Most of us are conditioned in more ways than one to feel less satisfaction than we could. Evolution has largely shaped us to focus on looking for and noticing danger, even when we’re doing well. Not only that, but as soon as we achieve something we want, biology also conditions us to soon stop noticing it, so that our mental capacities can be focused on searching and learning new things. This is the reason that we easily take not only things, but also important relationships in our life for granted (until we lose them).
The family models in which we learn to think and behave are often focused on criticism, fear and expectations, and rarely on recognizing the good. It’s no wonder that, even in modern civilization where we live more safely and comfortably than our ancestors could have dreamed of, most people are still unhappy and stressed. Of course, modern civilization and technology also bring modern problems such as lack of time, loneliness and problems with concentration. However, it is often self-imposed and nowhere near as dangerous as all the hardships that previous generations had to deal with.
If you try to consciously focus on enjoying what you already have, you’ll probably soon forget about it, and it can be hard to hold on to that feeling for more than a few minutes. However, there is one small addition to that attitude that can have a far greater effect, and that is an attitude of gratitude.
It’s hard for me to clearly describe why gratitude makes such a difference compared to “ordinary” awareness. But the difference is big, not only in the intensity, but also in the duration of the satisfaction that gratitude brings. Is it in a greater sense of connection with something outside of us? Does gratitude somehow increase the perceived value of what we focus on? Or does gratitude help us recognize how easily it could have happened that we didn’t receive all that we have? It’s hard to say for sure, but science, for example in this research, is also beginning to reveal that gratitude brings long-term benefits not only to healthy people, but also to people with mental health problems.
Gratitude doesn’t have to be related to religion, or even spirituality, if that doesn’t appeal to you. It is not necessary to direct gratitude towards anyone or anything in particular. Even an abstract attitude of gratitude is enough to trigger a significant change in perception. If you still want to be grateful to someone or something, and you are not attracted to religion, you can direct your gratitude towards your ancestors who worked hard to ensure a better life for their descendants, most of whom they will never meet. You can be grateful to scientists and fighters for human rights, to all those who dedicatedly worked to make the whole world better. But even that is not necessary for you to be able to feel the benefits of gratitude.
(Some people may have problems with feeling grateful and may say that it causes them guilt or the feeling that they do not deserve to be happy. It is important to realize that this is not a healthy and natural feeling, but in that case you probably grew up in a family where at least one parent has blamed you, played the victim, or had a buy-sell attitude toward fulfilling their parenting responsibilities. Address and heal these feelings so you can experience the benefits of healthy gratitude.)
Even when we practice gratitude, we can easily forget and take many things for granted, especially if we were born in a time of their easy availability. So, here’s a list of ideas you can be thankful for, so you can expand that feeling even more:
- Good relationships. After basic security, nothing is as important to the quality of life as good relationships. No amount of things or money can compensate for the emotional fulfillment we get from feeling a warm connection with other people. Remember, with an attitude of gratitude, all the relationships in your life – you can even include past ones – that have enriched your life.
2. Food and drinking water. Only in the last couple of generations is this something that a good part of the world can take for granted.
3. Peace. Prolonged peace in human history is more the exception than the rule. Not being exposed to war is something to be thankful for in itself.
4. Human rights. Throughout most of history, there were the privileged who did as they pleased, and the underprivileged who would only exceptionally and rarely experience any protection. As imperfect as the modern legal system may be, it still gives us greater security than ever before.
5. Electricity and household appliances. Can you imagine doing all the things you normally use electricity and electrical appliances for by hand? It happens more and more rarely that we sometimes run out of electricity, but only when that happens do we realize how much we depend on it.
6. Computers and the Internet. Of course, they can be used in shallow or toxic ways, but everyone has a choice. However, many things became easier for us with them.
7. Education. Until a few generations ago, it was the privilege of mainly the rich or the clergy.
8. Music, movies, books and other forms of entertainment at your fingertips.
9. A car or whatever form of transportation you use. Even a hundred years ago, it was mostly horses, if anything.
10. Modern medicine. Even to the Austrian empress Maria Theresa, out of 16 children born, six did not live to adulthood. The estimated average for the rest of the population throughout the part of history for which we have data is 50% of children dead before adult age. Those who would live to adulthood could still not expect to live to old age relatively easily.
11. Clothes. Until relatively recently, most people had a few pieces of everyday clothing and one good formal suit. Today we buy apparel for fun.
12. A roof over your head. Even if it is not what you would like perfectly, it still gives you security and at least some comfort.
13. Job. I know not everyone is happy with their job, but if you are among those who are, that’s a huge reason to be happy. Even if you are not completely satisfied, check if there is at least something in your job that you can be grateful for. Maybe you have good colleagues, or you like some parts of the job? If nothing else, a job at least provides you with income for much of the above.
14. Contraception. If you’re a woman, reliable contraception has made it possible not only to plan your family, but has also made employers more willing to hire you, which means you’re less likely to be dependent on others and perhaps stuck in a toxic relationship. (Of course, it’s much easier to be self-employed, too, if you are not likely to get unpredictably pregnant.) If you are a man, you also have a wide range of benefits from family planning options. Even children benefit from contraception, in the sense that they are much more likely to be desired and expected, so their parents will raise them better and devote time to them. Contraception has truly changed the quality of both society and upbringing for the better!
I hope that with this perspective you have gained some counterbalance to the problems and frustrations that preoccupy us in modern times, and that in the future it will be easier for you to find reasons for satisfaction, even when nothing special is happening. If you want even more joy in life, make an action plan to build and maintain quality relationships! Find some help with this in the articles recommended below.