How do you cultivate gratitude?
June 10, 2005 12:11 PM   Subscribe

Do you have ways to put your life into perspective and force yourself to appreciate that you're really pretty privileged? Or do you allow yourself to get bored and solipsistic and desirous of more (material or otherwise) stuff?

Even though I have good friends, make a decent living, have had untold strokes of luck and unfair advantages every step of the way (being born a middle-class American ain't a bad place to begin), I never feel like I really appreciate new bits of good fortune for very long before I find something to be discontent with. One's material desires always seem just to exceed one's available income, for example, no matter how much more you're making this year than last. Do you ever manage to shut yourself up for a second and realize that you've really got it relatively good? If so, how? Does exposure to media help or make things worse? And do you think religious people are somehow better equipped to do this than the rest of us?
posted by catesbie to Religion & Philosophy (37 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure about religious, but for me, a big part of calming down about material goods has come through yoga and meditation (which I think are pretty exchangable in this goal). The whole point is to recognize that you're valuable simply because you're here, breathing.

Everything else is just external to your true self.

It wasn't a goal I had going into yoga, but I have noticed that since I started practice (and I don't even do it that often -- once a week), I've stopped wanting to shop as much. It was that easy.

And yes, I think media makes it worse. MUCH worse. I've stopped reading women's magazines, and there's been a huge improvement. (Can't give up the TV yet...) Actually, I substituted "Yoga Journal" for women's magazines because it covers a lot of the same bases -- how to make your life richer, calmer, and prettier -- but from an internal perspective.
posted by occhiblu at 12:30 PM on June 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

My answer is pretty similar to occhiblu's: Yoga and meditation helped me to strip away the layers, all the window dressing.

I grew up upper middle class and went to private schools, went away to college, I have a great job, nice car, huge apartment, beautiful clothes, etc - yet I have a lot of anxiety and sporadic bouts of depression.

My new strategy is to no longer base my happiness on my accomplishments and possessions but instead on if I'm a good person. I'm not so hard on myself anymore and don't feel like I have to win and be the best at everything. If I can get through a day and see that I did good work that was of value to my company and was a good friend, I'm pretty happy with that.
posted by superkim at 12:52 PM on June 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

I think age and lot may play a role. I'm 30 now, and really don't have the same desire for material things as I once did. I'm also quite happily married with a new child. A baby has strong perspective changing properties, at least she has had that affect on me.

I still want/need/invest money, but I'm after security, not toys. Not that there is anything wrong with toys, but sometimes it seems that the acquisition of one leads to the desire of another, again, at least it does for me. I've stopped reading flyers and since building a mythtv box, have been able to avoid commercials to a large extent. This seems to have made me less aware of 'Cool Stuff'TM.

Do you ever manage to shut yourself up for a second and realize that you've really got it relatively good? If so, how?

I watch or read some international news. I find that it tends to be incredibly sobering and it serves to remind me of how lucky I am.

Maybe someone with a psychological background can help: does the constant urge to shop and acquire mean anything, psycologically speaking, or are we simply weak prey, robbed of our will to restrain due to the constant advertising bombardment of modern culture?
posted by jikel_morten at 1:29 PM on June 10, 2005

I'm 26, make 72K in manhattan and I'm always 4 days from an anxiety attack

birdwatching and amateur horticulture seem to allow me to let it go, if only for a moment
posted by a thousand writers drunk at the keyboard at 1:31 PM on June 10, 2005

Remember that "media" is plural, and while some media are awful, others can do just what you're looking for.

As jikel_morten suggests, I think you should read international news coverage of the world every day. I like the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Economist, but I'm sure there are lots of other publications out there too.

I find learning about the world to be both humbling and enriching. Reading news also gives me a depth of understanding that TV news doesn't, and helps me feel connected to people around the planet.

If you subscribe to a newspaper for your news, you can throw away all the Dell ads and car/home&gardening/real estate sections without looking twice to get the consumer temptations out of your life.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:37 PM on June 10, 2005

This is a fantastic question. I regret I haven't time to answer it in-depth.

