In good times and bad, make gratitude a daily practice

It’s easy to be grateful when we are happy and things are going well. But as we all know, those times don’t last forever. The trick is to be grateful in both good times and bad, all seasons of our lives. As individuals and as a society, we are guided by our deepest obsessions. If our thoughts are constantly full of fear and scarcity, we become afraid of losing everything. Ironically, if we are grateful, even in the darkest of times, we become more hopeful.

Gratitude makes us believe in the future. It’s a bit like slalom skiing. To exert control, you must lean down the hill, but that is frightening. It is counterintuitive and challenges common sense and yet it is true; by leaning forward into your fear, with gratitude, you actually have far greater control. Yes, it feels safer to lean back rather than forward, because it is a familiar response, born of sheer terror, whether on the ski slopes or in life. We lean back in life, fearing the adventure ahead, holding on to the need to settle scores, and listing our wrongs and “what-ifs.” As many of us know too well, that path leads to a dead end. Let go. Be grateful and set a new focus. Slowly learn a new dance, a much more human way of living life.

Once you change your focus to what you are thankful for, life is seen as a gift. As someone once said, “Life is not about the number of breaths we take, but the number of moments that take our breath away.” You were given the gift of life, but there are no assurances. Any moment could be your last. Don’t take anything for granted, and eventually you’ll craft a life approach anchored in gratitude and resulting in real joy.

David Brooks points out that there are people with “dispositional gratitude,” meaning they are grateful by nature most of the time. They stand in stark contrast to those who are entitled. Brooks reflects, “People with grateful dispositions see their efforts grandly but not themselves. Life doesn’t surpass their dreams but it nicely surpasses their expectations.”

What stands out to you about your day so far? Or the past month? Or year? Are you clinging to something that’s pulling you down? Where’s your attention focused? What we focus on matters.

Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted a famous study on attention at Harvard. They produced a short video that featured two teams, one dressed in black and the other in white. The players in the film clip simply passed a basketball back and forth among themselves, and the Harvard students were instructed to watch the short video and count the number of passes made by the players in white uniforms. Following the experiment, the students were asked if they noticed anything odd in the video. More than half of the observers failed to notice a large furry gorilla walking among the two teams while they were passing the ball.

How could they miss something so obvious? The truth is, we only see what we pay attention to. So if you’re fixated on darkness, then that’s all you will see. You’ll miss out on the light and the causes for wonder all around.

Grateful people thrive because they pay attention to the right things. Paul Dolan observes, in Happiness by Design, that it is important to acknowledge the cause of your happiness. He notes, “The key to being happier is to pay more attention to what makes you happy and less attention to what does not. Notice this is not the same as paying attention to happiness itself.”

It’s important to note that happiness is only a by-product of something far more important. Our goal should be to have a life of meaning. I draw a distinction between happiness and meaning. Happiness is tied to circumstances and the externalities in our lives (getting a promotion at work, losing nineteen pounds, having a great weekend, etc.). Deep meaning is utterly profound and not necessarily dependent on any externalities. It is a sense of well-being that resides within and does not correlate with our shifting circumstances. Although deep within, it is also transcendent and spiritual in nature. This is why, in some of the darkest times, like serving a life sentence in jail or enduring a horrific war, certain people still manage to find a connection to meaning.

A note found in the pocket of a fallen soldier gives voice to this seeming contradiction between happiness and meaning:

I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered;
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

It’s easy to dismiss and trivialize small shifts and practices that slowly generate human flourishing. If that is your tendency, I urge you to reconsider and take up the disciplined practice of counting your blessings. It’s an investment in you. Adjustments in your focus make room for the possibility of meaning and joy.

Excerpted from Rethinking Success by J. Douglas Holladay and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2020.