Practicing an Attitude of Gratitude

One of the gifts of the holiday season is that it is the one time during the year that our collective consciousness shifts toward giving thanks. We count our blessings, and extend generosity to those who are less fortunate. We adopt an attitude of gratitude.

Here’s an example. When I was in high school, my dad invited the woman who he hired to clean our house to our family’s Thanksgiving dinner. I was young, and found this weird at the time (and, frankly, I was a bit annoyed). But it’s the kind of thing he frequently did – we had much to share and she had little, so he invited her to join in our abundance. It wasn’t until I drove her to her home in Detroit following dinner that I got it. His gratitude, manifested in an act of kindness to a relative stranger, led her to feel immensely grateful for his generosity. Her joy for having shared in our celebration was effervescent.

Being grateful feels good. As numerous studies have shown, by taking more time to appreciate and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for, people experience more positive emotions, feel more vibrant, sleep more soundly, and are more compassionate and kind toward others. It’s no surprise, therefore, that a recent poll found that Thanksgiving is America’s second favorite holiday, topped only by Christmas. It’s the time of year that the emotional benefits derived from giving thanks are felt most deeply

What is surprising is that, given the obvious benefits of adopting a more grateful mindset, we don’t maintain this focus all year round. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. After all, there are many things that we know we should be doing more of, but we don’t. For every good behavior that holds the promise of enrichment and contentment, there are competing, seductive forces that appeal to our baser instincts and pull us away from the potential of our better selves.

One of the strongest forces is the allure of comparison. Comparison robs us of contentment. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We look at others who we perceive as having more than us, and we wish for more – more money, more things, more respect from others. In his book Happier, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the “arrival fallacy.” It’s the belief that when you arrive at a particular destination, achieve a specific goal, or obtain a certain thing, you will be happy.

Sadly, the exact opposite is often results. Oprah Winfrey hit the nail on the head when she said,

“If you look at what you have in life, you will always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you will never have enough.”

In other words, if you’re always seeking something more, you’ll never take the time to appreciate the abundance that surrounds you in this moment. You’ll go through life seeking, and even when you get what you want, you’ll then seek more. It’s a race. And because life is finite, and unless you’re Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, it’s one you can’t possibly win.

Living with Abundance or Scarcity

Indeed, we all have a choice to live with either an abundance mentality or a scarcity mentality. We choose to either appreciate all that is, or dwell on all that is not. We can look at others who appear to have something that we do not, and either be inspired to grow by the example they set, or remain stagnant – stifled by envy.

The importance of focusing on our attitudes toward abundance and scarcity was discussed by Stephen Covey in his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He writes:

“Most people are deeply scripted in what I call the Scarcity Mentality. They see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everybody else.”

Someone with a scarcity mentality, therefore, views life as a zero sum game. They have a hard time being genuinely happy for others. They believe someone else’s joy is robbing them of the opportunity for their own. We all know these types of people. Many of us can empathize because we’ve been to this dark place ourselves.

Empathy and Icebergs

Empathy is defined as seeing life through the lens of another person and having the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Empathy, therefore, is a hallmark of an abundant and grateful attitude. When people are grateful they tend to want to help others. And when people are empathetic toward others it reminds them of all that they can be grateful for in their own lives.

Being more empathetic makes us more grateful about our own circumstances, and being more grateful makes us more empathetic toward the plight of others. It’s a virtuous cycle. Unfortunately, the converse of this is also true.

Empathy awakens gratitude. But comparison and judgement of others suppresses it.

When we live with a scarcity mentality, and fail to appreciate all that we have in our own lives, we tend to look at others – including those who appear to have more than us – and fail to realize that they are fighting their own wars and battling their own demons. We fail to appreciate that people are like icebergs. Unless we take the time to dig deeper, we see only the tip that breaks the surface of the water and not all of the the pain, struggle and hardship that lies beneath. We don’t understand what we don’t see, so we believe others have what we do not. Instead of seeking more understanding, we seek…more.

An Attitude of Gratitude

I’m thinking a lot about gratitude these days, and trying to live in the present moment. My tendency is to strive for more. But I’ve come to learn, with the benefit of life’s experience, that good things tend to come when you’re at peace with your present circumstances.

I’ve come to appreciate that living with an abundant mindset does not mean settling for a complacent existence bereft of hope and ambition. It’s just the opposite, in fact. It’s when we focus on scarcity – rather than abundance – that we permit limiting beliefs, such as the belief that our happiness is contingent on obtaining something more, to hold us back from our true potential.

During this time of giving thanks, remember that happiness is not a destination. It doesn’t lie over the hill or around the corner. It’s not a key that, if you could only find it, would unlock a door to something more. The key is gratitude. It’s right in front of you. It resides within you.

It’s easy to believe that happiness lies in something more. But if you have gratitude? Well, then you have everything that you’ll ever need.

Life, FamilyJay Harrington