Gratitude is wishing for what you already have. For most of us, this doesn’t happen naturally. Good news is that our brains can be re-wired. Daily practice carves out neural pathways that will routinely lead us to fresh ways of thinking and experiencing the world. Grateful people are happy ones; there is nothing complicated about this equation.
Gratitude is a trendy word today. The star of self-help books and Ted talks, like the beautiful one given by David Steindl-Rast, gratitude’s power is undeniable. Gratitude challenges are prevalent on social media, people post lists for a period and then stop. Schools discuss ways to instill gratitude in children. Gratitude journals are sold at toy stores near the Uno cards.
The mass effort to bring gratitude to the forefront of our collective thinking is a positive step. But when something becomes familiar, we stop noticing it. It’s the reason we forget to wish for what we already have. The concept of gratitude has reached the tipping point of overuse, and people feel like they are cultivating gratitude by attending a lecture at their children’s school or highlighting paragraphs in a book. Engaging in a practice and understanding a concept are worlds apart.
For the first thirty years of my life, I didn’t have an ounce of gratitude. Growing up in an environment that kept my fight and flight response activated, the hungry ghost was strong inside me. I craved and schemed to obtain what I wanted as quickly as I could get my hands on it. It was never enough. Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude. There is no appreciation or relief in the world owes me mindset.
So how did I transform from an entitled wretch to someone who feels deeply grateful for my life? Slowly.
Gratitude has been a focus in the rooms of AA long before it surfaced in the mainstream. Fourteen and half years ago, after not drinking for ninety days, my sponsor told me that my thinking was now the source of my misery. She suggested that I email her a gratitude list every morning containing three items. I asked her how she expected me to be grateful sitting amidst the rubble of my life? With few people left, no job, depressed and over-weight, making a gratitude list felt like a cruel request.
When I would call my sponsor to complain that I had nothing to put down on my list, she would calmly ask me, “Did you have a bed to sleep in last night? A warm meal for dinner? A roof over your head?” Annoyed that she would suggest these necessities for my list, I was desperate to feel differently, so I did what she said.
For the next few years, I made gratitude lists daily. The lists became effortless as my life grew. They still included simple things like a great yoga class, walks around the reservoir in Central Park, a delicious meal at City Bakery, and a job that paid my bills. On challenging days, I would put down the three items that my sponsor mentioned when I started the practice. I didn’t just scribble them down anymore, I sat with each one, finally understanding that they weren’t as elementary as I initially believed. They were and still are enormous blessings.
My baseline well-being shifted with my thinking. There is always something right in front of me to be grateful for, it just requires a shift in perspective. I no longer write lists, but I end my two daily meditations by saying thank you for whatever blessings I am present to at that moment. What I focus on is my choice and choosing to focus on the abundance in my life always improves my mindset.