How to Be Grateful When You Don’t Feel Like It

rainy day

Rich man crying ‘cause his money is time / Poor man smiling ‘cause he knows he ain’t blind
~ Sam Roberts, “Brother Down”

I can remember more than one night I spent wide awake as a child, frightened from a scary movie or some other show I wasn’t supposed to watch.  As scared as I was, I knew from experience that the night would eventually be over, and I would be fine, but that wouldn’t dispel the fear.  No matter what kind of reasoning I could summon, the fear wouldn’t budge, and I’d be trapped in that awful situation until the sun came up.

Waking my parents to tell them I was scared would do no good.  They could only comfort me for a few moments, then turn out the light and leave me again, vulnerable to any and all zombies or giant reptiles that happened to invade my room.

Once they’d left I’d have no choice but to hide completely under the covers, the edges tucked under my body, so that if a wandering bedroom carnivore did happen to eat me, it would just bite cleanly through this neatly packaged child without my having to ever see it happening.  I figured that ensuring a sudden and speedy demise was the best I could do in those hopeless situations.

This was not a frequent occurrence but it did happen from time to time, and each time I ached so badly for nighttime to be over.  It always came so slowly.  I yearned for the sun.  It didn’t really matter what the next day would contain, as long as it was light out and there were other people around.  I would take anything: unloading the dishwasher, helping my dad organize the garage, standing in line at the 7-11…  anything but to be here, alone in the dark.

In fact, I even fantasized about being in school, under the safety of the fluorescent lights, amongst the orange plastic chairs, and most importantly, around other people.  Cowering under my covers, I resolved never to complain about school again.  It really wasn’t that bad compared to being imprisoned in the darkness, stalked by monsters.  School was seldom something I looked forward to, but when compared to the prospect of being eaten in my bed by red-eyed hell-hounds, it seemed like heaven to me.  It felt bizarre to want to be in school.

This reveals a deep truth: how we respond to the thought of something depends tremendously on our current emotional state.  When my alarm clock would go off at 7:00 on a Monday morning, school was tedious and unfair, but viewed from the depths of one of those scary nights, school was inviting and comforting.  On any school day that followed a night of vampire nightmares, it was always easier to smile, enjoy my friends and get enthusiastic about my schoolwork.

Of course, what school was actually like never really changed, yet my perception of it could vary so wildly, depending on my moment-to-moment needs and priorities.  It was a place that might be boring sometimes, but when viewed objectively, there was nothing truly terrible about it.  Sometimes, when I was particularly grounded and aware, I knew school was something to be grateful for.  Yet most of the time, I just could not find this same gratitude and appreciation for it.

The Crucial Ingredient Necessary for Gratitude

Why was it necessary to survive a gauntlet of vampires and zombies before I could appreciate the secure and social atmosphere of a day at school?   Why do so many  people suddenly become happy and appreciative only after surviving an accident or a major health crisis?  How can we get to a place where we can be grateful without having to experience something terrible in order to provide contrast?  I never figured that out until long after school ended.

Today, I know what my sleepless nights gave me that allowed me to appreciate what I had: perspective. They reminded me that a sense of security is very valuable indeed, and that’s just one of the many things that a crowded classroom can provide for a person.  But I would never even realize how much I value that sense of security until I found myself without it.  As the song goes, you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.

Whether we’re grateful for something or not depends on whether we feel entitled to it.  Anything we view as a right, has a tendency to not feel like a privilege, when in reality, all ‘rights’ are indeed privileges.  We are lucky to have them, and they may not always be there.  Be aware of the negative effect a sense of entitlement has over how lucky you feel.  A sense of entitlement kills gratitude.

The illusion of entitlement makes us blind to the millions of terrible things that aren’t happening to us.  We calibrate what is worthy and unworthy of thankfulness by what we are used to having. Much of what we are grateful for (and what we tend to take for granted) has to do with where we come from.  Our culture defines for us what is to be expected, what we consider to be a luxury, and what we should feel entitled to.

