Finding gratitude in chaos

What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature

Epictetus, Discourses, I, 1, 17

Sometime in the 2010’s, gratitude had a moment. If you “systematically cultivated gratitude”, usually in a journal of some sort, the hope was to cool down your anxiety, become stress resilient, fill your heart with love and block toxic emotions like envy and regret.

On the 9th April, 2015, I caved in and bought a journal. Every morning, I would wake up and write down three things that I was grateful for. After about two weeks, you exhaust the typical stuff. Job, roof over my head, no crippling injuries or chronic conditions, working eyes. By week three or four, I found myself pondering a blank page. I guess I’m grateful for Tiramisu? Trains? Traffic cones?

Despite the mental blocks, I kept the practice up for a few years and I could always find something to jot down. And I never regretted being a bit more grateful.

Some time later, staring at the ocean (which I am immensely grateful for), I wondered ‘why gratitude?’ With all that scribbling, I never stopped to question why. I had definitely noticed positive effects on my mood and outlook, but why? Is it the emotion, the practice of writing every morning or something else?

All the small things

Firstly, let’s take a look at what the professionals are grateful for.

Tim Ferris suggested being grateful for the small things like the “convenience of a small notebook” or his “favorite yellow coffee mug”. “That trains you to notice the little things that ultimately translate to big things and not vice versa.”

Here’s what Tim was grateful for in June 2017:

  1. Bird song outside. Beautiful!
  2. Fireflies and stars last night.
  3. Rain outside to lull to sleep.

It makes sense to view a gratitude journal as a tool to notice things in your life. Maybe the journal makes you more present by encouraging you to consider and appreciate your immediate surroundings. If that’s the case, one might see similar benefits by sketching household objects.

Gratitude vs Fear

Tony Robbins is a very big man, and he is not interested in admiring that little coffee cup. He wants you to think big.

“Think of any other moment. It could be from your childhood or adulthood. It could be last week. It could be today. It could be ten years ago. Any moment that you could just truly feel like that was the greatest. That was magical. That was beautiful. That is magnificent. Something that gives you the feeling of tremendous gratitude if you really focused on it.”

For Tony, gratitude is more like an elixir, a powerful, cleansing spirit that you can pour into your mind. “The reason we use gratitude by the way, is the two emotions that mess us up most is anger and fear. You cannot be grateful and angry simultaneously.”

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, agrees gratitude is like a smashing the positivity button.

“I am forced to think about the good in my life for at least a few seconds. The result is that there is not a day that goes by without me specifically stating something positive that is happening around me...You begin to realize that nearly everyday is a good day (at least in a small way).

Wait a second. Positivity. Repetition. Isn’t that like the secret? Fuck!

Hacking Humans

From back posture to red dresses, interesting things can happen to our outlook on life when we focus our attention on something specific.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, writes a goal 15 times a day, that “seems to work much of the time…but presumably not because of any magic.”

He thinks it’s all about focus. “At least one probable explanation for its perceived effectiveness is that focusing on goals changes the person who is doing the focusing… Affirmations probably also increases a person’s natural level of optimism, especially if you believe it worksTo the extent that affirmations might increase a person’s stick-to-itiveness, his perception might be that the universe is removing barriers.

The same applies to luck. Robert Wiseman, author of the Luck Factor, “learned that you can train people to expect luck, and cause an improvement in their ability to spot opportunities, that look like luck, when they pop up. “

Maybe I was training myself to ‘expect gratitude’ and in doing so improve my skill of noticing it in the every day. Whether or not my life feels better, what’s likely happening is my ‘eye for gratitude’ is getting keener.

Why I think gratitude works

Write down 50 unique, specific things in your life that you are grateful for. They could be objective (a small tree) to subjective (your favorite freckle). Done? Now look at that list. There’s one thing that ties them all together. And it’s got nothing to do with positivity or ‘smallness’.

Most things in our life, from our birthplace to how many chews of an apple you take before you swallow, are all largely out of your control.

To accept this fact, is incredibly hard. Buddhism says that not only are many things out of your control, but everything is changing all of the time. To remain equanimous in this broiling state of the present (good or bad) is something even the Stoics struggled with.

The present moment is chaos. The beauty of the right brain…the chaos makes it resilient, adaptable. I know I am in my right brain when I am feeling a sense of gratitude of anything at all.

Dr Jill Bolte Taylor

Gratitude, in this light, becomes a more palatable method to acknowledge and accept what you’ve got. Gratitude may really be a nice way to say “I notice many things are out of my control, and I’m okay with that.”

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