This is a post in the series relating to the 5 Steps to Happiness. You can find previous posts on the topic under the appropriate heading with the word happiness or happy or something similarly obvious in the sidebar or the bottom of the page.
A preliminary clarification of what I believe happiness is and is not can be found here: 5 Steps to Happiness – What is Happiness?
Here’s is the list of the 5 Steps to Happiness again:
- Step 1: Adore yourself!
- Step 2: Gratitude
- Step 3: Cancelling the (negative) noise
- Step 4: Decide to be happy
- Step 5: Share your joy!
The last post, 5 Steps to Happiness: Step 1 – Adore Yourself!, was a pretty heavy handed look at what I consider to be the base step to all the others.
This second step, Gratitude, is more lighthearted. Unless you’re me. I found it difficult. I’m weird like that.
For me, an excessive amount of negativity, something I adored about myself, kept me from understanding the importance of gratitude. It took me a long time to truly understand what being grateful meant. It’s not a trite word to be dismissed nor a simple emotion. It’s an appreciation on a deeper level that brings humility.
I’m going to be perfectly honest with you though and say that maybe you don’t need to be grateful in order to find your inner happiness. The reason I list it as a step has to do with making the process easier. And because gratitude brings a sense of calm (and who doesn’t want that?) when done right.
If you’d prefer the easier method to inner happiness, possibly a sense of contentment, other positive surface emotions, and maybe a room full of cute kittens and jelly beans,* let’s carry on and talk about gratitude.
*There are no kittens. Or jelly beans.
Step 2 – Gratitude
I can feel several eyes rolling right now at the title of this step because you’re tired and sick of hearing the word gratitude. I don’t blame you. We’ve heard it all our lives. Like being told to floss. Some of us just don’t do it and the rest go through the motions because that’s what were supposed to do. (Both flossing and being grateful, if you’re wondering.) We’re expected to know the how and when of going about it without an explanation of why.
We go through the obligatory motions of gratitude because no one wants to seem like a heartless prick. We recite what we are thankful for in prayers. If asked, we rattle off the “big three” of family/friends, job, health. Then it kind of trickles into a mumble from there. Gratitude is often an automatic response that becomes a cliché.
This is why most people will tell you that making a list of what you’re thankful for is a great place to start. Although I’m not against a list, I’ve found that the count-your-blessings approach can quickly turn dark and result in a compilation of things that we are thankful are NOT in our lives. This could also be called the “It could be worse” guide to gratefulness with a smidgen of judgmental attitude thrown in, as in, “At least I have my health” or “I’m glad my son isn’t like their kid.” Talk about a downer. I don’t think that’s the correct approach as far as finding happiness goes.
It’s often said that we have everything in life to be thankful for. I believe that’s true. The issue is that our concept of what accounts for everything can be narrow. If you extend your focus beyond the obvious you may be surprised at the richness “in” your life. You can’t be grateful for what you’re unaware of.
Take the time to expand your appreciation and gratefulness will so naturally ooze out of you that people will follow you around with buckets to catch it all. Maybe. I’m not promising anything.
The best way to grow your field of vision is to slow down and observe, think about, and appreciate the “right now” as much as possible. It’s a lot easier to be grateful for what surrounds us when we are present, experiencing each moment. If you read the previous Step 1 – Adore Yourself! post that probably sounds familiar. A large part of gratitude is also about adoration in the present tense.
To illustrate this a little better, here’s a short exercise. How many of these can you honestly answer with “Yes”?
Answer Yes or No:
- Can you recall the last thing you said to your spouse, your best friend (or the last person you spoke to if you have neither)?
- What color is the building where you work (or other place you frequent)? How about the walls, the floor, the artwork?
- Can you name three businesses or side streets on your drive to or from work or the grocery store near your home?
- Do you recall the last time you laughed out loud? (For real, not something that you only said made you laugh. LOL is dead, people.)
- If a stranger asked you where the best place to take a walk, watch the sunrise or catch a sunset is in your area would you be able to answer?