In the developed world, even those of us in the lower income brackets have it pretty good.  It’s like our ‘cake’ is guaranteed, but we allow ourselves to suffer so much just because the icing isn’t quite perfect.  I’ve seen people flip out over slow fast-food service.  I’ve seen fistfights over who gets to use the pool table next.  We take things for granted as a rule, especially in North America.  We’re trained to.

I suppose this is only natural in such an affluent society.  You get used to certain things, and forget so quickly that they’re still providing you with something valuable.  We’re like fish, unaware that water even exists because they spend their whole lives in it.  We’re so completely immersed in luxuries and advantages that we lose track of what incredible gifts they really are.  We’re often reminded to ‘count our blessings,’ but usually we don’t even recognize our blessings until they exceed our expectations or our sense of entitlement. And if we expect a lot (as we modern Westerners do) it can be very hard to feel grateful while we’re dealing with a problem or two.

When you find yourself feeling disappointed or slighted, it’s a good habit to ask yourself, “What am I feeling entitled to, in this situation?”  Is this something that you feel should be guaranteed?  Is this something everyone in the world has?  Is it so hard to get along without it?

I’m reminded of a story Dave Matthews told between songs at one of his concerts.  He was traveling in a poorer region of Africa, and he’d been jamming with some local musicians.  They had been at it for six or seven hours, and Dave realized he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

So he said, “Do you guys want to go get something to eat?  I’m starving.”

The room went dead silent.

The word he chose meant something very different in the country he was in.  As sensitive and unassuming as Dave is, his Americanized sense of entitlement was revealed, to himself and everyone else.

The Joys of Imagining Terrible Things

I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.

~ Mark Twain

It’s common self-help doctrine not to waste your time or work up your emotions by thinking of things you don’t want to happen.  Merely imagining a troubling scenario can provoke the same emotions and anxiety that would occur if you were actually experiencing them.  The heart rate rises, the skin flushes, the muscles tense, all just by thinking.

This phenomenon is quite powerful: it can create crippling phobias, lifelong grudges, neglected responsibilities and unfollowed dreams.  But there is a way of leveraging that phenomenon in a way that benefits us.

We’ve established that gratitude requires perspective, which is often a fleeting quality.  Especially when we are in a bad mood, we know that our perspective is impaired. Big changes to our situation can put things in perspective in a hurry, but we don’t always want those big changes.

Luckily we can create perspective, by visualizing.  It sounds ridiculous, but it pays great dividends to make a habit of imagining what it would be like to have problems you don’t actually have. If you can put yourself, mentally and emotionally, in a place where you’re even more burdened and challenged than you actually are, it can bring perspective to your current situation, and gratitude to the advantages you do have.

Naturally, it never occurred to me to deliberately get worked up over a problem I don’t actually have.  But I recognized why (and how) to do that on one cold, miserable night.

Some days I find myself going to bed upset in some way.  Either it’s something I’m dreading about the next day, or some problem I don’t know how to solve.  Something that doesn’t sit well with me.  I’m sure you’ve all been there.

That night, I was lying in bed, fretting about some now-forgotten problem, when my thoughts were interrupted by the howling wind blowing branches against the building.  It was snowy, and deathly cold out, and I thought “Man am I glad I have walls.”  For a second I imagined the wall were inexplicably missing, and the freezing air was whipping through my room and across my bed.

For some reason I felt compelled to really explore this miserable fantasy: my blanket would be torn from me, the snow would sting and freeze my skin.  It would ruin my new bed, the dozens of books on my shelf, and my whole wardrobe.  Then I’d have some real problems to deal with.  What an important service this wall was providing for me!  And it had been doing it the whole time I’d lived there, thanklessly.

snowywindowIn fact, as I looked around, I realized there were dozens of things in that very room that were improving my quality of life tremendously in that very moment, not the least of which was my soft, glorious bed.  I thought about the people out there sleeping on floors, prison cots, straw mattresses, and in dumpsters.  I felt embarrassed to realize that there were probably people out there in the cold that very night, looking for a safe place to sleep.  And I was staying in a self-made private Hilton, griping about some little puzzle I was facing.  To let a little challenge spoil my mood and the quality of my life, amidst all these wonderful things, was not just a shame, but an outright crime.

