My daughter was 5 years old when I announced my decision to separate from her father. I had decided long before that that our relationship wasn’t working, but had decided to do the right thing, stay and make it work. “Be grateful for what you have,” I told myself. “That’s what gratitude is, isn’t it?”
“Surely all relationships hit rocky patches when a baby arrives,” I constantly reminded myself, brushing under the carpet all of our problems for a number of years.
Have you found yourself doing this too? It doesn’t have to be a relationship. It can be in any area of your life.
We are socially conditioned to do the right thing. Life programmes us to follow a set of accepted rules; rules we tacitly signed up to and that are now guiding us blindly to unhappiness. And then we are reminded constantly that we should be grateful for what we have.
In fact, we define gratitude as a happy response to what we have. However, gratitude is, on a holistic level, more a state of being. It is about being happy for what we are. That we are alive and here.
Don’t be hard on yourself if instant gratitude isn’t coming naturally. Developing a real sense of gratitude takes time as it often means reframing how you see the world around you and making choices that align with that new reality.
Gratitude is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle that starts with you making conscious choices about what you want your life to be.
Here’s how to kick-start the process …
1. Drop the expectations
We are in constant projection into the future. Very young children don’t do this. Look at a young child play. They are intently caught up in the present moment.
But as adults, we create a mental image of where we want to go and what we want to be. We plan our lives out to the minutest degree. Our notion of success or failure links to very tangible things: financial success, wealth, beauty.
And we quickly impart this on the lives of our children, pulling them at an early age out of the present moment. They are an extension of us and so we start to define their future, shuttling them around to various activities, telling them they need to be good at maths and English to get to university, encouraging them to meet someone nice one day, settle down and have children.
And with that we create expectation.
Expectation is the biggest scourge of modern day and it one of the main reasons we find it hard to be grateful or happy.
We do not need to plan life out to the smallest detail. That is our human desire to control the unknown. And we can’t control everything. In fact, we don’t have ultimate control over anything. And so, when our expectations are not met, we are unable to be grateful for simply what we have because all we can see is what we have lost.
But that which we have lost was never ours to lose. We simply held an expectation of how we wanted life to be. It only ever existed in our heads. Now it has gone, we have no frame of reference. As children we learnt we should not simply live in the present moment.
2. Accept that you have choices
It is disturbing to have a face-off with nothing. Of course this is hard!
But equally so, dropping expectation is not synonymous with accepting whatever sh*t comes your way. This is more a case of people paying lip-service to gratitude by putting up with bad situations.
Back in my previous relationship, the expectation I had to drop was not that my partner should be more loving, more present or more involved. It wasn’t about dropping the bar and accepting a mediocre situation and being grateful because it could be worse.
The expectation I had to drop was that he would fulfil his role in my projected illusion of my future: the little farmhouse in the French countryside with lots of kids and chickens running around.
The expectation I had to drop was that he would be who I wanted him to be.
And once I started to stop fighting blindly for that, so I became aware that the problems I was brushing under the carpet were not new at all. The problems were there from the beginning and the stress the arrival of a new baby can bring had simply accentuated them.
Your life was a blank sheet of paper when you came into this world.
But your life is also a blank sheet of paper from this point in time. You may think you don’t have choices, but you have so many more than you realise.
What you project to be true, will not always be so. You can’t stop things not going as planned, but the part you always choose is how you react to the disruption.
I remember a friend saying to me once that he had heard an expression that said, “when it rains, you should learn to dance in the rain.” I asked him, “What about moving out of the rain?”
You don’t necessarily have to learn to be grateful for the rain.
3. Use your own yardstick for happiness
People are far more likely to express their discontent than their happiness. If you want to find people worse off than you, just ask around and you will quickly find people happy to talk about what is not going well for them.
You will also find people, who seem excessively happy and need to share it.
These are the polar opposites that you will find on social media every day. The Internet has invited us into a polarised, black and white world.
In reality, anyone who is truly happy probably doesn’t feel the need to shout about it. A truly depressed person maybe doesn’t talk about it either.
Other people are non-representative of your own personal happiness. And yet, we all start pitching our level of happiness and how grateful we should be according to this dressed-up dystopia.