The number of “Yes” answers isn’t as important as the thought process behind the exercise. (Apologies if you wanted a more quantified assessment. The book I’m working on has a larger quiz and a quantifying answer about the levels of appreciative gratitude for you competitive types.)
Obviously, the point is that you should be observant in the present tense. The reason, besides possibly missing out on something fantastic, is to encourage you to give real attention to the things that you already know are important, rather than going through the motions. Hard to appreciate what we can’t see or what we only give a cursory glance.
Most people find this kind of appreciative gratitude fairly simple and familiar, yet difficult to put into practice. There are so many things going through our heads and taking up our days that we find it hard to stop and really pay attention. I would counter that the time it takes is minimal and so is the effort.
Sure, you appreciate your children (most of the time), but what was the last meaningful connection you had? Meaningful doesn’t need to be brilliant or insightful or even time specifically set aside. I can have a five-minute conversation about Doctor Who with my son on his way out the door and share a laugh over a song on the radio with my daughter in less time than it takes a stoplight to change. Or, I could not focus on being present, not give those moments the space to happen organically, and have a lot less to be thankful for.
You’ve heard about this smelling of roses thing before and may wonder if it makes a difference. It does. You’re missing a lot of wonderful things that you wouldn’t know to be grateful for unless you stopped to sniff. Whatever. You know what I mean.
The little things add up to a big picture and it’s how you begin to feel gratitude for the elusive everything. You’ll begin to appreciate your life more as a whole rather than in pieces and that makes the path to happiness that much easier.
Fine – you want a more immediate reward. How about the more you have to appreciate, the more gratitude you’ll experience, and the more relaxed and non-stressed you will feel. How’s that? Try it. It’s true.
Yay… You’re Alive!
There’s another level of gratitude that exists in the here and now that some people aren’t as in touch with. It’s the ability to feel grateful for something so precious that you couldn’t even begin to feel thankful for anything else in your life without it.
I know that sounds a little touchy-feely. And, if you know me, you know I’m not entirely comfortable with that, so let me put it this way: It’s amazing you’re still on this planet. Check the statistics, turn on the news, drive the freeway, take a look at your parents. You know you’re lucky to still be doing that breathing process you’re so fond of.
This is harder than it sounds (no, not breathing) because we take too much for granted. When we contemplate being glad that we’re alive it may sound like lip service and kumbaya nonsense no matter how you spin it.
SIDE NOTE: Apologies in advance for taking the fatalistic count-your-blessings approach that I thrashed earlier, but it’s the best way to quickly convey the feeling of gratitude for simply BEING.
Sometimes it takes a major life event for people to truly appreciate being alive. For those who haven’t had a near death experience or something similar (thankfully, I might add), it’s hard to imagine being grateful about getting up to face another day of work, laundry, and internet trolls.
Maybe you’ve had someone close to you, or maybe you witnessed something unfolding that made you fear for another person’s life. (If not, try to imagine it. Apologies, again.) Remember when you realized they were safe and you had that first reactive feeling wash over you with the thought of “thank goodness they are okay”?
That is the kind of overwhelming sense of gratitude you should have, without the icky parts. Only for yourself and as often as possible.
Because you’re worth it.
There is no true appreciation of anything around you in your life without first appreciating yourself and your existence. This lends to the idea of adoring yourself is the first step. It’s difficult to have real gratitude if you don’t first appreciate yourself.
Thankful Say What?
Maybe this is all old hat to you and you are already grateful with a list of ten or twenty or fifty things you could tick off AND you try to live in the present to find more reasons to be grateful AND you’re already thankful for every breath you take. The question then is: What do you get out of it?
[ I bet you thought I was going to ask you to show your gratitude to others or reciprocate in some other way or something else Pollyanaish. Nope. This is still all about you. It’s your happiness. ]
The feeling of gratitude is a wonderful feeling all by itself, yes, but it can be more than that. If you dig a little deeper you’ll find a genuine sense of calmness. That is the holy grail of gratitude. And, that sense of genuine appreciation and calmness will be useful when it comes time to find your inner happy place.
