The Gratitude Attitude
Updated: Aug 15, 2022
As I write this, I’m sitting at Melbourne airport waiting for my flight to Adelaide for a week of work. I’m feeling anxiety about the week ahead as I’m presenting a new workshop, and I’m desperate to deliver it with 110% gusto and passion. I’m feeling a little on edge, as I’ve been rushing around this morning getting my affairs in order (after a big night) and there are people everywhere. I’m flustered, rattled, nervous and uneasy.
But boy am I grateful.
Gratitude is the key to lasting contentment. It is cross-contextual and can be applied anywhere, anytime and in any situation or emotional state. It can be used when you’re sad to lift your spirits, or when you’re happy to ensure that you are tasting and enjoying every morsal of joy from this one life we are given. It can be (and should be) practiced, refined, and employed in times of great distress, in times of unabridged jubilation, and everything in between. The best part about gratitude? Everyone can practice it. Everyone has something they can be grateful for.
Practiced regularly over time, gratitude will help to retrain your brain to seek out and acknowledge the silver lining that exists in all situations. Our brain is almost always negative, as our brain is almost entirely preoccupied with keeping us alive. Unfortunately for us, scanning our environments, identifying threats, and then reacting to these perceived threats is much more useful to our survival than being happy and focusing only on things that make us smile.
This often doesn’t feel great and explains why people are persistently negative.
It is also our default is also to compare ourselves to others and then pine for more – more money, more friends, more sex, more food, more stuff – as our brain once again is preoccupied with survival rather than life fulfilment. This is precisely why nothing is ever enough for a normal human – why we can buy a brand-new car and feel joy only for a fleeting moment in time, before we find ourselves looking at other cars on the road and thinking “yeah that car is way nicer than mine, now I want that!”
It is perfectly healthy to think this way as our primitive ancestors required this inner circuitry. Looking at our fellow tribe members and acknowledging that they have better access to food, water, friends and sexual partners inspired us to go out and be better, so that we could have better access to things directly related to our survival and the survival of our genes.
To change that way of thinking, we need to practice. We need to move from a more primitive way of thinking to an evolved one.
To be grateful is THE logical step forward for people to start enjoying their lives more. It starts with acknowledging that our basic survival needs are mostly looked after. Most of us here in Australia have access to food, water, and shelter. Some of us have great access to friends, and some of us have a proclivity for attracting sexual partners. There really is no logical need to always be scanning our environments for threats and engaging in unhelpful comparisons with others because our survival is much more likely than when we were living in tribes, being hunted by large ferocious animals, other violent tribes, and privy to dying from mother nature’s forces, disease, or famine. Now that these threats are managed more effectively, our brain finds new things to focus on to make us miserable – accumulating worthless material objects, trying to be popular or cool, preoccupying ourselves with other people’s lives.
The list goes on and on.
To think in terms of gratitude is to undo a lot of these internal process and retrain our brain to think positively by creating new neural connections in the prefrontal cortex, which has a compounding effect. This means the more we practice gratitude, the more grateful we are, and the more satisfied with life we become, leading to more instances of love, happiness, compassion, and joy – thus more things to be grateful for.
The beauty of gratitude is that it is available for everyone. Literally every single person has something to be grateful for. It might be that you’re at rock bottom, and you’re grateful that you have nowhere to go but up. You might have lost a loved one and are feeling a pain you never thought could have existed – but you can be grateful for the relationship you had with that person, that you’re feeling something amazingly human, that you had such great times with that person. You might be devastated over the loss of a job and income, but grateful you’ve got people to support you. You might be grateful for that morning cup of coffee, or a delicious meal, or the love of a pet. It’s not up for me to decide, that’s entirely up to you.
There is a very simple exercise you can practice daily to create new neural pathways and start becoming more satisfied with your life today, and that is keeping a gratitude journal. See below for a very simple format that might help you get started today.
1. Write something small you are grateful for this morning (i.e., I’m grateful for the delicious cup of coffee I had)
2. List one small thing you are grateful for this week (i.e., I’m grateful my favourite podcast released a new episode)
3. Note one person (or animal) you are grateful to have in your life (i.e., I’m grateful for my best friend Emily)
4. Jot down one personality trait or quality you have, that you are grateful to have (i.e., I’m grateful for my humour)
5. Think of one big thing you are grateful for in this life (i.e., I’m grateful I have shelter to keep me alive)
The key with gratitude is to practice, practice, practice! The more you practice, the better you’ll get, and the more you’ll start being more grateful, which will improve your quality of life, which will then give you more to be grateful for – and the merry-go-round will continue with you on it, taking small steps every day towards a more meaningful and fulfilling life.