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How to Become a Luckier Person Overnight

bike shadow

A few weeks ago, a neighbor I had not yet met knocked on my door to tell me that her storage locker in the basement had been broken into, and so had mine.

I went down there. The locker door was hanging open, and my bike was gone. They hadn’t cut the lock, but had instead crowbarred the hardware entirely off the plywood door, which building management had attached with four of the tiniest screws I’d ever seen.

My initial feeling was the rush of violation and dirtiness that everyone feels when they see the mess left by a thief. They touched my stuff, and now some of it is at their place.

But I ran out of indignation pretty quickly. The normal victim feelings gave way to a feeling of, “Wow, I’m really glad I’m me.”

I can afford a new bike. I’ve never felt a desire to steal from people. Aren’t I lucky that I don’t know what it’s like to enter a building illegally, and rifle through someone else’s belongings, hoping to find something I can sell for fifty bucks? I would rather lose all my possessions than be that guy. I’m also glad to know that the locker was so insecure before I put anything irreplaceable in there.

Radical gratitude

I wasn’t thinking of it at the time, but I had recently listened to a short talk about cultivating gratitude at unusual moments. Nikki Mirghafori, a computer scientist and Buddhist teacher, asked the attendees at a meditation group to experiment with being grateful for everything that happens to them, then reporting their experience.

The idea sounds ridiculous, and even hopeless, but in practice it’s quite easy, and immediately rewarding. You just ask yourself, “Can I be grateful for this too?” In my short experience doing this, the brain has a way of coming up with good reasons why yes, you can.

This practice reveals a lot about our short-sightedness. We have a rather ridiculous tendency to believe everything is either strictly good for us or bad for us, and that we can reliably determine which one it is, in the instant that thing happens.

Nikki makes an important clarification at the outset: you’re not telling yourself you should feel grateful, only to invite or explore gratitude for what happens regardless of our initial feeling about it.

I live in the city and make use of street parking every day. Most of the time I can’t find a spot on the stretch near my building, and I have to go past the building around to the long side of the block. When that happens I usually end up hundreds of yards away from the door, with groceries to unload. Predictably I curse my bad luck, and often the people who had parked there inconsiderately, or at all.

Just after I’d listened to Nikki’s talk, this happened to me again. I was on the cusp of re-enacting my normal sequence of overreaction—disappointment, maybe rage, then grumpy trudging—when I remembered the practice. Could I be grateful that I couldn’t find a spot close to the building—that what’s happening is in many ways a good thing?

The thought immediately put me into a totally different position, one where I didn’t assume I should feel any particular way about it.

Mostly I just enjoyed the walk, noticed a few of my neighbor’s yard decorations, and felt glad that carrying grocery bags two blocks isn’t particularly difficult for me. I’m lucky to be able to walk almost any distance without chronic pain or fatigue. It struck me that my neighborhood is so close to downtown yet is really peaceful and safe. I can walk through it at 4am with nothing to worry about.

These are privileges that serve me every day, although I seldom actually enjoy them, because I’m so rarely aware of them.

The sky is falling? How do you know?

I arrived at my door feeling rather thrilled with my position in life, for exactly the way things were unfolding right now. And of course, I can never know the ultimate results of parking where I wanted: my car might have been sideswiped in that spot because it’s more exposed, or maybe it will get broken into in the far–away spot. Or maybe, through some convoluted butterfly effect, either outcome could have led to my meeting an amazing new friend, or starting a nuclear war. I don’t know and can’t know.

And that’s the point. Every event has infinite repercussions, and each chain of cause-and-effect will reverberate until the end of time, and bring the whole gamut of welcome and unwelcome developments to our lives.

So every event is in a very real sense both good and bad, including illness, breakup, hardship of almost any kind. Almost all of us can see how our failed relationships, for example, made us better in some way, even if they seemed like the end of the world at the time.

The worst years of my life, in my early twenties, directly resulted in the founding of this blog, which has made my life better than I ever thought it could be. It seems very lucky that life went so wrong then.

Radical gratitude is simply a way of challenging our initial feeling that a new development is wholly bad and that our moping and anger is justified, exploring instead what might also good about it. Primarily, it does two things:

It forces us out of hypersensitive kind of autopilot we often operate under, which is based on a pretty grievous misconception: that events are isolated and are of two distinct types—good or bad—and that this goodness or badness is determined by how welcome it feels when it happens.

It also puts you into a helpful problem-solving state that always ends in gratitude for something about what has just happened—the doors it opens, the things it teaches you, the future trouble it might spare you.

Experimenting with this is also kind of fun. The more absurd it seems to be grateful, given the situation, the more interesting and fun it can be. Can I be grateful that my plans were canceled? Certainly. Can I be grateful I have a rash on my foot? Uh, let’s find out.