In general, exposure to media makes things worse. It simply exacerbates the materialism you describe, the never-ending quest to have more, more, more. Advertising, in particular, is, well, pretty much evil in this regard. Advertising and marketing are all about sowing the seeds of discontent. If you want to be happy, to appreciate all that you have, steer clear of advertising as much as possible. This means severely restrict your television veiwing (or use time-shifting devices like Tivo and BitTorrent) and avoid newspapers and magazines as much as possible. (Despite the advice above, I recommend getting your news from other sources; there are plenty of great on-line news sources with minimal advertising.) It's surprisingly easy to do this. It's also a surprisingly effective method of alleviating those pangs of desire.

On the other hand, aside from travel, the media is one of the best ways to learn to appreciate what you have. From movies (such as City of God) to television (such as the first season of The Wire) to books (such as Angela's Ashes) to comics (such as Maus), etc., the media can introduce you to different ways of life, tell stories harrowing and affecting that force you to appreciate just how good you have it.

I suspect that volunteer work is another effective means to introduce a sense of thanksgiving in one's life. Getting in touch with nature often plays a therapeutic role in my life, too. Birdwatching, as mentioned above, or hiking, or simply sitting on the back porch for an hour with a cat.

As for shedding the material lifestyle, read some Edward Abbey, borrow a couple of issues of Adbusters from the library, learn about simplicity, read some financial self-help books (self-link), practice letting go.

Great question. Good luck.
posted by jdroth at 1:50 PM on June 10, 2005

One more quick thought before I have to go.

I grew up geeky. I ran with the geeks in high school. As all of our parents promised would happen, out of our peers we're now the ones who have the wealth and the status in our community.

All except one.

One of our group made some bad choices, was dealt some bad cards, and has failed to keep up with us. I lost touch with him for seventeen years, and we only recently found each other. This fellow's place in life is different from the rest of the geeks, and he knows it and we know it. It's humbling for all of us. It makes me really appreciate what I have. It makes me want to do what I can to help this old friend. I'm not religious, but I cannot help but think, "There but for the grace of God go I..."
posted by jdroth at 1:58 PM on June 10, 2005

JDRoth, you turned me on to investing and getting my financial shit together.

Thanks! Seriously, I owe you one.
posted by jikel_morten at 2:06 PM on June 10, 2005

Surfing, children, confronting a potential life-threatening illness has helped erase existential want and angst.

I have a few close friends who are chronically dissatisfied. I have no idea what the answer is. The epiphany either happens or it does not. You are either happy with the things you are in possesion of, material or otherwise, or you aren't. It's your choice.
posted by docpops at 2:31 PM on June 10, 2005

There's a thread on Salon's Table Talk with a title I absolutely love, something to the effect of "My Stupid Little First-World Problems."

That term - "first-world problem" is a great back-to-earth reminder for me. Spot on the silk blouse? That's a very first-world problem. DVR or central air conditioning on the fritz? least I have it. You get the idea.
posted by SashaPT at 2:32 PM on June 10, 2005

The surfing and birdwatching comments made me remember something else: salsa dancing. Since I'm a girl and thus following in the dance, it allows me to turn off my mind and just totally go with the flow, following my partner, the music, my moods, whatever. Anytime I think, I trip -- so no worrying about whether I'm doing it right or how I look allowed!

Sex is also good for this, when available.

Basically, giving yourself over to some absorbing activity that's not competitive, and that doesn't involve purchasing as its major goal (that is, shopping) is key, I think.
posted by occhiblu at 2:41 PM on June 10, 2005

I live in a neighborhood with a lot of homeless people and people doing drugs on the street (for a couple more weeks anyway). Sometimes I start to think that I don't have enough stuff, and then I start to think about what I would carry with me if I lost my home - what would I put in my shopping bag or backpack? I've never made a complete list, but starting one is usually enough to remind me that possessions aren't that important and that I'm lucky on a basic level, even if it is a few too many days until I get paid again.

I've also been in majorly huge credit card debt and don't want to go there again. So, I buy very little and postpone purchases when I can.

