Have you got first world problems? Perhaps you’re struggling to balance a successful business and time with your beautiful family? Experiencing angst choosing which inner-city restaurant to eat at?
‘First world problem’ has become a way of saying: I know I’m being ungrateful. I know my life is generally amazing and I’m complaining about not much at all. The most common antidote to a first world problem is to acknowledge your gratefulness for all that you have: the job, the kids, the conveniences of city living.
Gratitude has become a very popular self-help technique. With good reason, I might add: There is plenty of research which shows that acknowledging gratitude daily does wonders for your sense of life satisfaction and how happy you feel you are. It is often suggested as a technique to counter symptoms associated with depression, such as feeling a lack of pleasure and interest in things, and a low mood.
“The antidote to a first world problem
is to acknowledge your gratefulness for all that you have”
The old way of doing gratitude
If you’re not already familiar with the idea, the basics are to find a few things each day for which you are grateful. The original positive psychology studies suggested 5 things; later research has shown the exact number is not important. There are plenty of variations: not repeating the same things each day, making a big list of all you’re grateful for once and then reading and adding to it daily, talking about what you’re grateful for with the family over dinner instead of writing it down, saying ‘thank-you’ either out loud or silently each time you experience a moment of beauty, happiness, synchronicity or pleasure.
A funny thing, though: Although people in the research studies reported they felt happier when they focused on gratitude daily compared to when they didn’t, very few people kept it up after the study was finished. There are lots of reasons why this might be, but the fact is, they stopped.
If gratitude is so good for us, but we fail to make it a habit, how can we make gratitude even more attractive, so that we can get the benefits of feeling happier with our life? I’ve got two ideas: two NEW rules of gratitude, to make practising gratitude seem even more worthwhile.
First way: Being grateful for what you think you don’t have
Huh? What does that sentence even mean? My personal experience with gratitude has shown me that I feel its effects most powerfully when I focus my mind on an area of my life I’m not happy with, and then look for to be grateful for in that area. So, for example, if I’m feeling that my business isn’t going well, then looking for events/ things to be grateful for in my business makes me feel much better than giving thanks for a loving family.
The reason why this works is that once you make a decision about something, your brain gets lazy. You stop looking at evidence objectively, and start to pay more attention to things that fit the decision you made, and ignore information that doesn’t fit.
So with the business example, at first I might have had no belief about how my business is doing, and then I look at some information. I notice I’m getting clients, but perhaps not as many as other people, and I decide I’m not doing well. From then on, my brain remembers information that shows I’m not doing well and kind of ignores information that shows I am.
Obviously, if you made a positive assessment at first, then this is good news. But if you decide in the negative, it can be really discouraging. Using gratitude forces your mind to stop being lazy. It has to look for evidence that things are going well in an area where it’s already decided you’re doing it tough. If you practice gratitude consistently in an area that is troubling you, your lazy mind will actually make a new decision. It will decide that business is going well, and look for evidence that supports this new decision.
This is all without any of the flow-on effects that come from the actions to you take based on what you believe (e.g. like feeling the business isn’t going well and so not having the confidence to promote it, leading to it being more likely for the business to actually not do well). What I’m talking about has nothing to do with the objective reality of your situation: simply that your mind does filter information that you notice based on what you already believe to be true.
Gratitude has the power to shake that up – if you focus your gratitude-hunting on areas of your life you feel are failing. This is particularly important for sufferers of depression and anxiety, who commonly think in all-or-nothing terms (if it’s not perfect, it’s terrible), overgeneralise (take one bad event as enough evidence to make their decision that everything will always be bad) and disqualify positives (e.g. see good things that happen as ‘luck’ rather than a result of their actions, talents etc.).
Second Way: Look to Give, not Get
The default mode of thinking around gratitude is to examine what you’re getting. Traditional gratitude exercises focus on things you get, or have, and remembering to appreciate them. But the new way of doing gratitude changes the focus entirely - to thinking about what you can give. Why wait to get? What do you already possess that you can give to others as a way of demonstrating your gratitude for your gifts?
Note, I’m not so much talking about possessions or money here. I’m talking more about aspects of yourself that if you share them, you send the message that you have enough to share. It could be the time you give to chat to a neighbour. It could be your knowledge – giving a customer extra information they need, even though they’re not planning to buy that day. ‘Looking for opportunities to give something of yourself makes you aware that you have something to give, something good that other people like and need.
‘Looking for opportunities to give
makes you aware that you have something to give,
something good that other people like and need’.
Doing this often actually leads to getting more to be grateful for as a side benefit too – the neighbour offers to look after your kids so you have time to get your hair cut, the customer returns to your store again and does buy because they loved the service they got.
I love this method because the power is with you – it teaches you that you have control over the positive experiences in your day. Rather than wait for something good to happen to you to feel grateful for, you get to create the good thing! Because it taps into your personal power, it forces you to look at your personal strengths, asking you to think about what you are already good at that you can share. It promotes altruism too (and doing good for others is also associated with boosting your mood and sense of wellbeing, so you get a double hit this way!).
What do you know, what are you good at, what have you got lots of, that you could give to others as a way of expressing your gratitude for having enough to share? It could be a smile, a positive outlook, some knowledge, a skill, time or even money. Find something that you could give to somebody else today, and share it! Then let me know how it felt in the comments below.
Do you want more helpful ideas on how to live a great life? Ideas that are backed by psychological research and have been proven to make a difference to your mood and overall wellbeing?
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.