In that instant I realized that I was superbly well-equipped to deal with life, and always have been.

I was surrounded by luxuries and tools and advantages I could bring to bear on any problem I had.  If even one of them were missing (say, my bed) it would make life significantly more difficult to deal with, yet I’d still have to, and it could always be worse than that still.  I really am lucky as hell, all the time.

Any time I feel like I have some reason to feel sorry for myself, I look around me at all the tools and privileges I have in that particular moment, and I imagine what it would be like to be missing one of them right now.  This same financial conundrum, but my wallet got stolen, too! This same looming deadline, but my toilet just backed up everywhere! This same long busride, but I have to pee super bad! This same awkward dinner with the boss’ family, but I didn’t get a chance to shower after my workout!

Make it a Habit

When things are bad, make them worse in your head.  Get creative here.  Develop as vivid a fantasy as you can. Think in terms of the senses.  What does ‘extra-bad’ look like, sound like, feel like?  Imagine exactly how it would feel to drop your cell phone in a public toilet. What would you do?  How would it change your day, your week?

When your real problems are bigger, make the imagined ones bigger too, to keep them in perspective.  If you’re currently being sued for defamation, imagine what kind of trouble you’d have to deal with if you hit and killed a pedestrian in your car today.  This is reality for someone out there, how do you think they’re dealing?

Once you have an appreciation for a much-worse version of your current plate of problems, then you can indulge in the luxury of not having to actually deal with any of it. You can smile at the fact that your wallet is still safely in your pocket, you do have four intact bedroom walls, and you don’t have to swab sewage off your bathroom floor.

Make a habit of this, and really explore the details of what it would be like to have extra problems, or to be missing some of the advantages you’re used to.  Learn to appreciate the weight and heartache of problems you don’t have, and never let yourself believe you’re unlucky.  You will quickly realize that in most ‘bad situations’ you face, there are one or two things going wrong, and about eighty things going right.

Coming up with problems you don’t have is never a problem.  Just read your newspaper.

R

Photos by mrhayata and a. venefica



Stephen - Rat Race Trap May 18, 2009 at 6:05 am

David, this was an excellent article and point. I’m not rich and I don’t know where my income ranks, but I’m sure it is pretty high in the percentile rankings. Surely at least the top 10%. But I get used to living and working and socializing in my same “wealth class” and in my mind I seem average. All I tend to see and think about is those who have more. Of course I’m used to all my blessings so I take them for granted.

I used to go to work and bitch all day about all my problems and then I would get out on the road to commute and my perspective would change. I would see all the guys out in the hot and humid Houston sun, where they had been all day, working on the hot concrete and think to myself “WOW, I’m glad I’m not them. I’ve got it pretty good.”. Then I would get home into my nice neighborhood and nice comfortable large home and sink right back into my self pity.

I keep reading about things like gratitude journals. Sounds like a great idea.

Stephen – Rat Race Trap’s last blog post..Your Brain on Food and Supplements – Acetylcholine

Jay Schryer May 18, 2009 at 6:58 am

This is a great post, David. It’s so easy for us to take things for granted, when in fact, they aren’t “granted” at all. I think it’s important to “count your blessings” at every opportunity, and to be thankful for what you have. So many people forget to do this, including myself. Thanks for the great reminder!

Jay Schryer’s last blog post..Mindful Meditation Monday, Week One

Lisis May 18, 2009 at 7:37 am

Aww… your monster story makes me want to hug the young David. I feel so awful that you had several nights like that as a kid!

As for perspective, you are absolutely right… how fortunate or unfortunate you feel depends on who you are comparing yourself to. If you listen to (or imagine) other people’s realities with true empathy, and feel their pain and angst, you’ll suddenly be aware how good you have it.

Another simple perspective adjuster, if you have the opportunity, is to travel to a third world country. A couple of days without your usual conveniences will really make you miss them. But, more importantly, seeing how EVERYONE else is doing just fine (may even be happier than you) without them, reminds you that your happiness should in no way depend on stuff.

