As many of us move through life searching for meaning and purpose and often looking for grand experiences worthy of such definition, it could be argued that the meaning of life and our purpose here exists within one simple virtue –gratitude. Could gratitude really be the true meaning and purpose of our entire human experience? You have to admit that gratitude is quite diverse in it’s expression and it does steer us into the direction of being at peace with our own reality, yet in a somewhat gentle way. Considering that what we are, what we create and how we experience life depends on our own ability to either be grateful or resentful, I think gratitude could be the most important path towards our human realisation of happiness. That is, if we could just fine-tune and master our ability to be grateful. Life purpose achieved. Happiness attained. Harmony experienced. How easy was that! But there’s a catch, being grateful is not as easy as it sounds, especially in the reality of living.
I’m relieved that the concept of gratitude has finally reached the mainstream platform. It was always a little ‘socially awkward’ when responding to expressions of compassion for some of the storms that appeared in my life by stating, “I’m grateful for the experience”. I discovered that when I expressed gratitude for events commonly known as problems, people were often shocked and didn’t know what to say. I can see now that in my own way of dealing with life’s storms through yoga, meditation and other holistic techniques, I was really only grateful for it after I had processed and released the emotions brought up by the storm. Now, I tend to express my gratitude for such things with a disclaimer; I am grateful for the experience, however, I wasn’t grateful when I was in the middle of it. Only after I did the work to process and release the anger, disappointment, frustration etc. I want to help people realise that none of us are born superior masters of emotion and life, always happy, always positive, always grateful. We learn it, over and over again and eventually we become it.
While on the topic of gratitude, it is also worth mentioning the importance of acquiring enough common sense and emotional intelligence to simply know, without instruction that while our best friend is deeply overcome by anger and rage due to a cheating partner for instance, the last thing they need to hear is, ‘be grateful for the experience.’ Yes, eventually gratitude leads us to forgiveness and is indeed the only way to truly make peace with life’s tricky situations, but that only comes after the trauma and emotions have been processed and released. Having a constant expectation of gratitude puts people in danger of being publicly grateful while privately resentful and can actually create much bigger problems. It could possibly be one of our biggest human challenges that needs to be overcome in order to truly achieve authentic human collaboration and wellbeing. In our quest to win the game of life and overcome all it’s challenges, we have somehow created an unspoken consensus of taking on all of life with a sense of positivity that may be more of a mask than we are prepared to admit. Personally, I would rather experience a world where our image of self has reached such a point of authenticity and non-judgement that our public, private and virtual image of ‘self’ are identical.
Throughout our travels, we have met people in faraway places who have not been influenced by the global narrative of fear. They truly understand that life is a journey and the journey will one day come to an end. They know this because they never really disconnected themselves from the infinite cycle of life. I am fortunate to have just enough linguistic ability in some of Europe’s ‘other’ languages to have heard stories that may have otherwise gone unheard. Stories that have helped shape my understanding of life’s greatest mysteries. These languages that I can understand and speak a little of, don’t look impressive on a CV and in fact other than being able to communicate with the elderly in remote villages that the world barely even knows exist, my ‘other language’ credentials are more often not worthy of a mention. However, the gratitude I have for the words that enabled me to connect with people who understand the true secrets of life is enormous. People, who have little, yet still give more than they take and have faith in the certainty that after everything planted, sown, reaped and learned, the only way to make peace with life’s storms is not by focussing on what was taken by the storm, but through gratitude for what the storm left behind.
After returning from these isolated villages I always make time to reflect on the whole experience. What did I learn, what did I gain, which beliefs within me have changed, which part of my own reality did I lose? Over the years and through all the people I have met, I have come to realise one very consistent theme; learning from this organic and slower pace of life is actually the easy part. Taking that learning back home and creating a way for it to be expressed in daily life, in a completely different context is the real challenge. And so, this led me to here, to question whether teaching our children empathy and gratitude through comparing to others who have less or face greater adversity is actually enough.
As we unpacked these experiences as a family (my husband and our 8 year-old son) we agreed that it did help us to be more grateful for the little things in our lives but there was also another side to the experience. Although we learned a great deal from the simplicity of the people living ‘off the grid’ in remote villages and have immeasurable respect for their resilience and longevity in simply existing, we felt that by focussing exclusively on such examples whilst on our own journey of understanding life can create a false or temporary sense of gratitude. We noticed that we were somewhat glorifying those who stayed in their villages and had dealt with the harshness of nature and life. It made us a bit critical of ourselves as we compared their experience of life to our own and in doing so we were not recognising our own resilience by acknowledging the difficulties we had overcome in our own context of life. “Look how simple their life is, look how grateful they are for the rain, the sun, the harvest. Why can’t we just be grateful for everything and live happily ever after?” It seems easy and logical enough in order to secure a path of happiness and inner peace. However, it is a bit like comparing apples with oranges. The people in remote villages have actually lived their whole lives within their own secluded context. On the other hand, in our modern and more complex life we are processing information and experiences at a much faster pace than those living in remote villages, yet also unpacking the layers of life and the storms, searching for the things that define our existence and our reason for being. To except the same outcome of understanding the complexity of life, through such diverse experiences of life is somewhat unrealistic.
The other thing that this sort of gratitude can ignite is a feeling of guilt. “I’m so lucky, look what I have in comparison but why aren’t I happy?” Not easy for someone dealing with mental health issues and also the reason why I think we need to be careful about using this sort of comparison which demands gratitude, inadvertently dismissing one’s emotional reality instead of reaching out to help them. I am not saying that we shouldn’t use this form of gratitude as it is a powerful way of understanding ourselves through empathy and compassion for others, therefore, indeed it has it’s place. However, we realised that comparing ourselves to people with less or people who were facing adversity moved us emotionally and made us temporarily grateful for our own situation but true gratitude only flowed through daily practise within our own reality. And so I would argue that in our fast paced 21st century context, developing habits of gratitude as early as possible and within our own life experience is not just a recommendation, it is a matter of necessity because it really does make us happier.
Dear Adult, JTLYK about Gratitude
In this physical world, we learn to be grateful for the material things we get. Thanks (more like ta – try saying ‘th’ when you’re 2) is one of the first words we learn other than mum, dad, yes and no. It forms a pattern, we get something and we say thank you. We mostly say thank you when we get material things, but life gives us a lot more than that to be grateful for.
When I learn to be grateful not just for the thing I see in front of me but for all that happened in order for that thing to exist, then I learn more than ‘thank-you’. I learn that everything in this physical world is somehow connected. I also learn that the little things are just as important as the BIG finished product. In doing so, I become grateful for everything because I understand that without ALL of it, there would be NONE of it.
When I learn to be grateful, I learn to understand the bigger picture and focus on the things I have, the things I am and the things I give. It doesn’t make my problems go away, but it helps me to realise that when I have problems, they are not ALL that I have and they are not ALL that I am.
When I learn to be grateful I understand more about what makes me happy and so then I can think about things that make others happy too. This helps me to be a better friend and to help others, my family, my community and the world.
When I learn to be grateful I understand the true value of things, not just what they cost with money. I can make a connection with the love, time and energy that someone has given in order to make that thing possible, visible, available, to make it exist. This also allows me to learn how to look after what I have, with a sense of responsibility, respect and LOVE.
When I learn to be grateful for experiences, feelings, people and nature, not just material things, I understand that even if I have little, I still have something to give and as long as I have something to give, I will always have a reason to be.
With a reason to be, I have a much better chance of happiness.