Like others have said, volunteering provides a lot of perspective. I've found this to be true even when doing things like weeding in a city park - it doesn't need to be helping other people specifically, just doing something completely selfless.

Read war stories, visit parts of Eastern Europe, or places like Auschwitz.

I don't think religious people have an advantage in gaining perspective. That seems like too much of a generalization.
posted by bendy at 2:42 PM on June 10, 2005

JDRoth: interesting link, thanks.

But for the actual question:

Don't see everying in in financial terms. Admittedly, you have more access to good and services than 90% of the world's population, but that's not going to make you happy, it'll just make things convenient so that you don't have to worry about starvation or mosquitoes.

Society is an accident of birth. If you appreciate it, put something back.
posted by Sparx at 2:52 PM on June 10, 2005

Hey, JDRoth, I'm interested in your great online news sources with minimal advertising. Do they have real reporting? International news? Can you give links?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:32 PM on June 10, 2005

I decided when I was around twelve or thirteen that I would never again intentionally kill another living creature. Up until the age of 20 or so, I had been deeply religious (beneficial to many, naught but an obsessive guilt trip to me) and had had a relatively unfortunate childhood (a bit of abuse, up to the point of attempted murder).

Now, every time I watch a mosquito taking from me what she wishes for the survival of her and her young or a cockroach scamper into hiding at the sudden flick of the kitchen light, I am reminded of this traumatising childhood and think of it in terms of how it has brought me to be the good (well, I try to be, anyway) person that I am. And I am reminded of my days spent languishing in my religious beliefs and think that now, without those beliefs, I am trying to be a good person with no expectation of reward. And these thoughts combined make me very thankful that an infinite string of random events could turn my misfortunes into situations through which I've become a better person.

Damn. I probably could've written that more clearly. Ah well.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 3:36 PM on June 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm not religious, or spiritual, or anything really. Never mind yoga, i barely do stretching.

But I think i'm particularly excellent at 'appreciating what i have'. Its because I went through a long time in my life when i wasn't happy about anything, and the only person who suffered through that was me. And now, I find it pretty self-evident that getting pissed off or upset about things does nothing but harm myself. So I just don't do it. (Seriously, there is a 'plus side' to almost everything; things without plus sides are generally just not that big a deal to begin with.)

When something really does upset me though, I think about all the times in high school that i flung myself onto my bed wailing, or slammed doors, or told my parents I hated them for being 'so mean', and I realise that i don't even remember what I did those things for anymore. And i think about the fact that whatever i'm upset about now will either be irrelevant or fixable in the not-so-distant future. (I'm, umm, not talking about deaths or illness or things like that. Go ahead and be upset about those.)

Things like 'think about the poor people' and 'don't read magazines' don't really address the issue of how to fundamentally change your mindset. If an issue of Glamour can really affect you that much than I think 'self esteem' and 'independent thought' are the issues to concentrate on, more so than positivity. (That sounds really bitchy, but i think it's true.)

Oh, also, I've lived in africa for the last little while, and I can honestly say that that isn't what's made me a positive thinker. Its more that I made concious decision to think in ways that make me happy. And now that mindset just comes naturally.

(i.e. last fall I had a big ugly cyst right on my face. It was golf-ball sized. The day the doctor drained it (so it was not as visible but still there), but three days before it was to be removed and one day before the Big Reunion, my dad commented that 'it was awful that it was still there, isn't this horrible', etc etc. My honest response was that Hey, it COULD STILL BE THE SIZE OF GOLF BALL!! Being a quarter of that size is FREAKIN' FANTASTIC! Because really, the alternative wasn't 'no cyst', it was 'golf ball cyst'. Don't compare your reality to imaginary alternatives, compare to the realistic ones - and often you'll be pleased!)
posted by Kololo at 3:37 PM on June 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

To "cultivate gratitude" in this sense can just be a subtle form of materialism. It's just another thing you need to accumulate for yourself-- "I need to be this grateful."

