, food to eat, people to turn to, and the ability to pursue whatever it is we’d like to achieve in life.
Those things are not givens. Many people—and you may be one of them—do not have their basic needs met.
I didn’t always appreciate this, because it didn’t seem to make my challenges any easier. But if I didn’t have those needs met, my challenges would certainly be harder.
4. The “little things” are the big things.
If you keep a gratitude journal, you’ve likely recognized just how many touching, fortunate, or fun little things happen every day.
Recently I’ve listed the following in my gratitude journal:
- My new adult coloring books, which provide stress-relief and joy
- Getting to see the Christmas tree lighting at The Grove with my fiancé and an old friend (it happened before Thanksgiving—which annoys some people, I know, but not me!)
- Realizing the new season of Arrow started, and there were five episodes to watch
- Taking a hot bath with a mindless (okay, trashy) magazine
- Getting a cheap but awesome burrito for lunch
- Anticipating a fun family visit for Thanksgiving
- The smell of meatballs cooking in my parents’ kitchen
It’s not every day we get a new job, marry the love our life, or bring a child or passion project into the world. Most smiles in life stem from little things, appreciated.
5. I don’t have to have it all or do it all to be happy.
In the US especially, many of us hold the belief that we need to do it all, have it all, and be it all. We can’t miss out. We can’t fall short. We have to keep up, and keep accumulating.
Sure, it’s nice to cross an experience off our life to-do list, and we all love when we’re able to provide ourselves with something that’s caught our eye.
But grateful people realize that happiness comes from accepting and appreciating what is—and knowing that even if we never have or do more, we can live a full and fabulous life.
This doesn’t mean we need to forsake all our goals and desires and grow stagnant. Though I love the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, as I wrote previously, I don’t believe we need to sacrifice all our wants and dreams to be good people.
I do believe, however, there’s something to be said for putting in the effort, surrendering to the outcome, and recognizing that whatever happens, life can be beautiful.
6. Everyone’s blessings are different, and that’s okay.
When you’re caught up in that race to do more and be more, it’s all too easy to look around at who seems to be “ahead” and feel resentful. Grateful people realize that life isn’t a competition, and there’s no such thing as “behind.”
We’re all different people; we all have different talents, interests, priorities, and values; and we’re all on our own path.
What’s meaningful to me might not be meaningful to you. What’s valuable to me might not be valuable to you.
You might feel blessed to have four healthy kids. I feel blessed to be getting a fish tank soon. You might feel blessed to have just bought a new home in the country. I feel blessed to live in a vibrant apartment community in a city.
And you may have things I wish I had (I actually wouldn’t mind a healthy kid or two), but there may be things I have that you want. And that’s totally okay.
We’re all fortunate in our own way, for different reasons. All that really matters is that we recognize, focus on, and appreciate our own.
7. Things can—and will—change.
Every now and then, I look deeply at someone I love and remind myself that they won’t always be here. And I won’t be either.
It sounds morbid, I know, and it sometimes chokes me up to think about it. But recognizing that nothing and no one will be around forever makes it so much easier to focus on the good things and appreciate what we have.
And this doesn’t just apply to people. It’s not a given that any of us will do the same job until we retire, or that we’ll make the same salary, or that we’ll have the health we have now to enjoy the same hobbies.
Try as we may to insure things won’t change—with contracts, and policies, and commitments—things can, and will, change. Nothing nurtures a grateful heart like recognizing this, and acting like it.
8. It could always be worse.
Yes, it’s a cliché, and not something we want to hear when we’re going through a hard time.
I recently found an anonymous quote that reads, “Saying someone can’t be sad because someone else may have it worse is like saying someone can’t be happy because someone else may have it better.”
Knowing that it could be worse does not have to mean denying our feelings. But it does put things in perspective and make it easier to move through them.
After losing both of his legs, my grandfather could have been bitter. Clearly, many people had it “better” than him—they could walk. But he still had his sense of humor, his values, and the people he loved, and that was all he needed.
9. Life itself is a gift.
We live in a world full of teachers—both people and experiences—that enable us to learn, grow, and continually evolve into the people we want to be.
We have many, if not all, of our basic needs met, providing a foundation that allows us to comfortably enjoy life’s abundant simple pleasures.
We may not have it all, or the same things other people have, but we each have countless things, people, and opportunities to appreciate and enjoy.
This moment will never come again, and there’s no guarantee the moments that follow will look anything like this. Knowing this somehow makes the present more precious—even if things aren’t perfect.
And that brings us to this final belief: life itself is a gift.
It isn’t always easy, or happy, but it’s one hell of a ride—and it wouldn’t be without the bumps and turns. At least, that’s what I believe, and because of this, I’m grateful.
What do you believe?
Woman in leaves image via Shutterstock