Things could always be better. We may think that we could be happy if only they were.
There are usually specific things we have in mind. We might be dissatisfied with our education, job, health, fitness, family life, income, and so on.
But if we get those things that we want, will we be happy, or will we simply find something else to direct our discontentment towards?
There will always be something to find fault with. Many people, for instance, yearn for a romantic partner. Then when they have one, they wish they had a different one. Maybe they wish they were single again altogether.
This cyclical pattern does not serve us. If we find ourselves the trap of chronic discontentment, the only solution is to find a happy status right now; otherwise, we may never have the happiness we pursue.
AMBITION, OR GREED?
Of course, there is a reason we have these instincts, even though they may lead us to dissatisfaction.
In moderation, these instincts are called ambition. Ambition tends to be an externalizing instinct. That is, it influences us to change things on the outside. Things like our jobs, relationships, and material interests.
Ambition leads us to greater things, and prevents us from settling for less. If we put ambition to constructive use, it leads us to improve our situation in a very tangible way.
However, we all need to be able to counterbalance the externalizing influence of ambition, or else our ambition will consume us.
Runaway ambition starts to look a lot like greed: the short-sighted and narrow compulsion to acquire more and more. This compulsion is never satisfied. We see this urge throughout society where consumerism is rampant and wasteful.
Those of us who are burdened by their own disappointment need an internalizing influence, like gratitude.
CHANGING OUR MINDS
Gratitude is happiness. You can’t achieve a status of happiness unless you are happy with your status.
Gratitude’s role is to put beauty in the eye of the beholder. If we reframe things and focus on the positive, it is possible to increase the value of what we have through a simple change in mindset. This makes us better off than we were before, even though the change is intangible.
In addition to augmenting the positive, we can also minimize the negative. We do this by accepting negative events and things when they are beyond our control, and understanding that obsessing over them is a waste of energy.
Minimizing the negative doesn’t mean repressing it. We need to acknowledge it and process it. But we should also be ready to let go of it, and there may come a time when we must overcome it. At all times, we should strive to be resilient to it. Gratitude can help us get there.
Some rare people show a remarkable mastery of gratitude. These people have often faced serious adversity in their lives. For them, gratitude was a matter of necessity; it may have been the only way to cope in an otherwise unwinnable situation.
But gratitude is essential for everybody, not just these rare individuals. If we do not develop this skill, the value of what we have may actually depreciate in our esteem; we may find ourselves headed down the slippery slope of greed.
If we learn to refocus our minds and seek out positivity, we will find it.
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
The choice between ambition and gratitude is often a matter of time and opportunity. This is why young people, who have lots of time and few commitments, tend to be more ambitious, and older people, who have less time and more commitments, tend to learn gratitude.
There may also be situations where quicker gains can be made through externalizing action, rather than focusing on internal development. Gratitude without ambition, after all, is lethargy.
Ambition and gratitude, however, are not mutually exclusive. Gratitude can actually stimulate ambition; if we conserve all the emotional energy we spend resenting our situation, we can redirect that energy towards changing that situation.
In other words, gratitude allows us to work with the situation.
So if we want to learn gratitude, what questions should we be asking ourselves?
EMBRACING LIFE’S TRANSITIONS
We tend to assume that accomplishing our goals will make us happier. But what are we expecting to happen if we do achieve our goals? Will we really be fully satisfied?
The truth is that we should be setting goals, and we will be better off once we achieve them. But without a durable sense of gratitude, dissatisfaction over one thing will be swiftly replaced. If we find ourselves chronically disappointed, it may be more sustainable to target the dissatisfaction itself.
We are especially prone to dissatisfaction when we know something will change, but we are simply stuck waiting for it to happen. It is particularly difficult to be grateful for what we have when something better is just out of reach.
But, if something better is coming our way, then we’d be better off feeling hopeful and optimistic for it, rather than begrudging our current circumstances. Conversely, misfortunes could be on the way; we could find ourselves nostalgic for a time we never even appreciated. Why not appreciate it while it’s actually here?
The fact is that life is fluid. We will continually be in a state of setting goals as soon as we achieve them. Something could always be better, and it could be worse. If we can’t be happy as we are, we will never be.
There are many different aspects of life to juggle, and only so much time to allocate to each of them. We can improve things as they are by redistributing our time and getting the most out of everything we do.
The key is to remember the law of diminishing returns. The more time we spend on any given thing, the less we get for our efforts.
This isn’t to say we should spend exactly the same amount of time on everything we do. Some pursuits are more rewarding than others, depending on our lifestyle. New pursuits in particular may need an initial surge of time and effort to become fruitful.
Nevertheless, we should make sure we don’t get carried away. Many people pour all their time and effort into a single thing, letting other parts of their life fall into decay. Though these people will insist their decisions are calculated, their behaviour is often emotional.
An example of this is the work-life balance. If we spend nearly all our time working, a small amount of leisure time could be extremely beneficial compared to even more work. Conversely, too much leisure time can make us feel worse, rather than better.
But the work-life balance is only one regard in which we can get more out of our time. One valuable way we can spend our time is with the people we care about.
GRATITUDE FOR OTHERS
Our gratitude doesn’t need to be limited to things and situations. We can and should extend it to the people in our life.
The people we care about give us purpose. The people who care about us give us a sense of value.
We should be grateful for what they have to offer us, and grateful to have the opportunity to contribute something of our own. We should appreciate their individuality and celebrate their differences.
These people are worth our time, and we should remember their value to us. Their company can offer us a sense of groundedness, which leads us back to gratitude. Others will be drawn to your sense of gratitude, and you may come to be surrounded by grateful people.
It allows us to acknowledge that life could always somehow be better; if we don’t develop a happy status within ourselves, there is no guarantee we will find happiness outside ourselves
It allows us to control how negative things affect us, even when we can’t stop them from happening
It augments our ambitions by enabling us to put our energy towards productivity, rather than negativity
It allows us to escape from the endless cycle of dissatisfaction, acquisition, and dissatisfaction
Gratitude is a skill. It requires us to have enough mindfulness to detect destructive thinking, and to have enough resolve to transform those thoughts.
While there are many good reasons to be persuaded of the value of gratitude, there is work to be done if we wish to cultivate it in ourselves. That work is up to each of us; nobody can make it happen for us but ourselves.
Anybody can develop a sense of gratitude at any time; there is always something to be grateful for.
What are you grateful for?