Updated: Nov 22, 2021
Yeah, I know, we've all been told a million times that we should be thankful for what we have. And what's the consquence of that? We show less and less gratitude and become used to all the good things that happen to us on a daily basis. We might even feel entitled to certain things that we were once grateful for.
Stop feeling bad about what you don't have...
My father often said "we could all be much worse off..." - and he was right. He experienced much worse days himself being born in 1944 and growing up right after WWII. But tell that to a 15 year old in the early 2000s, not really caring too much about stock market bubbles instead behaving rather cringeworthy with all his weird teenage problems.
To be frank, even though my parents taught me to be thankful for what we had, I had unlearned how to show gratitude for the smaller things in life throughout most of my professional career. I tought I deserved it. I deserved being promoted, I deserved the money, I deserved praise from my colleagues and my bosses. And whenever I didn't get these things I felt bad. I felt that I'd been treated unfairly - or at least not as good as I deserved. At some point I even got angry at others for getting promoted or earning praise for what they did at work.
Ungratefulness + Envy + Entitlement... that's not the best formula for a happy life. And let's be honest, all of them are rather stupid emotions. All they show is that you forgot that you are responsible for how you react to challenging situations in life and that you took the easy way out by choosing negative emotions and cheap excuses. You are coping with it by making life harder for everyone around you instead of aiming for improving yourself through thoughtful and meaningful actions.
There's a couple of steps I took to learn how to be more thankful again. In the first months after moving to Shanghai I read a few things about journaling. It's a good way of emptying your head if you have too many things going on. It also helps to focus for a few minutes per day or per week on the good things that have happened in your life. I started using it to write down what I'm grateful for. Not the easiest thing to do if you take everything for granted. The food, the good weather, positive conversations, things that you've learned, things that you experienced...
But when you start writing down these things you get better and better over time. Even though they seem small, unimportant and sometimes even stupid, positivity compounds. And the positive emotions you feel while thinking about all the good things that happened to you during the day or week compound as well. I started to pay more attention to these things. And I've tried to more fully and consciously experience the good things the moment they occured.
The second thing I did was sharing the positive experiences and the things I was happy about and grateful for with my wife. Whenever I picked her up from work and we walked home I told her about the positive, funny or even negative things that happened. It's a good way to get negativity out of the system and share positivity with someone else. It helps a lot to have someone that just listens and to not process negative thoughts for too long inside your own brain. The most important thing about this is that your counterpart does not amplify negativity by adding negative stories of their own and really shares the positive emotions and gratefulness with you instead of superimpose them with their own great stories. I've written a whole blog about this a few weeks ago.
As hinted earlier, what all of this does is that you start realizing whenever you do something that you've been actively showing gratefulness for in the past, you load up that activity with positive emotions right when it happens. If I am able to do my morning run and I have told myself several times in the past that I am actually grateful for being able to do a morning run, it becomes a much more positive activity and less and less of a chore. The same thing happened to me with cooking. The more often I am grateful for a good meal that I've been able to compose, the more I am feeling positive about creating a new meal or bake another bread. And the more positive I feel about the small things in life, the happier I get if something bigger and better happens to me. If someone comes up to me and asks for help that I can actually provide, I am grateful for the skills that I've learned and that I can share those with others. If I get paid for it, even better!!!
Another interesting thing that I started realizing is that if I am grateful for rare but positive interactions with strangers in the streets, I am more and more on the lookout for these interactions and pay less attention to other negative encounters. Unfriendly, ungrateful and negative people are everywhere. If you are the one on the lookout for a positive interaction and something you can be grateful for, people will thank you for that - and maybe they might even pay you back with a smile.
Sure, we all have bad days and sometimes we want to curse the world and everyone in it. I believe having negative emotions is as important as having positive ones. There needs to be a balance. What I'm suggesting here is not to hold on to the negative ones. Accept them but let them go after a while. Spend more attention to the positive ones instead. Cherish them, write them down, go through them if you have a bad day and realize that there is a lot to be happy about and grateful for.