“A proud man is seldom a grateful man,” said Henry Ward Beecher, “for he never thinks he gets as much as he deserves.” You may not consider yourself “proud”—indeed, if you’ve struggled with chemical abuse for long, you may be battling major feelings of worthlessness. Still, most abuse problems are characterized by a tendency to blame others for “driving me to it,” which translates to “I deserve an easier life than this, and everyone else is selfish and insensitive.” Inside every ingrate is an angry and unhappy soul.
Whether someone can be described as “happy” depends far less on economic circumstances, human relationships, or health than on how much the person appreciates whatever he or she has. Do you see life with an attitude of “I can’t believe how much I’ve been given” or one of “I deserve better”?
To cultivate an attitude of gratitude:
- Quit the excuses. Yes, you still have problems. Yes, learning to be consistently grateful is a slow process. Yes, it can be hard to emotionally reconcile life’s obvious imperfections with the practice of appreciating life as a whole. None of that is a legitimate reason to demand the right to complain. The best way to be thankful is to “just do it,” and the best time to start is right now.
- Swallow your pride. Emotions and brain chemicals going together, self-pity can be an addictive substance in itself, particularly when led by pride; there’s a strange pleasure in the misery of “I deserve better” or “I am personally responsible for making everything go right.” There is no real gratitude without accepting that we are limited and imperfect—yes, even undeserving. Never mind what you think you’ve earned; learn the joy of accepting what you didn’t earn.
- Consider what you’ve been taking for granted. Whatever your physical ailments, if just one part of you (your heart, lungs, eyes, ears, arms, legs …) works as needed—you have something to be grateful for. Wherever you can’t afford to shop, if you have food in your stomach and clothes on your back—you have something to be grateful for. Whatever you’ve suffered at the hands of others, if just one person genuinely cares about you—you have something to be grateful for.
- Keep your eyes open. Look for beauty and goodwill wherever you go. Don’t wander about so fixated on your struggles that you miss the cloud glowing in reflected sunlight, the mockingbird greeting the day in full voice, and the fresh air riding on a north wind. Even if you have trouble holding your head up, there are flowers poking through the concrete at your feet!
- Embrace uncertainty. Worry and anxiety try to convince you that you can only be happy with a 100% guarantee that everything will always go “right”—which, of course, never happens. Accept that no human can develop perfect foresight, and you’ll find it easier to appreciate the present moment. And remember, whatever does happen, there will be greater blessings in it than you could have planned for yourself.
- Keep a blessings journal. Writing things down, especially by hand, makes them easier to remember—not only by leaving a tangible record, but by stimulating maximum engagement from the brain. Buy a notebook to record the blessings and beauty that enter your life. Set a minimum number (from 3 to 10) of things to list each day—no excuses accepted for stopping at less.
- Make “thank you” a regular part of your vocabulary. Say it to the barista who serves your coffee, the clerk who bags your groceries, the stranger who lets you go through the door first. Thank everyone who benefits you in any way (whether or not they met your standards perfectly), and you’ll brighten both their day and your own.
- Write a thank-you note. Even better than a verbal thank-you is the personal and lasting touch of a thank-you written by the human hand. Don’t wait to respond to a gift or special occasion; make someone’s day with a totally unexpected letter detailing what they did for you and what a difference they made in your life. Write to the friend who encouraged you to seek professional help for substance abuse, the relative who always supported you, your favorite teacher from middle school. Reinforce the message with the visuals of cheerful stationery and a hand-drawn heart or smile.
- Take care of your health. While nothing precludes staying grateful through illness (and no illness is an excuse for sinking into self-pity), thankfulness comes most naturally when you feel good physically. Just practicing gratitude (plus staying away from harmful substances) is a major step toward good health; but remember also the well-proven basics: good food (fresh produce, whole grains, and lean protein); adequate sleep; regular exercise; and a little self-pampering with a hot bath, scented candles, or time to sit and appreciate the outdoors.
- Do something for someone else. Helping someone else out of their problems will help you forget yours; will put what you have in better perspective; and may add a new friend or two to your gratitude list.
Blessed are those who count their blessings, for they will never be overwhelmed by their troubles.
Katherine Swarts is a freelance content writer based in Houston, Texas. She specializes in inspirational and self-help articles for organizations that encourage emotionally struggling clients to appreciate themselves and live full lives. Katherine is the author of treatment center Kemah Palms Recovery’s blog and of numerous items for PsychCentral.com and various periodicals.
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