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Gratitude. Perhaps the most powerful mental quality we can develop!

Short of time? Skinnier post here: http://www.reallygoodthinking.com/more_info.asp?current_id=81


Photo courtesy of *Gary Burdette

Three weeks ago, my missus, our six year old son Alex, and I came home with a new baby. Just twelve hours earlier a healthy boy, Zachariah Arlo Aspin, was born at lightning speed, after just one and a half hours labour. Fantastic! What an amazing, deeply moving, and utterly marvellous thing. We are so grateful.

Soon, loads of friends were round at our place to see Zac and my missus home and well. Someone even brought a bottle of Malibu (ooooh thanks very mucho!).

The phone rang. It was another friend. "Well, what did you get?" she asked.

"A boy, and we've called him Zachariah Arlo.....".

"Oh, another boy?" "Are you disappointed?"

What kind of a question is that? Of course, I said "No we are not disappointed!...far from it. We are delighted to have a lovely child. Had he been a girl, we would have been just as pleased. We are very grateful to have a healthy kid".

I've thought about our friend's comment quite a bit. I'm sure it was just an off-the-cuff remark. I'm telling you, she is one of the most selfless, kind, thoughtful and world-changing people I know.

But the next day, someone else (known more for whinging than world-changing) asked exactly the same thing: "Oh another boy....aren't you sad you didn't get a baby girl then?". What?!!!! And then again, several times in fact from random people, since Zac was born! Friends tell me they also had these kinds of comments when their first two children where both boys, or both girls.

So what's going on here?

Perhaps to some, living in our relatively affluent, twenty first century, me-focused, personal choice is king, consumer-centric, imagine a perfect-life, comfort seeking cultures, having a boy AND a girl is the ideal scenario. If they're going to have just two children, well, one of each is best, not two boys, or two girls. No. One of each.

What about us? Do we imagine, for all kinds of complex reasons, that a perfect (or just a "good"!) life consists of certain combinations of things or circumstances? Like having sons and daughters? One or more of each?

What about success in its broadest sense?

Do we define successful people only as those who can tick certain boxes, excluding many other possible definitions of "a good life" as somewhat incomplete or inferior?

We all know people who map out how their lives ought to be, things they want, their career goals, type of home, family, friends, social life, money, achievements, community work, everything! Even if the details aren't well defined, they're still based on the hope of attaining some kind of imagined perfect state that will bring full satisfaction. Oh yes, we'll be so grateful when all these ships come in, but not until they do!

Ya know I reckon it's really easy for any of us to slip into thinking like this about our lives in general.

This sort of thinking is making us miserable!

Here's the problem: if we do that so specifically, fixing gratitude and happiness only in the future, when things fall short of our expectations, our hopes and perfect standards, we are disappointed. We'll probably moan and complain, as if the universe owes us this ideal state of affairs and anything less is just not good enough!

There's nothing wrong with wanting to improve our situation. But there is something wrong when we forget to be grateful for the good we find now.

(Reallygood Thinking: It helps me to think of developing a positive and grateful state of mind as a journey, not as a final destination. All journeys are different and they have ups and downs. I try to find things to enjoy along the way.)

We forget to be grateful!

Sometimes we forget about or ignore the good stuff that comes from all the really important things whilst we whinge about the trivial.

When we do this, we miss out on something very powerful: the opportunity to choose a more helpful, more nourishing mindset. When we don't savour those good things we already have, we set in motion patters likely to damage our potential to enjoy positive things that come our way. So the more we get, the less we're able to appreciate. We keep accumulating all kinds of things, experiences, friends, but they don't sustain us. We wreck their benefit through our own ingratitude.

I bet we all know ungrateful people who seem unable to find peace and enjoy what they already have.

There is a choice. We may choose to be grateful. Or not.

Well I'm definitely not gonna let ingratitude destroy my potential to find peace and enjoyment in life, and you shouldn't either!

Personally, I'm so pleased we've been able to have a child at all, let alone two! I'm learning to choose to be grateful for every good thing. Actually, some of the bad stuff has turned out to have produced good in the end, though with other situations I can't see anything positive yet.

I don't know about you guys, but I've decided to focus on the good anyway. And where might that lead? To gratitude of course.

(Reallygood Thinking: I try to find one aspect of a difficult situation for which I can be grateful. Even if the thing as a whole is a pain in the arse, if I can draw out some gratitude for a tiny part and reframe that bit in a positive way, that can sense of gratitude might spread and change everything.)

Photo courtesy of zoriah/www.zoriah.com

What helps us focus on the good?

Some people really are in situations so bleak that finding anything for which to be grateful would take massive mental strength. There's no way I'd ever want to suggest anyone in these tough circumstances should just look on the bright side. We know that's not enough.

And we've heard people say that knowing of other's misfortune - due to the randomness of birth, war, disaster, whatever - has little impact on their own ability to be grateful. Well, it has an impact on me, and thankfully, upon loads of other people who want to make a difference for the better.

I often read the blog of international photojournalist Zoriah. He specializes in documenting mass casualty disasters and humanitarian crises. His pictures constantly remind me of the terrors and struggles many millions of people face each day. They make me ask how I'd feel if I'd to experience such suffering, or if my children, loved ones, or friends went through such pain, or even died.

I'll assume most of us reading this want to feel compassion for others, and to turn that into action that improves things. If you're one of those people, perhaps counting our blessings and determining to be grateful is a good place to start.

