Happiness is found in the absence of expectation and a continuous focus on appreciation. (Tony Robbins)
If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you’, that would suffice. (Meister Eckhart)
Doing anything with a spirit of gratitude will help you be happier than doing exactly the same thing with a spirit of resentment and resistance. Gratitude can be a foundational quality of your mindset and attitude that transforms bad moods into good moods and frustration into happiness.
In an earlier post, I considered the question of how you would choose to feel if you had complete control over every feeling and emotion in your life. It’s practically a trick question, of course – if you could choose every emotion, you would choose to feel joy, happiness, elation at all times, regardless of the circumstances of your life situation. (At least, I would. I encourage you to like yourself enough to believe that you deserve to feel such positive states all the time, even if circumstances and complications in the world sometimes push your moods off track.)
In the past, I made the error of assuming that releasing expectations and refraining from focusing on the outcome of my efforts was tantamount to lowering my expectations – and hence lowering my personal standards. I would likely have scoffed at the quote from Tony Robbins above. In fact, I was wrong – nothing could be further from the truth. It’s possible to maintain high standards and high expectations while still refraining from focusing on outcome. In fact, you’re more likely to meet and even exceed your highest standards when you’re engrossed in what you’re doing, as opposed to worrying about whether you’re measuring up. When you’re in a state of flow – “in the Zone” – that is typically when you are least self-conscious, least focused on outcomes or goals, and most likely to perform better than you have ever done before. In such a state, you typically feel happy, excited, and, yes, grateful that life can be so interesting and exciting.
It goes the other way too – deliberately cultivating gratitude is a great way to improve your experience of life, and it is definitely a choice, something that you can practice in your actions as well as your thoughts. By training yourself in the habits of mind that tend to increase the feeling and experience of gratitude, and eliminate and reduce resentment and other negative emotions.
The following are three simple ways to increase the amount and frequency of gratitude in your life:
Make a daily list. Reread it a few times. It doesn’t have to be complicated – just write down a quick list of ten things that you’re grateful for right now. Record your lists in a journal so you can look back over time and see what kind of gratitude you were feeling on different days. When you have enough entries, look back over them for themes and patterns to extract – what kinds of things are you most grateful for most of the time? Could you direct your efforts to make sure that those things feature more prominently in your life? If you do this, in time these things that create more gratitude in your life will crowd out those things that you would prefer to have less of. As you do this, it will be easier and easier to enter a state of gratitude and happiness, because you will have consciously designed your life to be full of things for which you are already thankful.
Reframe. A couple of years ago, I was on track in a job that I enjoyed when my contract unexpectedly ended. At first I was shocked and upset, but soon began to view this change as an opportunity. By reframing this change as an exciting transition – for which I chose to be grateful – I opened myself up to the opportunities that the universe had available for me. I began to interview aggressively for new jobs. Within a month, I was able to find a new position that had a shorter and cheaper commute, paid 40% more with better benefits, including lunch each day and an on-site gym. Had I turned inward and chosen to feel anger and ingratitude, I doubt that I would have been able to attract this opportunity. By reframing every change that happens in your life situation in such a way that you feel gratitude – or at least the possibility of feeling gratitude, in the case of extremely negative or painful changes – you empower the universe to act on your behalf with opportunities that are at least as good or potentially better.
Be present. You can increase your experience of being present through meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, and other mental and physical disciplines. When you pay attention, it is amazing what emerges as a generator of gratitude – the reflection of the sunlight off water, a flock of birds flying overhead, the color of the grass and trees, the faint mist of juice and burst of scent as you tear the peel off an orange. Everything becomes much more interesting when you are truly present, and you can more easily become grateful for the simplest of experiences. The need for external stimulation and distraction drops away as the stillness of your mind takes precedence.
Gratitude can be a habit of thought, and this thought can be triggered by action. By training yourself to take actions of gratitude, you create the habits of mind that create thoughts of gratitude. Ultimately, however, the answer is to go beyond thought into the present moment, where you appreciate the reality of what is, regardless of what is. This is the essence of pure gratitude, that transcends thought and action.
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