I recently introduced the first in my series of posts on what I am calling Pillars of Happiness. Each pillar represents a concept fundamental to the realization, experience, or attainment of happiness. The intent is to introduce a new pillar every week or so, but this depends largely on my ability to properly articulate my thoughts, which of late I have had difficulty doing.
The first pillar discussed was perspective, with the focus being that we may experience joy and happiness by shifting ones attitude towards themselves, others, and life in general,. The right perspective places the power to choose happiness squarely within our own reasoned choice, rather than leaving it to be subjectively influenced by externalities that are out of our control.
Today we will discuss the second Pillar of Happiness, which is gratitude. Gratitude is akin to perspective in that gratitude is an attitude or perspective on life wherein one chooses to be thankful and accepting for what they have rather than despairing at what they lack. Two people may consider the exact same experiences, but whereas the ungrateful person will be dissatisfied and unhappy, the grateful person is thankful for whatever they may have and is happy because of it.
Ingratitude is a state of dissatisfaction that holds permanently in unhappiness. People who are ungrateful are always wanting more, believing that their life is somehow lacking and that their happiness will be realized whenever they fill the void. Our state of ungratefulness is deliberately exacerbated if not intentionally created by elements of society that seek to profit on our insecurities with the promise that happiness is just a purchase away. Billions of dollars of marketing are spent convincing people that they are not good enough as they are and that they should feel a sense of shame and unhappiness because of it, while offering products and experiences that can finally give us the happiness and sense of gratitude we lack presently.
Because we are convinced that happiness will be ours once we have the perfect body or clear skin, the shiny sports car, the mansion, or the impressive job title, we exist in a state of unhappiness in the meantime. Happiness becomes not something that we can enjoy here and now, but something that must be obtained or earned. For those among us who do obtain their dream physique, purchase their favorite car, or buy a nice new house, we find that we are surprisingly dissatisfied with our new state, and we quickly begin searching afresh for the next level up as it were – scanning the horizon yet again for something better, nicer, and newer. This is precisely the problem with ingratitude. It becomes a permanent state of being and no amount of achievement or possession can ever fully satisfy us.
A lack of gratitude creates a problem in that we believe happiness is ever on the horizon. A practiced state of gratitude is needed to fix this problem. When we experience gratitude we feel a sense of fulfillment, and joy, realizing that ourselves and everything in our life is not simply enough, but more than enough. An old proverb says: enough is good as a feast. If you practice gratitude, enough will be exactly that, as good as a feast.
“Enough is as good as a feast.”Thomas Malory
The grateful person doesn’t covet the neighbor with the fancy new car. They are grateful for the car that they have because it gets them to work on time, allows them to run errands quickly, and presents the opportunity to see far away friends and family. The grateful person doesn’t see the model in the beauty magazine and feel shame, she feels grateful for the body she has and for all the wonderful experiences it has allowed her to feel and for carrying her through the journey of life. The grateful person doesn’t see an Instagram post of their neighbor enjoying a vacation at their lavish 3rdhome in the mountains and feel shame. They reflect inwardly at how grateful they are to have even one house, knowing that it is more than adequate at keeping them and their family safe from exposure to the elements. The grateful person takes stock of what they have and is thankful for it, not focusing on that which they don’t have. Seneca the Stoic once said “No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” Through this quote we are reminded of the first pillar of happiness, perspective, reminding us to shift our perspective from what we don’t have to what we do, this being gratitude.
Gratitude isn’t just about the things we own like our possessions, as much as one actually owns anything anyway, or our bodies which we temporarily inhabit. Think about the things we know we don’t own that are one day destined to end. Think about our friends who can’t be bought, think about the beauty of the sunset in the sky, and think of the beauty and wonder that is life at all. Life itself is a gift that we have inherited against incalculable odds, and it is one that we may only enjoy for the briefest of time before our experience must end. Be grateful to wake up every morning and be alive. Be grateful for whatever may happen to you that day, be grateful for what you are about to do. Good or bad is merely a matter of perspective, but the appropriate condition in either case is gratitude because without good or bad there is nothing, and then there is no life to be grateful for.
Catholic Priest David Steindl-Rast once said “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy” and he is absolutely correct. Gratitude allows us to be happy in any circumstance. We do not first experience happy and then realize that we are grateful for being happy. We first take stock of our lives, for this beautiful experience that is existence, for which we become grateful and then experience happiness because we are grateful.
“It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.”
One of the most helpful tools I use to cultivate gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. I did this for prolonged periods during some of my darker days and in many ways it helped me feel a sense of joy and happiness when all else seemed dark and doomed. Even today in a better place I still occasionally utilize this practice when I find myself slipping. The idea is that you pick 3-5 things from your day, I usually write mine at night so I have the whole day prior to think about, and write about something in that day for which you are grateful. It can be as simple as exchanging a few pleasant moments of small talk with a cashier, enjoying a meal, or a funny joke. The idea is that even on the worst days, we can find something to be grateful for and realize that life is in fact beautiful and great and that we can be happy.