Ask anyone for advice on how to be happy and one the first things they’ll tell you is “be grateful.”
But there’s a problem here: advice can’t do the work for you.
Much like other well-intentioned but annoyingly simplistic clichés like “Be yourself” and “Don’t compare yourself to others,” “Be grateful” points to an end-result, not a starting point. While it helps to know what direction to drive, you need find what roads to take.
There’s a huge difference between intellectually understanding the concept of gratitude and having it actually hum throughout your daily life. You can answer the question “Tell me three things you’re grateful for” with some variation of “friends, family, dog” and get an A on the assignment, but internalizing that gratitude to the point of out-of-school appreciation is another thing entirely.
And it won’t come easy. Research has proven the link between gratitude and happiness1, but you can’t read Gratitude for Dummies and pop a Buddha belly overnight. This is a long game.
Here’s how Gratitude Mountain works: if you don’t make an effort to be grateful, you’ll fall, roll down to the bottom of the mountain, and splash into Entitlement River. But if you’re deliberate, patient, and consistent, you might slowly make your way up the mountain. The farther up you go, the more beautiful the view becomes.
But even the top of Gratitude Mountain isn’t an everlasting nirvana of tree-hugging happiness. It’s still real life — you can’t get away from the mosquitoes, but sometimes the view can make you forget they’re around.
So how do you actually become grateful, how can you get up high enough to see the view? I don’t know. But these are the mindsets that have helped me get a little further up the mountain.
YOU DESERVE NOTHING
Not a healthy body. Not a good life. Nothing. You don’t have to have everything that you do. Humans make up 0.0000001% of the world’s animal population.2 You could have been born a squirrel, a worm, a snail. Cardboard. The universe doesn’t care. You’re not entitled to be alive, you’re not entitled to be healthy, you’re not entitled to your smart TV that can cook a Hot Pocket and wipe your ass at the same time.
You could make the moral argument that every person should be entitled to food, shelter, and be free of suffering, and I’d agree with you.
But try making a moral argument to a typhoon. An earthquake. A tsunami. Morality is crucial for the functioning of any society, but morality is a manmade bubble we’ve created in the ocean of the universe—one island in an endless ocean of apathy. You can try shouting “Do you know who I am?!” to a hurricane, a shark, or to cancer, but in the words of Mr. Wonderful, it will pummel you like the cockroach that you are.3
It might seem brash to say that the universe doesn’t care about you, but it’s true.
While there probably isn’t a higher power actively rooting for your demise while tenting his fingers like Mr. Burns4, there is an unpredictability and randomness to our lives that determines whether we live or die, get sick or stay healthy, experience a freak accident or escape another day unharmed. Victims of tragic experience don’t deserve their fate any more than those more fortunate deserve their luck—the cold truth is that anyone is subject to tragedy at any time.
While we can all agree within a moral context that everyone deserves a certain quality of life, we have to acknowledge that the idea of “deserving” is manmade. It doesn’t exist in nature, only in our imaginations. From a universal perspective, there is nothing you deserve, because the concept of deserving doesn’t exist.
The universe doesn’t care what happens to you, it just cares that it does.
Although we may consider ourselves the most sophisticated species on Earth, we are still slaves to Mother Nature, playing by mortal rules. At any point our lives can be radically changed or taken from us against our will—we are powerless and vulnerable and our existence is conditional on infinite factors beyond our control. Everything, including your life, can be taken from you at any moment, and there’s very little you can do about it. Reminding ourselves of our mortality and extreme vulnerability is an easy way to trigger gratitude, because there’s so much that could go wrong at any given moment, and the fact that you’re reading this sentence is proof that your situation isn’t nearly as bad as it could be.
Saying that you deserve nothing is not an attack on you or your character, it’s a reminder that nothing truly belongs to you. This idea might seem bleak, but it’s actually incredibly liberating.
Because when you accept that you deserve nothing, everything you have becomes a gift.
YOUR PROBLEMS ARE A LUXURY
If you can’t decide whether to get the latest iPhone in rose gold or jet black, you’re probably not worrying about whether the chemo can stave off the tumor in your chest for just a few more days so you can make it to your grandchild’s fifth birthday party.
If you’re worrying about what you want to do with your life after college, then you probably aren’t worrying about your family’s welfare in your militant-controlled homeland.
If your day is ruined because you found unexpected mayonnaise in your sandwich, then you probably aren’t worrying about having enough food to feed your kids.
If your problems are ever on this first-world scale, consider yourself lucky, because 95% of the world would kill for your problems. If they could somehow trade places with you, then not only would they be able to afford a smartphone, hold a full-time job, or be able to buy groceries without worrying about suicide bombers blowing up the market—they would also have the luxury of worrying about inconsequential things that pose no actual threat to their well-being.
As the writer Jose Marti put it, “Man has to suffer. When he has no real afflictions, he invents some.”
