“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Victor Frankl
You wouldn’t know it from the widespread culture of pessimism, but we’ve never been so free in the West.
Flash back to the Middle Ages and most of us would have been serfs, held in a form of slavery, abused, with no rights whatsoever. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, when the population of Europe was around 15 million, well over a million Europeans were sold into slavery in the Barbary slave trade. And of course, the African Atlantic slave trade tyrannized many more millions.
Propertyless working class men couldn’t vote in Britain until 1919 – the ones who weren’t mown down in the bloody trenches of WWI, that is. Women under 30 who didn’t own property didn’t get equal suffrage until 1928!1
And even though 1.1 billion fewer people worldwide are living in extreme poverty today than in 1990,2 there are still millions without access to clean drinking water,3 rights to travel,4 freedom of speech,5 and job opportunities.6
We shouldn’t take our privileges or freedoms for granted.
We’ve never been so free… or so unhappy
We can travel to places previous generations didn’t even hear about. We can eat and drink what we like. We can be entertained 24/7 within our wifi world of wonders. We live in dwellings with hitherto undreamed-of amenities. Even the cleaner for a middle-class family might drive to work. A hundred years ago (or at least pre-Henry Ford’s mass production) you would have had to be boundlessly wealthy or aristocratic to own a car.
Sometimes it seems we’ve never been so unhappy, so suffused with hopelessness and cynicism. You might say with good reason! But it’s only with good reason if we don’t recognize our history or what is happening in other places across the Earth.
We can still vote our politicians out. We can still make ourselves heard, and we can still find advocates if we’re having a hard time. Most of us can expect to live long and healthy lives,7 and have access to safe food and clean water. We are allowed to communicate, move jobs, and date whomever we like. Despite this, the media seems quite keen to keep us afraid.
Perhaps one cost of freedom is failure to appreciate it – unless we lift our heads up and see our relative context.
Get some perspective
I know what you might be thinking: Hold on – telling someone who is depressed or anxious that they should “count their lucky stars” is both patronizing and unhelpful. Well, yes… but as a general sense of reality, holding things in perspective is probably the way to go.8
In the park recently I saw a boy being handed an ice cream (an unimagined luxury a couple of generations back!) by his generous granny. He must have been about 10 years old. The boy was disgusted, and flung the ice cream to the ground. “I told you I wanted chocolate on top!” he spat with venom. “Get me the right one!” When Granny apologetically told him the purveyors of ice cream had closed for the day, he again shouted how unfair it all was.
Now, we don’t have to judge this snapshot of him. Maybe he was sick or disturbed in some way. But we can agree that the lack of appreciation (of said ice cream and granny), and the implied lack of perspective, wasn’t helping him or his granny – or, for that matter, random passers-by such as myself. We don’t have to judge, and perhaps we shouldn’t – because I myself might sometimes be that 10-year-old boy. So might you, and most people.
Gratitude breeds happiness
What is the cost of relying on effortless receiving for gratification? How might it damage us to continually perceive the things we get as things we should have had all along (and quicker, and with more chocolate!)?
Have people in Western, industrialized countries forgotten how to be grateful?
For Victor Frankl, imprisoned for years in concentration camps and surviving under constant threat of death, a day could be ‘made right’ by a split-second glimpse of a sunset through prison bars, or a sliver of meat in the daily ration of gruel.
For Milton Erickson, ‘imprisoned’ by a diagnosis of imminently terminal polio at 17 (at one point his doctor forecast that he would be dead by morning), even imagining the sunrise was enough to give him real meaning.
Being depressed, of course, isn’t just a matter of focusing on what you don’t have and failing to appreciate what you do have. However, a capacity for gratitude does seem to confer some protection from depression and suicide.9 And just as many small stresses can overwhelm, so too lots of little noticed positivities go towards making a happier, more balanced person.
Sometimes we meet people who are naturally good at appreciating different perspectives in life.
Appreciate, savour, and notice
I did some hypnotic work for high blood pressure in an elderly woman who assured me that any benefit would be “wonderful”. All she needed in life to feel happy, she said, was to appreciate three good things a day – kindness from another person, seeing a beautiful sky, even just being amused or interested in “anything at all”.
Here was a person who could make things from life. She had maintained this practice of savouring and appreciating since she’d been young and even kept a diary of the things that made her happy. She let good things come to her, and she noticed and savoured them.
Rates of depression have increased massively in recent years.10 Of course, depression is not the fault of the sufferer and it is certainly much more than a failure to have the ‘right attitude’. But this doesn’t mean that certain cultural changes and collective attitudes may not be behind some of that rise.
Happiness researchers constantly reiterate that happiness is not necessarily achieved through getting what you think you want or having major positive life experiences (which we can habituate to rather quickly), but rather through enjoying and appreciating lots of the small elements in life. Being grateful, savouring, and noticing seem to make us not only happier but healthier.11 There is an ‘at least’ for every ‘but’.
Dissatisfaction without personal effort leads to bitterness and petulance. Expectation without appreciation can make us act like entitled children.
So how do we invite more positivity?
Why we should be grateful for gratitude
From Buddha to Cicero, many philosophers have celebrated gratitude, and all the world’s great religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, have at various times promulgated the idea that being grateful encourages reciprocal kindness and individual and collective wellbeing.
Research psychologists Dr Michael McCullough and Dr Robert Emmons studied the effects of gratitude on mental health and wellbeing in 700 people.12 Participants were divided into three different groups and asked to keep a daily diary. The first group kept a simple diary of events that occurred during the day, the second group recorded their unpleasant experiences of the day (no chocolate on my ice cream!), and the third group made a list of things they were grateful for on that day. This last group were to literally “count their blessings”.
Results showed that gratitude exercises resulted in increased alertness, enthusiasm, optimism, and energy. The gratitude group experienced less depression, exercised more regularly, and made more progress towards personal goals. They even showed greater immune function and less physical illness!
People who felt gratitude were also more likely to feel loved and respected than those who didn’t. Notice they felt more loved. People can be loved but not notice or appreciate it.
As part of an overall strategy I might ask a client to begin to notice in their day any small thing they can be grateful for. At the end of the day they can write down anything at all.
One woman told me she started looking out for positives because she knew she’d need to write something. At first she wrote things like”Grateful I wasnt mugged today!” or “Grateful the house didn’t burn down!”But soon she began to notice a nice smile from a stranger, a small kindness here and there, or the way the light played on the trees in the morning. She began to look for, and therefore find, parts of reality to appreciate and therefore connect to.
But of course, it’s all relative.
Context is everything
You’d feel more grateful to chat with a friend if you’d been cast away on a desert island for years than if you’d seen them only yesterday. You’d appreciate a good meal much more if you’d had to go without, or thought you’d never find food again, than if you were surrounded by more than you will ever need.
Sometimes I’ll take a moment to consider that many people in the world have been and still are in situations of not knowing when, or even whether they’ll eat again. Or I’ll consider that my friends won’t live forever and nor will I, and I’ll remember to appreciate the time we spend together.
We don’t always need more and more things. We need to know how to enjoy what we have.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive in life. But we should understand, I think, that putting in effort, overcoming lack, and enjoying the small along with the large is what truly makes us happier. Demanding rights without responsibility, respect without merit, or entitlement without service makes us less than we might otherwise be.
If we can live well, be decent, and see wider perspectives beyond our own limited circumstances, perhaps others may sometimes be grateful for our existence too.
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