4. Don’t define yourself by how others see you
Hell is other people
Have you ever heard this quote before? It is from the Left Bank, French intellectual and existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. We often misquote it to say that other people are unbearable.
And sometimes you may feel that way, but what Sartre actually meant was that other people are hell, because they hold up a mirror to you. It is under the gaze of others that we come to judge ourselves and their definition of who we are becomes our point of reference.
I have a friend who some years ago, told me that I was too cold and I didn’t show enough emotion. My partner and I were in disagreement about the sale of our house and were about to got to court. She didn’t mean to hurt me, and she was simply trying to help me better navigate my court case.
However, it quite upset me at the time as she had flagged up a problem I didn’t think I had. I later learnt that she, herself, had often been told she lacked emotion. She was projecting onto me what she actually considered to be her problem.
It did help me though, as I decided not to take her advice and cry in front of the judge. I accepted to simply be myself, however seemingly unemotional that may be. The case went very well.
Being happy is about making your own choices, but also defining your own definition of you and being true to that.
5. Take time to heal
Acrimonious is the word I would use to describe the break-up with my daughter’s father. It was a situation that went on for years. We couldn’t agree over custody, maintenance or the sale of our house. It was exhausting.
A friend of mine at the time was in a Buddhist chanting group. She encouraged me to practice gratitude. I had to be grateful for everyone in my life she told me, including my ex-partner, and I had to think of reasons for my gratitude every morning in the shower.
This made for quite long showers. “You can at least be grateful for the daughter you have together,” my friend would encourage me. And I would try that, but then come out of the shower to another sh*tty email.
That’s the thing with gratitude. It’s not a thing you turn on and off. It is a state of being and is not something you just say. It is something you feel. You can’t tell yourself you feel it.
As time went on, the emotion around the situation became less raw. I got a bit fed up of being resentful for him having ruined by idealistic view of the future, and he dropped the resentment too. I realised that I had that blank piece of paper in front of me and started out on a new chapter, and so did he.
Time had worked its magic.
6. Work on developing empathy
What I actually developed for my ex-partner over time was also empathy. Empathy is the capacity to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
In the Buddhist metta meditation, you are asked to display compassion and loving kindness to all people around you, including those you have trouble with. It is not about excusing the sh*tty email, but about understanding that they too are probably reeling just like you.
And that everyone, everywhere, just wants the same thing: to be happy.
I learnt about the meditation technique much later than receiving the practicing gratitude in the shower advice. It also worked much better for me, but maybe because I was also more ready to hear it by then.
It is hard to really feel gratitude if you don’t have empathy. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes means you have to leave yours for a moment. You have to lift your head out of your problems.
Maybe you have heard this before, but therapists advise people who suffer from depression and negative thought patterns to read biographies. By reading about others lives, you stop navel gazing for a moment and start to look at your own situation for what it is: one of many in world of 7 billion people.
This is different to listening to the negativity that we can all find all around us nowadays. It is not about sitting with your friends and berating the world for being so unfair to you all, albeit a bit of that can help you fall into the emotions you are feeling, but just whilst the emotion is still raw at the beginning.
It is about taking an interest in the billions of other lives on this planet.
That is where you will gain some perspective on what is happening to you.
Let’s see gratitude for what it is
Once you have aligned your reality to what you really want out of life, that’s where you become grateful for what you have. Because you are grateful for what you are.
Gratitude is part of a much bigger puzzle containing the answers to a happy life. This is a life in which you:
- have perspective on events because you realise you are part of a bigger whole
- demonstrate true empathy
- make conscious decisions along the way, as opposed to accepting situations for fear of facing the unknown or the judgement of others
And don’t fall into the trap of thinking this will happen overnight, and then unfairly judging yourself when it takes more time.
This is a puzzle I have been trying to crack since I left my partner 8 years ago and I am having to go back over 45 years. I think I am just about making some progress.
Being grateful for what you have asks you to live in the present, and that takes a substantial amount of deprogramming from all that we have ever been taught. Just start today by asking yourself two questions:
- What are those expectations you are holding on to today that simply aren’t working out as you planned?
- What choices do you have to actively address your unhappiness?
The answer is always in you.
Photo by Nadim Merrikh on Unsplash