You will always have problems regardless of where and how you live, but your problems indicate your privilege. Although problems by definition are unwelcome, it’s undeniable that some problems are better than others. If you dropped your phone on the sidewalk and shattered the screen, you’re lucky to have had a phone to be shattered. If you’re having an existential crisis because you don’t know what to do with your life, you’re privileged to even have the choice.
In someone else’s eyes, your problems are always a luxury. If you’re reading this, chances are that someone—and at least millions of people—would trade places with you in a heartbeat. First world problems are still real problems, but they’re only problems within a bubble of extreme privilege. When we’re so zoomed in to that bubble, it’s so easy to forget that we’re even in a bubble at all.
So when you find yourself angry about someone cutting you in line, not getting promoted, or your package from Amazon taking three days instead of two, ask yourself this: is it possible that someone else would trade their problems for mine?
YOU TAKE YOUR PANTS FOR GRANTED
The definition of entitlement is expecting something to be there all the time and forgetting that you’re lucky to have it.
Don’t think this applies to you? Alright hotshot, when was the last time you were grateful for owning a pair of pants?
Not designer jeans, not raw denim, not Alexander Wang or whatever the kids wear these days—just pants. Something to keep the lower half of your body covered so you can stay warm during winter, show up to work without getting arrested, and take a hike without getting poison ivy everywhere.
But you probably don’t clutch your gratitude rock everyday thinking how lucky you are to own a pair of pants. Pants seem more like a given than a gift, an assumed fact of everyday life, so much so that we probably haven’t even considered life without them. Not only do many of us own multiple pairs, we might even have some that fit our exact body type. And not only do they serve the primary function of keeping us clothed and warm, but they also might even make us look good.
Pants are just one of the many things in our lives that we take for granted every day. But if you still don’t think this applies to you, consider this:
Maybe through a completely random roll of the dice, you were born with working limbs, into a country where everyone has the right to a basic education, and without a serious neurological condition that would have left you completely dependent on someone else for the rest of your life.
Maybe you can read, live in a house with heat during winter, or express your sexuality without getting stoned to death.
Maybe you’re able to earn a decent living without doing backbreaking labor under the hot sun for twelve hours a day, or maybe you can drink water from the tap without spending the night on the toilet.
If you have any of these things, how often do you actually reflect on them? When was the last time you were grateful for simply being able to read or use indoor plumbing?
You take almost everything for granted, and that’s okay. We all do. It’s impossible to constantly be grateful for everything we have/interact with all the time, there’s just too much information that our brain needs to deal with on a daily basis. You can have the best of intentions and still be entitled. But here’s the good news: entitlement is a great starting point for gratitude, because it means you have something (and probably many things) to be grateful for.
You can minimize your entitlement by questioning your relationships with everyday objects and experiences, zooming into whatever it is you’re doing and asking yourself what’s really going on. Whether it’s seeing a scraped knee heal over a few days (having your skin literally regenerate), walking down the street with a cup of coffee (being able to drink from a cup instead of having to lick coffee out of a dog bowl), or drying off after a shower (having a towel to transfer your wetness so you don’t shiver for hours), there are infinite possibilities for finding something to be grateful for in virtually every moment of our day to day experience.
Take walking down the stairs, for example.
THE STAIRCASE MIRACLE
Consider everything you need to use a staircase:
Legs that can support you. The balance to stand without falling over. Depth perception to let you know where you’re going. The ability to move yourself at will, without dependence on something or someone else to push you along. Enough strength to walk without clutching the railing for dear life, slowly dipping one foot at a time while hordes of able-bodied people rush past you and remind you just how slow and in-their-way you are.
You don’t only need good health to use a staircase—you need to have thousands, if not millions of working parts cooperating in sync just so you can take one step without falling flat on your face.
But if you were born in a different country or during a different time, you might not be walking down a staircase. You might be barefoot, navigating your way across uneven patches of dirt, watchful for broken glass and unexpected rocks but occasionally missing one that shoots a dagger of pain up your spine. Maybe it rained earlier and that dirt would be mud, every step splashing dirty brown water onto your bare skin, because your only pair of shoes fell apart last week and you only had enough cash to decide between new shoes or being able to feed your family.
But if you’re living in a Western country, you might be in an air-conditioned building where you don’t have to worry about being exposed to the elements, spend hours scrounging for enough firewood to keep yourself warm, or staying up until seven in the morning to protect your family’s home being pillaged in the middle of the night.
Instead, you might be walking down the stairs of your office building in polished shoes that match an ironed suit, heading for the train station where an enormous metal car will catapult you across the city as you listen to Taylor Swift and swipe through potential mates on your phone, still brooding that the office microwave made your leftover burrito taste a little soggier than yesterday.
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- Watkins, P.C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., Kolts, R.L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality, 31(5), 431-452.
Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journey of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.
- Researchers have determined that there are 7.7 million animal species that live on land—1 species (human) divided by 7.7 million is 0.000000013.
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