Sorry for the long answer. In short, I completely agree. :)

Lisis’s last blog post..Adventure: Living in India – What a Journey!

Laurie | Express Yourself to Success May 18, 2009 at 8:11 am

Good article, David; lots of interesting points.

Our perspective influences how we see things – whether the ‘things’ are actually that way or not. Stuff ‘just is’, we label it and give it meaning. We do this with our problems all the time. It’s interesting that a situation is a problem to one person and just an inconvenience to another.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Laurie | Express Yourself to Success’s last blog post..The Strength of Kindness

Positively Present May 18, 2009 at 9:34 am

REALLY enjoyed reading this. Sometimes we just don’t feel like being grateful for our lives or we forget to be grateful and this isn’t acceptable. Really great stuff here. Thanks for writing it!

Positively Present’s last blog post..9 ways to walk in your own shoes

Nadia - Happy Lotus May 18, 2009 at 9:53 am

Hi David,

It truly does boil down to perspective. When I lived in India, I realized that what we here in the West consider basic needs of living are considered luxuries over there. Electrcity goes out three or four times a day. Water coming out of the faucet is not always a guarantee as it is here.

I have seen kids in India run up and down streets using a plastic trash bag (the shopping bags that stores use over here) that they found on the ground as a kite and laugh with extreme delight, that they fall on the ground because of the joy. I have yet to see a kid here be so thrilled playing with a shopping bag that was lying around outside.

It is unfortunate that many do not realize what they have until they lose it. Ever since I have had the experience of living in India, I always joke that every kid in the West should be required to spend six months abroad because it is the best education.

Nadia – Happy Lotus’s last blog post..India – The Jewel In The Crown

Roger - A Content Life May 18, 2009 at 11:04 am

David,

Useful post!

I think you’re right about perspective. I take my health for granted until I’m sick or injured. As you may remember, I hurt my back lifting weights and was in pain for a month. I never appreciated a pain-free back so much in my life!

I’m with Nadia. I saw enough things in India to make me very grateful for the US – for awhile. :) We always forget and I like your idea of using imagination to help us remember.

Roger – A Content Life’s last blog post..Silence and Solitude

Kenny May 18, 2009 at 11:55 am

Thank you David and everyone who’s commented before me for the reminder to be humble and appreciate everything I do (and don’t) have. It is so easy to get lost in negative thoughts and forget that someone always has it worse.

David May 18, 2009 at 12:55 pm

@ Stephen — I don’t keep a gratitude journal, I kind of just do it in my head. I don’t want it to be any kind of scheduled activity; I want it to be an all-day habit.

@ Jay – You’re welcome! It’s just so easy to forget, that’s why it needs to be a habit.

@ Lisis — Ah don’t worry, those nights toughened me up and taught me something important. Some kids have to deal with things far worse than bad dreams… I got off easy.

I love long comments, no need to apologize!

@ Laurie — Well put, “stuff just is.” We just have to beware not to put catastrophic amounts of meaning on things that are just minor problems.

@ Dani — Absolutely!

@ Nadia — I think that’s why travel has such an effect on people. No better way to get a second viewpoint on life than to see people living in totally different conditions.

@ Roger — Often, when I’m sick or something, I tell myself “Ok, I will never not appreciate not being sick again. :)

@ Kenny — Hi Kenny! For sure, if you can make self-pity into a trigger to remind you to think about other people in worse situations, it makes it a lot easier to pick yourself up and work with what you have.

doesn't matter May 18, 2009 at 2:02 pm

Hi,

This article was a most delightful read!