You don't really need to be anything other than what you are. Take a wider perspective and try to recognize the effects of your actions on others and the world. If you need a project, try to take specific, concrete action that has some beneficial effect on others. It doesn't matter if it's very small. The things you do have an effect, regardless of how much gratitude you have or haven't cultivated inside your own head.

In a sense, efforts that only benefit your "self" are the least helpful. And least of all are ones that benefit your "self" in a way that only exists in terms of your internal self-image, e.g. this concept of how grateful you are or aren't. Try to redirect that energy into something that is tangibly, observably beneficial. The gratitude you think you lack is not really missing. You're just distracting yourself from it.
posted by mcguirk at 3:37 PM on June 10, 2005

I am not sure how this happened to me - I guess I went through some really rough patches with no money and no job - not knowing how I was going to make it. I also had some pretty bad relationships a few times. I have some friends with really crappy families - or no families.

All I know is that now I am often blindsided by how incredibly lucky I am to have what I have and this incredible wash of gratitude flows over me and right out my eyeballs.
posted by jopreacher at 3:56 PM on June 10, 2005

I've mentioned it before, and it seems extreme, but you could always try skydiving. Assume you are dead when you jump out of the plane, and everything in life seems different when you land safely on the ground. I've also mentioned mescaline, but you need a lot of prep for that.

The Great Big Mulp - We're almost on the same page. I kill nothing that does not intend to do me harm, but I will kill for my own survival. I kill ticks and mosquitos, because they are parasitic and might end up killing me. I (indirectly) kill cows, chickens, etc, because I've tried going vegetarian, and it never worked for me. I try it once a year, but my body doesn't take to it.

I try not to kill the field mice that get in my house, but it doesn't always work. They are very good at killing themselves with glue traps.
posted by bh at 4:20 PM on June 10, 2005

I've been working on paring down my lifestyle for a while now, I finally quit my job at the end of January and moved to where I am now. I felt like I needed to do it, I was turning into a yuppie and that's not a side of me that I like. So I switched into ascetic mode and I've been forced to realize how little I can get by on and how much I took for granted. Obviously this might not be for everyone, but I'm single and my financial obligations are paid off (except rent of course) so if not now, when? With large quantities of time and limited cash reserves you get into an entirely different mindset, I've learned a lot about myself and I wasn't even trying.

Try it out for a day. Pack a lunch (don't forget water) and spend the day in the city without your wallet, on foot. Even when you plan ahead and have a day of free activities lined up it's surprisingly hard, if you're anything like me you'll be surprised how often you'll start to buy some dumb little thing you don't need. It's a shock everytime you realize you don't have any money.
posted by cali at 4:23 PM on June 10, 2005

Kololo, I have tons of self-esteem and positivity. Really. Great body image, not particularly materialistic, etc. And I used to voraciously read women's magazines, figuring it wasn't that big a deal -- just a guilty pleasure.

I can't tell you how much my general attitude about the world has improved since I stopped reading them. They are simply one GIANT ad saying "You are inadequate. You need to buy better makeup, newer clothes, lose weight, and be better in bed. You need to be scared of your doctor, your neighbors, your boyfriend, your boss, your employees, and your friends. Women are dying every day, and getting sick every day, and you will be next." And I'm talking about the editorial content, because I tend to just skip over the ads.

I'm not denying that bigger changes will yield bigger results, but there's such an unceasing flow of shit coming at women every single day saying "You're not good enough! And the solution is shopping!" that anything you can do to stem the tide really, tangibly helps.
posted by occhiblu at 4:58 PM on June 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

Things like 'think about the poor people' and 'don't read magazines' don't really address the issue of how to fundamentally change your mindset.

This is true, but these things do tend to lead a person in the right direction. They may not fundamentally change your mindset, but they can take you out of your comfort zone, away from the overt materialism of everyday life, and start to open your eyes.

Gratitude, joy, and the acceptance of one's lot in life are achieved differently for different people. In general, the process is a slow, methodical, contemplative one.

One reason that I esteem Thanksgiving above all other holidays is that it's an overt reminder for me to stop and appreciate all that I have in my life.

