The fact that you’re reading this sentence means that you are richer and more educated than 99.5% of people in human history. It means you have almost immediate access to over half of all of the information and data ever created by the human race. It means you have the ability to educate yourself on subjects people previously spent their entire lifetimes to learn.
Hegel said that history is the process of freedom realizing itself. Assuming you’re in the western world, then you currently live in the most free and tolerant society that has ever existed. There is less racism and sexism than at any other time in history. The world has more economic mobility than ever and traveling across borders is easier now than ever.
You may be unhappy with your love life, but just a few generations ago, casual dating was an impossibility, contraception was a rarity, and you could be disowned by your family for fooling around with the wrong person. A few generations before that, you likely never went to school with someone of the opposite gender and your parents chose who you married. In some countries and regions, you could have been killed for sleeping with or even flirting with the wrong person.
Your family may frustrate you, but over 1/3 of the world’s population has only one parent and 143 million children are growing up with no parents at all.
If you’re in college or you went to college, you are part of the lucky 7% worldwide elite. You’re unlikely to ever live at a subsistence level like almost 60% of the population and you surely won’t ever be starving like almost 25% of the world population.
But you’ve heard stuff like this before. And it doesn’t actually help, right? Yeah, you’re lucky, but you still struggle with your confidence, you still feel socially anxious, you still suffer from feelings of inadequacy, you still stress about money/work/debt/family/friends. Your love life is still a mess. Sure, you’re eating well and you have a nice TV and car and you can do long division and code in PHP, but your life isn’t exactly peachy either.
For decades, research has tied gratefulness and appreciation to happiness. People who are happier tend to be more grateful and appreciative for what they have.
But what they’ve also found is that it also works the other way around: consciously practicing gratitude makes one happier.1 It makes one appreciate what one has and helps one to remain in the present moment. Practicing gratitude increases accountability which directly leads to higher self-esteem and happiness. Not to mention it makes one more pleasant to be around and creates a more magnetic personality.
Your parents may be smothering and obnoxious, but they do it because they care about you and it’s the only way they know how to show it. Be grateful you have people who love you, even if they don’t show it in the way you wish they did. Use it as an opportunity to help them, communicate with them, develop a better relationship with them.
You may be overweight, but at least you’ve enjoyed plenty of good food and have the knowledge and capability to get thin and look great. Use it as an opportunity to set goals and improve yourself.
You may be single and lonely, but at least you live in a society which accepts open communication between men and women, is liberal about dating practices, and at least you have the means to get out there and improve your situation.
You may not be the person you want, but at least you have the self-awareness and drive to notice what you’re unhappy with and the desire to do something about it. You are part of the first generation in human history that has truly discovered we are always capable of improving our lives — socially, emotionally, professionally and financially. In the past, people assumed if they were born into it, they were screwed.
You’ve been blessed. Even if you rarely realize it. All of us here have.
And you’ll keep forgetting this unless you remind yourself. Remind yourself regularly. Choose to be grateful. Remember how it could be worse, it could always be worse.
The human mind naturally overemphasizes the negative. Psychologists have found that the loss of something is two to four times more painful than the joy of gaining the same thing.2 It’s an unfortunate mechanism that has kept our species alive and thriving but also keeps many of us in a constant state of irritation and stress.
It’s why negative news gets reported and spread so much more readily. It’s why we can’t turn away from a car accident or two people fighting. It’s why it’s so much more tempting to relate to others through complaining and gossip rather than through gratitude. It’s easier.
This isn’t to say one must ignore what’s wrong or broken with the world. I’m the last one to pretend everything is unicorns and rainbows. It’s just to say that when things seem shitty, don’t forget what’s good, true and beautiful. Remember to shut up and be grateful.
Gratitude is the skill of happiness. It’s the cure for an emotional vampire. And it is indeed a skill. It requires practice and effort and habit. But it’s a skill anyone can learn and anyone can do. And you can start it today, right now.
Do it every morning when you wake up, while you brush your teeth, look in the mirror and think of five things you’re grateful for. Pick someone and tell them this week that you’re grateful for them or for something they did. Chances are it will make you feel better than them. Chances are you’ll feel far more comfortable around them and your relationships will begin to improve.
(Sidenote for the thick-headed: When showing appreciation for someone or something, it should be genuine and not designed to get them to like you. This should be obvious to any emotionally-functioning adult, but I figured I’d drop it in here because you never know who comes by these days.)
Genuine appreciation: It may feel fruity or weird sometimes. Hell, even writing this post is making me feel kind of like a Care Bear. But I’m cool with that. That resistance is a lack of vulnerability that I still haven’t completely worked through. So I feel a bit weird, but that means I’m doing something right here. Opening up to that builds confidence and healthier relationships.
If it feels weird or hard, start small and post something on Facebook or Twitter. Just try it once a day for a week. See what happens. I promise nothing bad will happen.
I’ll start: even when people criticize me, misunderstand me, or send me ridiculous emails comparing me to Satan or a sandy vagina, I’m grateful for this blog and how much it enriches my life. The benefits and joys of running it are more than worth the occasional rotten apples that periodically pop in. And reminding myself of that makes it all that much better.
So thank you to all of you who make doing this so worthwhile and fulfilling.
OK, now it’s your turn.
- Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.↵
- Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1992). Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty. Journal of Risk & Uncertainty, 5(4), 297–323.↵