Unfortunately, i cannot agree with your conclusion.
You see, if you can always imagine a situation worse then what you are going through then the point of existence is futile. In example: You are a POW in the Hanoi Hilton but you say to yourself “it could be worse, they are starving some of the others prisoners but not me”. Then your captors start starving you but you say “it could be worse, they are torturing some of the other prisoners but not me”. Then your captors start torturing you but you say “it could be worse, they are killing some of the other prisoners not me”. Then you get a bullet in the head.
Do you see my point?
If everything could be worse than what is the worst?
My point is: there do exist certain “rights” that we ARE entitled to. And entitlement is necessary.
You see the poor man might be happy…but he is never going to figure out the cure for cancer. The rich man may be unhappy…but DUE to his entitlement he has money-which he could give to a company that could find the cure for cancer. A man can affect very little change onto the world when he is content but can affect a large change when he is not happy.
Entitlement allows us to be unhappy- which allows us to change our condition. Entitlement is the drive that helps us change the world (for better or for worse). Those who are moronic feel sorry for themselves when they do not get what they want. Those who are simple minded start talking about perspectives. Those who are truly intellectually superior AFFECT CHANGE!

Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching May 18, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Thanks for this. One way I remind myself of my gratitude for being alive is to just pause and really sense what’s going on around me — how many sounds and sights and sensations there are. It’s overwhelming and awesome, whether or not I decide to get all new-agey about it and call it the experience of the Self or something like that. :)

David May 18, 2009 at 2:56 pm

@ doesn’t matter — Hi, d.m. Heh, that’s a very extreme example you chose. I suspect there aren’t any POWs surfing my blog on a Monday afternoon. I have to say I really don’t follow your examples… It is not necessary to cure cancer to be grateful, and some prisons are certainly better than others. As far as I know, no rich person has ever cured cancer either. There is a famous expression “As long as there is breath in your lungs, not all is lost.”

Here’s the thing about rights: they are never guaranteed. They are protected only by political institutions, which rise and fall and change their minds. We happen to live in a fairly stable political climate and it is likely that the society around us will help us to uphold our perceived right to free speech or freedom of expression, but it is still never guaranteed. That we have ‘rights’ at all is a privilege, and it could presumably be lost at any time.

You do have a good point though: unhappiness does motivate people. In fact, I discussed this idea in my first article. While unhappiness does motivate people, it is certainly not necessary for motivation. In fact, it tends to impart a desperate and fearful quality into any action it inspires. We do not need unhappiness to accomplish things.

David May 18, 2009 at 2:59 pm

@ Chris — Now that is some skillful gratitude. The palette of sights and sounds around us is so tremendously interesting, but because we have it all the time, entitlement tends to creep in and make us think it’s unexciting. I try to spend as much time as I can in that state of indiscriminate gratitude.

Brenda May 18, 2009 at 7:27 pm

The first seven paragraphs of this post, the story part, is my favorite. And the Twain quote. You captured a moment in boyhood that would make Mark proud. Thanks for a good story and good advice.

Brenda’s last blog post..On Cats

Michael May 18, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Great post, David.

I think some people’s realities are as bad or worse than we might imagine. So perhaps a conscious practice of empathy and compassion towards these people can also go a long way towards expanding our perspective and increasing our gratitude.

Evelyn Lim May 18, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Yes, a change in perspective can impact how we relate to the world. We usually perceive things to be far worse than what the reality of the situation really is. We experience a sense of insecurity. Our ego comes in. We magnify our dramas. We forget that there are a lot of people in far worse situations than where we are.

Evelyn Lim’s last blog post..Express Your Soul Gifts

Sherri (Serene Journey) May 18, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Hi David,
I like this post a lot. What some of us take for granted here are luxuries elsewhere. Always keeping in mind that “someone else” has it worse is a good way to be grateful for what you have. We do this whenever faced with something particularly upsetting or difficult to get over and it somehow helps us cope a bit easier and get through it.

As you know I started a gratitude journal a couple of months ago and it’s really been one of the best things I’ve done. It’s a constant reminder of the little things in life to be grateful for and it gives me a chance to reflect at the end of each day. It’s awesome!

Sherri (Serene Journey)’s last blog post..Kick-Off To Summer BBQ

Barb May 19, 2009 at 7:08 am

Such a good post! Thank you!

