Almost all of us have been embittered by some event or the other in our lives… in truth, very few of us if any make it out of this world without the emotional scars to show for it. Although life is a wonderfully precious gift, it can also be a very difficult experience if we are to be completely honest. We’ve all had painful experiences that have made us sad, angry, depressed, ashamed, frustrated, and so on. As we all probably know (perhaps a bit too well), there isn’t anything especially pleasant about any of the above emotions. Worse still, these emotions can linger for extended periods of time, eventually altering the very fabric of who we are in a negative way unless we are careful. You may have seen several examples in your own life of people who started out as really sweet souls until they were subjected to constant bullying or years of abuse which forced them to undergo the plutonic metamorphosis from sweet soul to an individual with the cold heart of a well seasoned assassin.
Some may argue that the embitterment of people in response to the inevitable and harsh pitfalls of life is just a natural reaction that cannot be avoided. To be fair, this line of thought isn’t completely unreasonable. It is very often the case that the natural reaction of most to the periodic harshness of life is to become the bitter cynic who always expects things to go wrong, constantly criticizes others, and becomes envious of people who manage to find happiness in their lives. That being said, it should be noted that the very nature of life is such that the most “natural” reactions often lead to problematic outcomes. Think about it for a second… it is “natural” to pretend that the difficult conversation you need to have with your romantic partner isn’t necessary even if you know on some level that avoiding said difficult conversation will eventually have catastrophic consequences. It isn’t “natural” to haul yourself to the gym three times each week over the span of multiple years but if you don’t do that, your health and fitness will most likely worsen till it is beyond repair. The message should be clear by now… in order to get good things out of life, we very often need to go in the opposite direction of our “natural” tendencies. By nature, we are creatures of inertia… and according to Sir Isaac Newton, a body at rest will remain at rest until an external force acts on it. If we are serious about avoiding the oft travelled path from naive innocence to perpetually angry/bitter veteran, we must each take on the responsibility of serving as our own individualized “external force” acting relentlessly to promote our own happiness.
I have often found it puzzling that although pretty much all of us want to be happy, so few of us are able to achieve or maintain a state of happiness. Perhaps the reason why most of us fail to stay happy for any prolonged period of time is because we fundamentally misunderstand happiness which results in the inability to attain or maintain it. Not really excited to break it to you, but if you’re waiting for everything in your life to be perfect before you can feel happy, you’ll be waiting a very very long time. At this point, you’re probably thinking “alright dude… why don’t you tell us what the secret to happiness is if you’ve got it all figured out then?” In all honesty, I know not what the secret to everlasting happiness is but I do know that if you learn to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, you will have many more happy moments per unit time that the average person.
The word gratitude literally denotes “grace attitude” or an attitude of grace. If we further break that down into plain speak, it basically means that those who are truly grateful understand that although they may have worked hard to get where they are, everything they have comes by the special grace of a supreme spirit. This supreme spirit that we speak of here may mean a different thing for each individual. For some, that supreme spirit might be Jehovah Jireh. For others, it could be Allah. For others still, it could be whomever the designated deity of scientology is. Further, people who have a predominant attitude of gratitude seem to be acutely aware of the fact that everything they’ve amassed in life could be lost in an instant… these folks have deeply internalized the fundamental impermanence of life and they take special delight in being granted the ability to draw every extra breath.
Humbly accepting the ephemeral nature of life is one of the central philosophies propounded by the ancient Roman senator and philosopher, “Seneca the younger”. One of the cornerstones of Seneca’s philosophy on life, was the idea/notion of stoicism. We could spend a whole doctoral dissertation talking about stoicism, but we’ll just boil it down to its essentials for the purposes of this article. The ancient stoics aligned themselves with the school of thought that nothing any of us have in life is by right and as a result, we should all strive to continually express gratitude for the things we do have when we have them. To ground that philosophical thought in reality, let us examine a make believe scenario in which you were just disappointed by a failed relationship. In this scenario, most of us would naturally feel very dejected but the ancient stoics would remind each of us of the good health that we still enjoy. The stoics would further encourage us to use visualization to imagine how much more painful it would be to experience the end of a relationship while simultaneously suffering from the pain of a badly broken arm suffered in a car accident. You might be thinking that there are already people who have experienced the end of a relationship while suffering intense pain due to a devastating injury and you might also be wondering if these folks have a right to be angry at life. The stoic philosophers would answer that question with a resounding NO because in addition to a breakup and physical pain, they could also have developed an aggressive form of cancer and been given only 6 months to live. You can keep playing this game until the cows come home, but the way I understand it is that no matter what your circumstances are, you always have something to be grateful for as long as you are alive. It is the unfortunate truth that most of us humans don’t usually realize how lucky we are to experience all the wonderful things we have in our lives until we lose them. All of us are guilty of this to a certain extent… and I am no exception.
For me, there was no clearer and more resounding reminder of just how blessed I was than my ordeal with a serious sports injury. Up until I got injured, I had spent a lot of time being angry at something someone else did or said, completely neglecting the amazing luck I had enjoyed to remain healthy and mostly injury free for the better part of the first quarter century of my life. After the injury occurred, simple things that I had previously taken for granted such as going to the bathroom became extraordinarily difficult. I had it all but had done a terrible job of recognizing and being grateful for that prior to my injury. In a weird way, that injury was a big blessing because it really highlighted the fact that nothing is guaranteed from moment to moment. The mere fact that both of our stupendously complex bodies function smoothly from moment to moment without any catastrophic mishaps is a miracle in and of itself. This is especially poignant since no one promised either of us anything when we exited the wombs of our respective mothers, dressed in our birthday suits.
It is important to note that neither the ideas above nor the stoic ideal are implicit excuses to passively accept every terrible situation in life. Righteous anger can actually be a good thing because it can fuel us with the energy required to right some of the wrongs in our lives. It was righteous anger that fueled the people of the United States to successfully abolish the evil of slavery. It is righteous anger that fuels us to continue to rid ourselves of some of the covertly suppressive tactics that are designed to keep our women and our ethnic minorities down. While all this is true, we must not be consumed with anger when we identify an obvious wrong in our society or environment that we want to fix. Rather, we should be thankful that we have the time, resources, and knowhow to actually implement a solution. After all, it isn’t out of the realm of reality that we could have terrible problems around us absent the power to solve them.
In closing, it is our hope that this article will help all of us create some more happiness in our lives by taking time each day to be grateful that we’re all still here. You should know that this is a difficult task to undertake in reality, and not one that you are likely to be perfect at. I’m right there with you in the trenches of mental warfare as we all engage in the worthwhile struggle required to maintain an attitude of gratitude. From all of us here at chubaoyolu.org, please take care of yourselves and each other.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca. (4BC – 65AD)
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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2 thoughts on “The importance of gratitude”
Couldn’t agree more – it isn’t happy people that are grateful, it is grateful people that are happy.
Agreed. Funny how that works out, but I think you’ve just pointed out a deep truth 🙂