Cultivating a grateful heart takes practice. We need to remind ourselves often of all we have to feel grateful for. And that’s pretty hard to do in troubled times. It’s especially hard when we’re feeling disappointed or even bitter. But there’s a high cost to bitterness and there are countless rewards to reap from being grateful. So it’s well worth the effort it sometimes takes to count our blessings.
In my book Character Disturbance, I explain how attitudes of entitlement negatively affect both the mindset and behavior of the disturbed character. Entitled characters don’t feel indebted to anyone or anything. That’s why they fail to develop a healthy sense of obligation. And researchers tell us an impaired sense of obligation is at the root of so many of the disturbed character’s problem behaviors. It’s far too easy to shirk the responsibilities that naturally accompany a healthy relationship, a successful job or career, etc. when you think everyone owes you and you owe nothing. Feeling indebted is the opposite feeling entitled. And when we feel indebted we’re more apt to have a more loving, grateful, generous, and happy heart.
Practice makes perfect.
There are many ways to “practice” being grateful. We’re multi-sensory creatures, so surrounding ourselves with little “reminders” like photos, art, music, mementos that we can touch, feel, or smell, etc., helps us maintain a sense of gratitude. Keeping a gratitude journal is also a good way to help us remain mindful of all the things for which we can be grateful. It’s good to take time to remember someone’s act of kindness toward us, a pleasant happenstance, a treasured intimate moment with a friend, lover, or grandchild, for example. Recording the events for future reflection can help a person recover and maintain a sense of gratitude.
Gratitude is not a feeling that automatically arises with good fortune. Especially in our day and time, it’s far to easy to take even the good things that come our way for granted. Cultivating a deep and abiding sense of gratitude takes practice. Sometimes, that even means “going through the motions” of expressing appreciation without our hearts being truly in it. The often heard advice: “Fake it ’til you make it” has some real applicability here. It helps to act in an appreciative manner and make the effort to express our gratitude by saying “Thank-you” or “I appreciate that,” even if we’re not feeling particularly grateful at the moment. But in doing such things, over time, we’re likely to experience a genuine change of heart.
There are so many blessings in my life that it would be impossible to count them all. That doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced some really low times or dealt with some difficult circumstances. It just means that when I think about things for a moment — really think about them, I know I’m one very fortunate individual. In fact, I’m blessed beyond measure just to enjoy this precious gift we call life. I also know how I can get when I’m feeling sorry for myself (especially when I’ve suffered a setback or disappointment), or when I think I haven’t gotten all I think I deserve (There’s that sneaky temptation to entitlement again!). So, especially when things aren’t going my way, I have to make a concerted effort to get off my pity pot and practice the positive psychology solid research has indicated makes all the difference. My experience matches the now abundant research on gratitude and happiness: when I feel good, I don’t always feel grateful, but when I practice gratitude, I almost always feel better.
The High Cost of Bitterness
The opposite of gratitude is bitterness. Bitterness poses a challenge because it is marked by intense animosity, reproach, and perhaps cynicism and rancor. Bitterness can result from severe grief or regret. Sometimes it seems there is no rationality to it. And because of the ordeal they’ve typically been through, survivors of toxic relationships can easily become bitter. (I address this in several articles including Toxic Relationship Recovery – Comfort in Lessons Learned and Toxic Relationship Aftermath: A Wrap Up, and also in my book How Did We End Up Here?). There often appears no way to assuage bitterness once it sets in. But bitterness is truly poison for the person who harbors it. In a way, it lets us hold onto something we’d do better to discard. For survivors of toxic relationships, it’s the way the disturbed character maintains a destructive hold on our lives and our hearts. So, to truly overcome the damage already done by a toxic relationship partner, we need to do our best not only “emotionally divorce” them but also to release the bitter feelings that keeps us negatively attached to and influenced by them.
In therapy, sometimes I have to confront the incessant whining of my character-disordered clients with the reality that there really are no entitlements in life. Life itself is a miraculous gift. So the essential “commandment” for character-correction is simple: Strive to be grateful. Gratefulness will lead to a sense of indebtedness. That will, in turn lead you to earn and show respect for what you have, which will then help you accept the important obligations of life instead of expecting things handed to you.
Want to be happy? Be grateful!
Most people think you need to be happy with your life and the way things are going to be grateful. But years of experience and now mounds of empirical research tells us just the opposite: when we keep our awareness high of all the things we have to be grateful for, we’re much more likely to find happiness. The adage to count our blessings is powerfully good advice, now supported by scientific evidence. Being grateful combats the evils of entitlement, begets a healthy sense of social obligation, and engenders something all of us crave: happiness.
Next week I’ll be again previewing my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armisted: The 10 Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life by posting on the third “commandment” of sound character development.
Sunday’s Character Matters program (7 pm EDT, 6 pm CDT) will again be a live broadcast so I can take your calls. To ask a question, share a story, or simply join the discussion call in at (718) 717-8296 about 5 minutes after showtime.