Alex May 19, 2009 at 10:06 am

really gripping description of sleepness nights as a child. was warped in.

so unfortunately true about the conditions for gratitude. kind of like people who become nice when they mess up or who pray when things get bad.

the shifting sands of calibration.

the description of Dave Matthews’ situation was super gripping. one of those moments of pensive silent reflection. really hard-hitting.

not too sure if i aggree with making them worse in your head as a habit solution. seemsl like cutting yourself with a knife when you graze your foot to make the graze hurt less. it will, but not necessarily the most effective solution. for me, the best way to becoem grateful is to release (ala sedona method) and feel the infinite awesomeness of life, get present in the eckhart tolle sense and ask myself, “at this moment, what is lacking?”

respect all round though. gripping stuff.
talk to you soon
alex

Alex’s last blog post..How to Focus: Get Things Done and Be Free

Cassie April 8, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Alex,

your self-mutilation analogy doesn’t work, unfortunately, because of the nature of thought. it would be more accurate if David had suggested, “purposefully back up your toilet up to avoid your own annoyance at the fact that your ordered ten banana bunches over the internets but only got 5!” Instead, what he said was to THINK about the results of such a situation, rather than to bring them about yourself. =]

also, isn’t the question “what is lacking?” merely an invitation to gripe? that’s what it sounds like to me.

Also, “intellectually superior” man…. I don’t have anything to say to you, and no one else should, either. (Was that statement a contradiction? Dunno, but it would have sounded awfully weird if I’d said, ‘I have only one thing to say to you, and that’s this.’)

Greg August 25, 2011 at 1:13 pm

This was much needed article for me. We often create extra stress for ourselves in our heads. This then leads to a poor mood and even physical exhaustion. So I can see why finding ways to become grateful for your current condition can be extremely beneficial. I have heard and tried negative visualization in the past and it seemed to help me. I really enjoyed the way you explained your technique, and I will be trying this out immediately. Really enjoy your blog!

David August 25, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Thanks Greg. It really is effective, this negative visualization. The Buddhists make a point of practicing a contemplation of death, and many of them say that nothing they’ve ever done has had such a great effect on making life richer and more rewarding.

Audrey May 27, 2012 at 7:28 am

Hi David, This certainly put things into perspective for a situation I am in at the moment. It has helped alot. What I am concerned about is the following: We are taught that our thoughts create and manifest. So how would I avoid thinking about the worst and the worst happening. I hope you understand what I mean. Your thoughts are your outer world etc. Thank you though this brightened my day.

David May 27, 2012 at 9:43 am

Hi Audrey. This is the problem I have with the law of attraction: it makes us afraid to have negative thoughts. There is no question that positive thoughts lead to better outcomes, but it is crazy (and probably dangerous) to think that there’s something wrong with having a negative thought. What I’m trying to do is this: when I have a negative thought, about something bad that might happen, I remind myself it’s just a thought, and then I spend a moment fantasizing about what I want, and let go of this thought about what I don’t want.

Yati Bailey October 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

Thank you, thank you so much for the article. i have been soul searching to the core of my restlessnes and realised that perspective and mere gratefulness to everything that is already important around me is all i need to be happy and smile each day, and stop complaining and feeling that i am not lucky in my life. but infact i am sooo lucky and secured with my loving husband and beautiful children…..and my network of friends who are very practical loving people….. i am blessed…thank you again.

travel cot mattress April 10, 2012 at 10:05 am

REALLY enjoyed reading this. Sometimes we just don’t feel like being grateful for our lives or we forget to be grateful and this isn’t acceptable. Really great stuff here. Thanks for writing it!

Josh Hunt October 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Nothing predicts happiness like gratitude.

Hannah December 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Suddenly I feel so much lighter :) Man, I’m a lucky girl.

Lisa Ryan March 21, 2013 at 11:21 am

Great post! I really liked the idea of visualizing bigger problems than you have and then basking in the luxury of not having them. People are always asking me how to be grateful when things aren’t going great, and you provided some great ideas. Thanks!

W. Bradley Simon - M28:20 April 5, 2013 at 1:22 am

My wife always says, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.” Realize what you have instead of focusing on what you don’t have.

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