Perhaps one of the easiest things for anyone to do is to find all the things that are wrong in the world, or in your life and then be critical of them. If you read the paper or look at news web sites or blogs, you’ll see: terrorism, crime, poverty, economic inequality, homelessness, hunger, unimaginable cruelty, and more. And if you examine your own life, you may find: career choices you regret, relationships that went sour, a belief that you’re not attractive or wealthy or enough, and so on.
More difficult to do—but infinitely more productive and rewarding—is looking for all the things in the world or your life that are good or going right, and then being grateful for them. If it’s difficult, it’s only because we’re not used to thinking like that, and we haven’t made that type of thinking a habit. So, in this entry, I want to discuss how to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. And I’ll use my own experience as an example.
There was a time in my life when my mind automatically went to the worst case scenario, and I would stew over all the things that were going wrong and that could go wrong. This is an example of what psychologists call “all-or-nothing thinking” or “black-and-white thinking,” and it often takes the form of particularly pointed self-criticism that just sets you up for failure. Here are some examples:
- “If I don’t win this game, the season and all my practice mean nothing” (an impossible standard to live up to; you can’t and won’t win every game).
- “If I’m not perfect, I’m worthless” (inability to recognize the gray areas where most of our lives really take place).
- “You can’t be both spiritual and prosperous (limiting belief).
Black-and-white thinking is an exceptionally unhelpful and difficult habit to break—mainly because it’s usually programmed into us by authority figures or experiences during our youth or formative years, and it happens so automatically and unconsciously. You don’t even realize that these internal dialogs are taking place.
You can also see how black-and-white thinking naturally causes you to focus on things that are wrong—or that you expect to go wrong.
With this mindset as a filter during a difficult period for me, I looked around in the world and found things that were wrong, out of place or simply negative, and used them as reinforcing evidence for my own belief that worst-case scenarios were going to happen, or that I was wrong, worthless, etc.
I was able to overcome this thinking and break the pattern, however, by forcing myself to consciously look for things that were right in my life and the world and then focusing on how grateful I was for them.
I began to actively cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
Here’s how I did it. Each time I noticed my mind starting to drift into that old negative state of thinking I would take a deep conscious breath, close my eyes, and recall 5 things in my life that I felt grateful for or made me happy. I would replay these 5 things over and over until a positive state of joy or gratitude grew inside of my body and I actually could feel my state beginning to change.
Another exercise that you can do is to create a happy journal or gratitude list. Here is how to do it!
Take the time to create a personal data base of people, opportunities or circumstances that you can or should give thanks for. Here’s just a partial list of ideas of get you started: your family, your job, where you live, your neighborhood, your friends, your health, important people who have been in your life, key milestones that were turning points in your life Write them down in great detail, as if you’re in a movie about the experience. Write it from your personal point of view, explaining what you see, hear and feel—and even smell and taste, if those are appropriate—as you live and experience them. This is called “associating” in the experience. Make it as vivid as possible.
Then, each morning, set aside some time to focus on two or three of these items and focus on each one. Fully associate into the experience once again and then say something to yourself like, “I am so grateful for _______,” and then linger in the scenario. Stay associated into it for a few minutes, and really feel grateful. You may notice a shift in your thinking or attitude. Then, move to a second and a third item on your gratitude list, if you have time and do the routine again.
What you will find, after a couple weeks of this exercise, is that your attitude will change. It may or may not be dramatic. You may this so powerful and compelling an exercise that you wake up one day just completely transformed. Or, you may find the change more gradual; one day, you simply realize that you feel differently about people or circumstances that used to bother you. Or, people around you may tell you that “something about you is different,” or “you’ve changed.”
It may be gradual, or it may be dramatic. But this exercise of gratitude will change you for the better.