Gratitude, Schmattitude: How to Cultivate Contentment in Both the Best and Worst of Times
For the years when things seem to be going pretty good, it's easy to call to mind quickly the gifts we have been given. However, some years are not so bright. Sometimes, the sentiment of "gratitude" can seem much too sugary-sweet, and the thought of "giving thanks" reminds us of all the dear things we may have lost. I've experienced both kinds of years — the happy and the sad. So how do we cherish and cultivate our own gratitude, even when times are hard or when we feel that it may be out of our reach?
Popular culture tells us that gratitude is about giving thanks to the universe for the gifts we have been given. But that is only one side of the equation. It is also about feeling blessed despite our what we don't have. Despite our failings, losses, mistakes, unfulfilled yearnings, and personal tragedies, gratitude brings us back to a place of wisdom and peace with the understanding that what is happening now can be okay.
I can tell you from my own life experience that some years when the going is tough, you won't really feel like you have all the proverbial "gifts" you've been working so steadily towards. You didn't get the job, the relationship, the house, the promotion. Some years our idea of gratitude is challenged even more. Our gifts, blessings, and joys may even be taken away from us. You may have lost a loved-one, a pet, your job, your car, your home, your very understanding of who you are in this world on account of some sort of great trauma or exceptional loss. So what blessings do you count then when you feel like nothing of any great import has occurred? And what can you be grateful for when you've suffered a terrible loss that may leave you forever changed?
When times are not so rosy and cozy, the idea of gratitude is still important, and it still holds. However, there is a different way that we must observe and celebrate our own idea of gratitude. It is called contentment.
How to cultivate contentment in tough times
1. Don't pay attention to other people. Be so focused on growing your own grass that you have zero time for looking at anyone else's
2. Let Yourself Off the Hook: Recognize that your difficult circumstance is either changing you, informing you, or both. Then don't hold yourself to the same "gratitude" and happiness standards as everyone else.
3. Reframe Your Idea of Gratitude as Contentment.
4. Record your moment of contentment daily.
5. Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep
6. Remember what the Buddha said: You're still alive and everything is figure-out-able.
STEP ONE: Don't Pay Attention to Other People.
You really have to try to not pay too much attention to other people. Comparison is the thief of joy, as they say, and this is never more true than when you are experiencing your own difficulties. When you have experienced a great loss or a big change, it can really zap your self-esteem and sense of hope for the future. It can become very easy to line yourself up next to everyone else and put all of the pluses in their column and none in yours. Try to not do this. And when your inner comparison fairy comes out to play, be aware enough to bat it away. Some people will tell you to lean into your feelings of jealousy and envy. Some people say that these feelings can inform what you most want out of life, and can motivate you to get it. I agree with that. However, once you've had that moment, you don't need to keep leaning into it. In fact, by continuing to focus on what you lack, you're just putting your fragile psyche back in it's own mental torture chamber. Be kinder to yourself than that. Feel it, and then stop paying attention to it so you can start working on healing the place inside of you that yearns for something you don't have. Be so focused on growing your own grass that you have zero time to spend looking at anyone else's. This will give you back some of your power and agency.
Step Two: Let Yourself Off the Hook.
The second aspect of cultivating gratitude during tough times is understanding that whatever you are going through is either changing you, informing you, or both. Change is tough on the body, mind, spirit, and soul. Loss can be debilitating. So let yourself off the hook. You don't have to feel as blessed and bubbly as everyone else – you just have to put pants on in the morning and be nice to yourself and others throughout the day. And if you do that, you are doing just fine. Better than fine, in fact. When you're going through a particularly tough time, it's important to remember that you might not feel the same way as you did before, but that is to be expected. You are going through something that will deeply inform the new self you are about to become. Give yourself the time you need to heal, coalesce, and regenerate. Go on walks, play with your dog, journal, or do anything else that is restorative and soul-stirring for you.
Step Three: Reframe Your Idea of Gratitude AS 'Contentment.'
Let's reclaim the idea of gratitude and give it back its meaning by calling it something more like the truth. Gratitude is really all about contentment. And contentment is about understanding and peace. Say to yourself; 'This is how things are now. Can this be okay?' Let the answers in your heart swim to the surface of your consciousness.