(Reallygood Thinking: People are dying, struggling, being driven from their homes, losing children, hungry, in slavery, suffering violence and abuse, trapped in poverty. This is going on all day, every day, and when I think of it it helps stop me being ungrateful for relatively minor inconveniences.)

Counting blessing rather than burdens

When I think of the struggles and suffering other people face, and some are close to home, including people I know well, it always helps me be grateful for what I have.

So many, many folk have a very tough time and there's relatively little they can do to change things. Others could change things, but they are weakened by the struggle.

I look at my life and I can't help feeling grateful. Many of us, relatively speaking, could feel the same gratitude, for so many reasons. We don't have all these good reasons cos we are great, or we've done something to deserve them. It is largely because we were born somewhere that gave us all kinds of advantages denied to many born elsewhere. So we are lucky. I choose to be grateful for the luck of my birth.

Well that's one thing for which to be grateful, but there are so many more. Let's just open our eyes and they won't be hard to spot.

(Reallygood Thinking: I set a timer for 5 minutes and list, without judgement, everything that comes to mind for which you I'm grateful now.)

What can gratitude do for us? It can make us 25 per cent happier that's what!

Recent studies show gratitude not only improves our mood, but practiced habitually, it makes us happier!

Work by Emmons and McCullough (2003) had participants write down 5 things they were grateful for each week, for 10 weeks. At the end of the study this group were 25% happier than a comparison group who simply listed five events from the week.

Another study by Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson (2005) found that 6 months after they'd begun doing a simple gratitude exercise, participants were happier and less depressed than a control group.

You are driving people away you ungrateful git!

The other night, I went to the pub with some parents from my son's school.

One chap who has a hell of a lot of good fortune by almost any one's standard began complaining about his colleague at work. Then about another colleague. Then another. He then moved on to moaning about his new car, the people who maintain it, the fact it cost him a shed load of money and the sat nav lacks a particular feature. He went on to moan about his holiday. Complaining about this, about that, about the other....on and on.

I was about to point out how ungrateful he is and that perhaps he ought to think about how tough life is for so many people, but a friend stepped in fast and changed the subject.

The thing is, he wouldn't recognise gratitude if it danced naked on the pub piano.

A lack of gratitude in anyone is very unattractive. It's also boring. So, if ya want to make yourself, and those around you miserable, go ahead, be ungrateful. Its your choice.

In the end though, it's the people who choose gratitude and recognise how lucky they are that will ultimately be happiest. And they're exactly the kind of folk who can start a movement, win people over, get others motivated, generate compassion and action, and help make a positive difference in all sorts of ways.

(Reallygood Thinking: If something isn't how I want it to be, and I have power to do something about it, and it is worthwhile, I recognise I can stop complaining and change it! I'm grateful I have power to change many things whereas lots of people have very few options.)

I'd love to know if you find these ideas helpful, and if you have tips for being grateful and appreciating what blessings you have already.  Hope to see you in the comments.

Your comments:

hunga dunga says:
19/08/2009 00:57:22

Ian, This post is really wonderful and right on. I urged you to visit JimKitzmiller on Twitter.... he posts many things, eloquently stated, on gratitude. In fact you two have very much in common. "Gratitude is recognition of a blessing as a blessing." I try to live each day as kindly as I can. I try to meditate on my blessings and be grateful for them. I am grateful to you for being a kind man and writing on important and profound topics. Phil
haider says:
28/07/2009 18:36:17

Hi Ian, Congratulations on little Zac. I wish you and the family a wonderful life. I came to check out your site from twitter, but couldn't help leaving a comment after reading about the new addition to your family :) Whenever I hear remarks of the "are you disappointed?" variety, I can't help but feel that people are living out scripts written by others. They don't even have the mental capacity to form their own expectations, but simply borrow the expectations and standards society has set. A minor suggestion about connecting with others: I would highly suggest you remove the need to login before leaving a comment. I doubt many people are inclined to go through that procedure. :) All the best, Haider
sheb57 says:
28/07/2009 15:24:54

When my now 24 yr old daughterdecided to leave university after a year of study,(a decision I know was very difficult for her ), a good friend said to me " Oh how disappointing for you"....I couldn`t speak with rage!! I knew she was very unhappy away from home, and was struggling to admit it. I was very proud of her being able to admit it to herself and to others who had all wished her well with gifts and cards when she went away.She blossomed as a result, got a very good job on the strength of her A- levels, and now has the confidence that comes from making a good life choice that was right for her. Good to hear about your lovely family, two healthy, happy boys.......and on another vein if you are still going to Paul`s tweetup/walk in August, look forward to meeting and walking with you . She x
ginaharris1 says:
28/07/2009 14:52:36

Excellent post, Ian. Congratulations on your new baby! People continually amaze me at what they say. We had 3 children boy, girl, boy. A waitress asked us once, "Why would you have another child? You had the perfect family already!" This was said in front of my children! What is wrong with some people? I personally would rather be around people who are positive and grateful than negative, whiny and complaining! Focusing on the positive is something I always try to do. It makes such a difference! We need to count our blessings, not our problems; THAT is the difference between a content person and one who is miserable. Thanks for such a great post and congratulations on your new baby (AND your 6 year old too!) Have a great day! Gina


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  • Ian AspinLocation: Lancaster Lake District, UK
  • Bio: I’m passionate about my work:TV journalist, producer, presenter, business ideas person. I care about: family, friends, helping people, finding meaning, running