This inner sense of calm is not a constant feeling, necessarily, unless you’re goddamn saint or have become really, REALLY good at practicing gratitude. You may, however, discover that some of the less desirable emotions – like jealously or resentment – seldom come knocking. It’s pretty hard to experience any surface emotion at the same time you’re feeling grateful, except maybe contentment, and the little annoyances may not seem so annoying. It’s hard to be mad at the guy who stole your parking space when you notice the planter of your favorite violets blooming and you were already grateful for your presence in the universe anyway.
I only briefly touched on the various levels of gratitude, so I thought I would use as a simple analogy to summarize. Like, maybe, a piece of cake.
Because I like cake, that’s why.
Very Bottom Thin Layer (that weird filmy layer that touches the pan):
This layer can represent what we’re told to say about being grateful, including the typical big three of family/friends, job, health. Everyone typically eats this part of the cake without even noticing it’s there. No one questions whether it might be too dry or mushy for their taste.
Bottom Cake Layer
This is the list of items we’re consciously grateful for (that may indeed include the big three) and we may actually mean it. Most of us have no problem with this part of the cake. We know it’s moist and delicious. We try not to let gratitude feel like a burden or something we have to do, although sometimes we allow it to nag at us from the pit of our stomach because we don’t put being grateful into practice.
Middle Fruit / Filling Layer
This is where it gets sticky. (Get it?) Some people are apathetic about what’s in the middle of the cake and ignore it. Others let unnecessary negativity get in their way and complain that the filling is cherry instead of strawberry or only icing instead of filling. Those who enjoy this layer feel the genuine appreciation for what’s in their lives. This layer separates those who go through the motions and those who make an effort to seek and express gratitude as often as possible.
Top Cake Layer
Arguably, the part of the cake with the best consistency. It’s light and fluffy. This is where people not only actively practice gratitude and appreciation, they extend it to being thankful for their very existence and can appreciate the fact that they are alive. They probably practice it daily with arbitrary observations and reminders to themselves. They truly take the time to appreciate everything in life as much as possible. Heck, they may even reciprocate gratitude toward others and share some of their cake.
This is for those weirdos who love the entire cake and everything in it. The Dali Lama and Buddha are icing (don’t write me letters, it’s an analogy). Eating the icing – the whole cake as it were – is an indicator that you probably have an altruistic nature and an all-loving side. There’s an inner calmness that goes along with this level where being grateful can foster contentment and positive surface emotions while pushing out not so nice ones. If you’re not at this level it doesn’t mean that you’re ungrateful or that you can’t be happy. This is simply a goal for the deepest level of what’s possible. And overachievers who probably live on mountaintops.
(P.S. I love actual icing. Just wanted to clarify that. In case you’re baking soon and want to send me something.)
Grateful Is As Grateful Does
Gratitude is probably the easiest of the five steps as well as the most universally mentioned requirement for being happy, yet is the most forgotten and unpracticed.
Being grateful is about the well-known standards of appreciating the people and things we have in our lives, but it’s also about being really thankful for our very existence. The latter part is important. If you’re not thankful for the gift of BEING it’s a lot more difficult to find the inner happiness when the time comes.
You need to be grateful for everything you are, everything you have, and everything that surrounds you. So, to put it simply… the next time someone asks you what you’re grateful for your answer should be one word: ICING! Kidding. It should be: EVERYTHING.
And you really should believe it. You may not “feel” that way all the time (she said reminding everyone that we’re all still human), but there should be an underlying appreciation and willingness to practice being grateful that doesn’t falter.
Maybe you came into this full of gratitude and maybe you have a better understanding after reading it or maybe this didn’t help at all and you still need to feel your way through it. I can tell you that while some days are easier than others to practice being grateful, when you find your heart is truly full of gratitude the concept is not easily forgotten.
Blech. That was all mushy. Let’s move on to something more fun like being a negative sourpuss.
In my unintentional quest for happiness, I realized that being grateful had to do a lot with negativity, which will be the next related post. Negativity isn’t all bad. I like being negative sometimes. It’s all about how much you have and what you do with it.
*P.S. Here is a stock photo of a kitten with some jelly beans. Who knew this already existed?