Question: Each one of us would like to be thankful and feel gratitude for all the things that we have today. But why is it so common to only notice everything wrong/missing in our lives? What are some ways to practice gratitude and feel content with what we have?
Our minds were designed by evolution to noticed problems. If you were living out on the Savannah, those who noticed problems (and tried to fix them) or potential problems (and tried to avoid them) lasted longer than those who spent the day being grateful for the sunshine.
The problem is that this attitude of constantly noticing problems and dangers is out of sync with our modern reality. We aren’t going to be eaten by a lion. Yet our minds are still living in a different era.
Gratitude isn’t just a practice of saying thanks. It’s also a practice of shifting your attention away, if only transiently, from the incessant focus on problems and danger and onto the things which are good. However, since our minds evolved powerful problem detectors, but weak gratitude muscles, this shift in attention is rarely an automatic one. It takes a lot of practice, and likely some intervention, to make gratitude a habit.
Here are some helpful tips for implementing gratitude:
1. Start by adjusting your reference point.
We often compare ourselves to other people. Others are in a relationship, we are alone. Others have a great job, we’re broke. Others have admiration and respect, people don’t like us. Yet these comparisons usually lack imagination. They point out how you compare to your imagination of a handful of people near you.
In contrast, I often find it helpful to broaden my scope. Even when things weren’t great in my life, they were still a lot better than they are for much of the world. Even if you feel like you don’t live in great conditions, there were many points in time when things could have been much, much worse. Since gratitude is a relative experience, it’s often useful to recognize how many things aren’t problems in your life, but you just never notice them.
2. Avoid the “Friends Paradox”
The “friends paradox” refers to a phenomenon in sociology where your friends always have more friends (on average) than you do. That’s because, some people will, on average, have more friends than other people, but since they have more friends they will disproportionately be friends with people who have less friends than they do. The result is that your social surroundings always seem to be populated with more popular and social people than you.
This has a lot of implications on our relative perceptions (and thus gratitude) because we get a distorted picture of what’s typical. College students, for instance, frequently overestimate the prevalence of binge drinking and promiscuity, simply because the people who party the most are easier to see. The more typical, boring, student stays and home and isn’t noticed.
The next time you think the average person is better off than you, ask yourself whether you might not simply be ignoring the problems and pains of others, simply because they aren’t as visible as the success people want you to see.
3. Don’t be like the monkeys.
Here’s a video of an experiment involving monkeys. The monkeys like both cucumbers and grapes, but they prefer grapes. You can train the monkeys to do a task which has a nice piece of cucumber as a reward and they’ll be happy to do it. Given one of the monkeys a grape, however, and the other monkeys will no longer accept cucumbers.
We have a hardwired sense of fairness. If we feel like someone else is getting a better deal than us, we’re likely to throw it back in their face.
Yet, sometimes we don’t have control over who gets the better deal. Maybe you worked really hard and only got a B-, while a friend aced an exam without working hard. Maybe your got looked over for a promotion and somebody less deserving got it instead. These are all situations that can make us feel angry and envious. Yet, often we’re acting just like the monkeys—throwing back cucumbers because we suddenly realized grapes were an option.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t fight against unfairness, but that there will always be unfairness in life and so it’s better to step back and see that the cucumbers we get in life aren’t always so bad, even if others sometimes get grapes.
4. Be grateful for your problems.
If you can readjust your reference point and start to imagine the challenges that other people hide from you, that should already do a lot to shift your perspective outside of yourself. Once you have a different perspective, it’s a lot easier to be grateful.
However, I often find it useful to go a step further and not just to be grateful for your lack of problems, but to be grateful for your problems themselves. This can be a tough perspective to adopt, especially if your problems are extreme or tragic. However, the problems themselves allow you an opportunity to live differently than if your life had been without them. The job that stresses you out can also be a source of meaning as you overcome challenges. The relationship that failed can allow you to find something better. Even the tragedies that seem to have no positive side can still allow you to appreciate your life in a different way.
This step isn’t mandatory, but I find it a useful exercise for reframing things and encouraging gratitude.
Ultimately, gratitude is not (and may never be) the automatic pattern for you to think about your life. Our mental hardwiring is simply too strongly pointed towards problems and dangers. However, if you can introduce a little more gratitude, you may be happier for it.