Any moment of annoyance or disappointment is fair game. How can you be grateful for your partner being impatient with you while you’re trying to decide your order at a restaurant? Well, you might discover that it gives you a chance to understand their hangups and fears, and perhaps your own self-defeating habits, a little better.

Can you be grateful that you’re out of coffee? That your internet is out? That your latest draft sucks? If you have a brain and a bit of curiosity, yes you can.

Radical gratitude also often reveals when we’re just being stupid. If you’ve ever been annoyed that you said you’d make an appearance at a friend’s get-together, you’re taking quite a bit for granted there. Damn, it sucks having friends, always asking me to spend time with them.

Again, being grateful for everything is not an obligation, it’s an option to experiment with. You aren’t responsible for feeling any particular way after something happens.

But that initial feeling, the horror of a locker door hanging open, doesn’t have to be the final word on what’s good and what’s not. It’s a question too complicated for our most reactive emotions to answer.

***

Photo by joe del tufo
Emme February 8, 2016 at 5:43 am

The only time have trouble finding gratitude is when I cannot meet a basic need, like being able to eat or sleep. I try to look for the good that comes from that, but all I’ve found is that later I’m grateful when I can meet those needs. I try to ignore all the bad that happens on the days I can’t meet my basic needs, but it’s hard. And I get irritated at times when people complain about things like parking spaces or missing green lights, because I know that stuff doesn’t really matter. Then at least I can be grateful for knowing what matters in life, when so many people don’t.

Meggie Francisco February 8, 2016 at 8:04 am

Loved this read because it’s so different from the typical admonishing to, “be more grateful,” and, “have an attitude of gratitude.” I enjoyed the suggestion to invite yourself to find gratitude in everything you can. This practice seems a lot more realistic for the long term. Thanks for sharing!

Edith February 8, 2016 at 11:09 am

This is one of the best articles here. Results are immediate when one takes on this perspective. Thank you!

Maril February 11, 2016 at 6:55 am

This absolutely resonates with me since this attitude is a great part of my happiness, aside from happy events per se. This is a good recipe, this way of recyclings events. As a minimalist, I’m totally in. Nothing goes to waste. This morning, I indulged in pastries at the baker’s. I had not done this for two months at least. Because I try to act as sensibly as possible with my money and health. The baker used to warmly greet me. This morning, it just seemed like I was invisible. I felt a bit irritated and all of the sudden I “recycled”. Maybe I was not deemed an interesting client any more, may be she did not recognise me. Either way, this meant that my shift towards a more mindful lifestyle actually WORKED! and I felt very grateful-happy.

Genevieve Hawkins February 14, 2016 at 7:56 pm

It is very hard to be grateful after a sudden death in the family, even though this event may in the long run open doors in ways I cannot see now. The point is well taken though.

Lily Sauvage February 17, 2016 at 10:42 am

My friend just sent me this blog in light of my own most recent blog post, which is called “Gratitude by Faith.” Struggling with gratitude lately in my life, I decided to approah gratitude from a place of simple faith. In other words, I did not (and still sometimes don’t) allow myself to feel gratitude for even the good things in my life before writing this blog post, but to encourage those of you out there with regard to the above post, I have to say that the writer of this one is 100% correct: gratitude works. The significant shift from anxiety, depression, and fear to a space of more calm and release of those feelings after writing my own gratitude blog was outstanding.

Neil February 19, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Thanks! I enjoyed reading your article and found it very useful.

Jerry Filips March 31, 2016 at 2:48 am

I am so greatful for being able to share these kind of articals with my daughter.She reminds me when I get caught up in daily stresses,And I help remind her. I’m so proud of her.She sent me this article.
This helps strengthen my way of thinking,like say you spill something on the floor all sticky,don’t get down,just jump into a mind set to clean it better than it was before the spill.Get soap and water then even clean the surroundings that had nothing to do with the spill. Do it fast and with a positive action. Now there after your done you have a good fealing better than the spill that just happened.What I’m saying is every time a problem occurs ask how can I better this quickly commit so you don’t ponder the problem.I will always be thankful she showed me laws of attraction and how to love everything in life.
Simply say thank you to everyone and everything
What a great way to live…..

Jerry Filips March 31, 2016 at 2:56 am

I am so greatful for being able to share these kind of articals with my daughter.She reminds me when I get caught up in daily stresses,And I help remind her. I’m so proud of her.She sent me this article.
This helps strengthen my way of thinking.

Carol Cameleon April 9, 2016 at 3:22 pm

This method is similar to my own experience of keeping a daily Gratitude Journal – I find myself thinking at moments during the day, “I can put that in my journal later”, so it’s making me more mindful.

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