Hey, JDRoth, I'm interested in your great online news sources with minimal advertising. Do they have real reporting? International news? Can you give links?

You've caught me in sloppy reporting of my own. I was in a rush to get out of here, so I oversimplified. Mea culpa. What I should say is that I use Google News. It's a great way to stay on top of things, though, obviously, most of the links to news stories lead to advertising-supported sites. I apologize for the intellectual laziness.
posted by jdroth at 5:59 PM on June 10, 2005

The more aware I become of how truly shitty almost everyone on this planet has it, the more aware I am of how truly fortunate I am. I am deeply appreciative of all my good fortune... and fortune is all it is, because I sure as hell haven't done a hell of a lot to actually merit this fortunate life. It is what it is, and I am grateful for it.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:04 PM on June 10, 2005

I have one piece of good fortune. I seem to have almost entirely lost any materialistic desires. This is odd, perhaps, since I was as keen on getting the latest toys as any typical kid, yet as I've aged I just don't seem to care about... stuff, anymore. I make a good living but I live simply; have no interest whatsoever in cellphones and gadgets and cars and clothes and toys and watches and jewellery and... pointless, trivial, unnecessary, superficial cack, all of it.

I didn't try to reach this conclusion. I didn't make some philosophical decision about it. I just found myself there one day. And it's a blessed place to be. Also, I'm an atheist, so I don't think religious belief has the slightest thing to do with it. I think looking squarely and broadly at the world has something to do with it. Oh, and getting rid of your television. Television is the mindkiller, man. I'm serious.

We live in a whore society. TV, billboards, peers, magazines... they're whoring all the time, all the time. They all scream CONSUME and COMPETE and ACQUIRE and INCREASE at us and we become Pavlovian about it. Until we see it for what it is: sick, manipulative bullshit. Outrage about being manipulated was probably what really lay behind my retreat from western capitalist greed. Outrage and utter distaste. Start being outraged about the way you're being encouraged to live, and what your society is trying to persuade you is important. Realise that not only is this material shit unimportant, it's harmful to your soul and your sanity.

I sound like a spart wanker, right? Right. That's how you know they've still got you by the balls.
posted by Decani at 6:16 PM on June 10, 2005 [2 favorites]

Great post, decani. Couldn't agree more...
posted by jikel_morten at 8:03 PM on June 10, 2005

At least nobody's shooting at me.
posted by bigbigdog at 8:47 PM on June 10, 2005

Work as a volunteer in a palliative care ward for six months. If that doesn't change your perspective, nothing will.
posted by GoatCactus at 8:58 PM on June 10, 2005

Palliative care? Heck, even volunteering at the library changed my perspective.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:30 PM on June 10, 2005

I'm interested in your great online news sources with minimal advertising. Do they have real reporting? International news? Can you give links?

Information Clearing House.
Selected articles from NYT, WP, LAT, KR & others in a text only format.
Main page has no advertising, though the articles they link to do.

Same as above.

posted by mlis at 10:00 PM on June 10, 2005

What happened to me was that I had the usual material concerns and goals (looking good in clothes, paying off student loans, earning towards home ownership). But then it turned out that just work + relaxing felt like a boring life. So I started working towards the other goals and ideas that occurred to me (after-work writing class, learning Japanese, continuing hobbies) to make life more interesting as I got ahead materially. As it turned out, these side goals got to be really important to me, so much so that they started eclipsing the monetary/social landmarks. I realized I really, really wanted to make some other kind of mark on the world, ideally a creative/communicative one. So I eased back on work, decided that home ownership felt like a trap compared with being able to travel and take photographs, and I haven't felt inadequate since. At least, not in that bad/lacking way, but rather in the happy "I have so much to learn, each day is not long enough!" kind of way.

That said, I do believe that "striving" is part of the human condition, and is innate to us. It's what makes us devise tools and societies and such.
posted by xo at 10:33 PM on June 10, 2005

Hey, JDRoth, I'm interested in your great online news sources with minimal advertising. Do they have real reporting? International news? Can you give links?

Try this.
posted by wackybrit at 5:51 AM on June 11, 2005

ha. just seen this post. in my case, it's depressingly easy - just walk down the street. and if i want confirmation, i can talk to my brother in law who, as a committed marxist and member of a revolutionary cadre, will happily wax lyrical about the frustrated masses, desperate for food and comfort, within moments of revolt, leading to a dictatorship of the proletariat until the small matter of removing power structures from society is accomplished.

so maybe spend your money on a holiday abroad?
posted by andrew cooke at 10:28 AM on June 11, 2005

Well, getting cancer worked for me....but I don't recommend it.

Actually, I've done the exercise cali recommends above, and it's really interesting to realize how little you truly do need to get through a day. Yea verily I say unto you, it is possible to survive without that venti iced latte in the middle of the afternoon....

I also did something almost 15 years ago that was very hard but very worthwhile: I liquidated my life.

I was leaving NYC (for good, I thought) and so I got rid of everything: furniture, books, bed, hobby stuff, clothes, lease. In the end what was left fit into one cardboard carton and a suitcase. During the several-month process, though, I was enduringly anxious. Every so often I'd suddenly feel afraid that without my stuff I'd have no identity. How do you know who a person is without seeing the items that are for some reason precious to her? (By which I mean photos or mementos ... or for that matter, I suppose, a flat-screen HDTV.)

And somehow that question got answered for me when I left the US and started living in places where I noticed people spending hours on end sitting and talking to each other in the local plaza or at a coffeeshop or on park benches. Those people seemed content and satisfied; they seemed to have deep relationships, developed over many years. Or at least it looked that way to me.

If you have a chance, take a look at the movie Buena Vista Social Club; I'm always struck by how contented the old musicians are even though their possessions are so meager. That serenity is what I'm alluding to - it sounds glib to call it "knowing there's more to life than stuff", but I guess that's what I'm getting at.
posted by GrammarMoses at 6:54 PM on June 11, 2005

Wow, what thoughtful responses! mcguirk's thought that perhaps cultivation of a mindset is just another way to accumulate has a lot going for it. And I think Kololo's response is something that's been very true in my life as well--I also spent a huge number of years quite miserable and am no longer so. I am occasionally struck by a feeling that I think of as not only being happy to wake up in the morning, but being grateful to be happy to want to wake up in the morning. I feel paradoxically blessed to have this perspective and wonder whether 'severe depression' ought to be some kind of prerequisite for 'keeping it real.'

To take it a step beyond just materialism, however, it strikes me as dangerous to feel better about my own life specifically because other people are unhappy and materially deprived (or we assume them to be--GrammarMoses' point about happiness despite meager possessions is right on). I guess that was what motivated my question about religion--is thee a way to appreciate your life in a way that doesn't necessarily require other people to have lives more miserable than yours?
posted by catesbie at 7:12 AM on June 12, 2005

(That should have been 'is THERE a way' not 'is THEE'--but in the context of religion, I think it's pretty funny.)
posted by catesbie at 7:14 AM on June 12, 2005

Yes. I think you can believe that every person is capable of being happy, no matter what his or her circumstances.

There seems to be a weird way of thinking about happiness in the West, like it's a finite entity and that someone else being unhappy therefore increases the amount of happiness available for yourself. I know that's not what the posters above meant, but I think it does tie in a bit. Maybe the idea isn't "Think about how much other people lack and therefore how lucky you are," but "Think about how well other people do with so much less than you have, and therefore realize that all your stuff has nothing to do with happiness."

Because it doesn't. There have been all sorts of studies proving exactly what you said in your original post -- that people think *getting* stuff will make them happy, but after an adjustment period, they go back to the same base level of happines (or unhappiness) as before. The trick is increasing that base level, not maintaining the materialistic high.

For me, at least, it's tapping into the giant currents of happiness in the world that have nothing to do with material goods. Once you realize they're there, you can shift out of the have/have-not mindset to some extent.
posted by occhiblu at 11:33 AM on June 12, 2005

Gratitude begets gratitude.
posted by squirrel at 11:20 PM on June 20, 2005

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