Contentment is about being at ease with whatever situation has been placed in front of you. It means that whether or not you have the job you want, the house you want, the relationship you want, the amount of money you want, the possessions you want, the level of physical health you want – you should be able to find some form of ease and wholeness within yourself, no matter where you are. It means recognizing that despite it all, you are enough are because your worth is inherent, and the worth of your life is inherent.
Reframing gratitude as contentment is very much in line with the Buddha's teachings about the same. In fact, cultivating contentment is such an integral part of Buddhist teachings that it has it's own word in Pali. The word is santutti and it means the ability to feel happy and fulfilled in one's present state. The most important part of that definition is 'present state.' Meaning that, no matter what is happening in your world at this moment, you should have the ability to cultivate some sort of contentment from it. In popular culture, I think the closest thing we have to this is the idea of being grateful for "the little things." But it also means having the ability to access contentment and peace amidst great hardship as well. The ability to find and hold this peace is as the Buddha once said, "the highest form of wealth" because when we are content we do not need to fill an empty space inside us with more possessions that prove we are worthy, and it means we do not need to chase after the next accomplishment or life milestone to feel that our lives have worth. Through cultivating our sense of contentment we can let go of our suffering and constant striving, and instead access the deep inner peace that resides within all of us.
Observe and Record Your Moment of Gratitude Daily
Studies have shown that people who keep a gratitude journal every day for a month gain a 10% increase of their subjective happiness. That's the same percentage as if these people had doubled their income.
Step Four: Observe and Record Your Moment of Gratitude Daily.
To reap the mental benefits of gratitude, you have to name it, claim it, and record it in some way every day. Even on your worst days. Being grateful the day you got a promotion is good, but it is not what will gird you for the difficulties that befall all of us at some point or another. However, if you're able to be grateful for a pair of warm wool socks and a clean bed on the day your dog died, that is the type of santutti that will show up for you and bring you strength on tough days.
Studies have shown that people who keep a gratitude journal every day for a month gain a 10 percent increase of subjective happiness. Believe it or not, that's the same amount as if these people had doubled their income. A lot of blogs and articles will recommend keeping a gratitude journal for your own practive. Although I agree that this is a wonderful idea, it might not work for everybody. If daily journaling isn't your jam, it doesn't mean that you have to miss out on this great happiness boost either. Find whatever habit may be closest to the act of "journaling" for you and share your moment of gratitude there — either explicitly or subtly.
For example – maybe you don't journal, but you're super keyed in on social media. Uploading a picture to Instagram or Facebook isn't something you ever have to think about, much less force yourself to do. Regardless of how you feel about your social media addiction, why not make that consistency work for you? Use your Facebook page or your Instagram grid as a way to record what brought you a sense of contentment that day. Maybe it was just a pitch-perfect meme you boyfriend sent you, how the leaves looked on your morning run, or the feeling of opening up your porch on the first day of spring. Whatever moment of contentment from the day sticks out to you, use social media as your own form of gratitude journal and post it there.
For all you fellow scribblers out there, If the idea of keeping a journal appeals to you, then awesome! The reason why people recommend keeping a gratitude journal is because 1.) writing forces us to slow down and clarify our thinking. 2.) Having a record that you can physically take out and see is a great reminder of all the abundance that exists your life and 3.) It's chronological, meaning you can track your insights, progress, and growth, giving you an additional sense of accomplishment. (Hello, bonus happiness boost!)
If you still want a daily record but aren't the long-winded type, you don't have to keep a traditional notebook. Write your moment of abundance in an email to yourself and keep your notes in a separate inbox folder. Write your moment of contentment on a post-it note that you keep in a massive manilla envelope. Sketch, draw, paint, take a photograph and put it on your wall – whatever. The options are endless. Use your own insight about your own habits and how you like to express yourself to discover what the best way of keeping a record of your life's joys will be for you. Then the hardest part — keep at it! Just one sentence a day can help keep the blues away.
Step Five: Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.
At a time that works best for you, find some time to quietly meditate and think about all the great things that exist in your life. Call this practice whatever rings true to you. Maybe you call it meditating, or prayer, or counting your blessings. Find a time to do it regularly. For myself, the time that works most naturally is bed time. Perhaps this is because of how I was raised. My father would come to our bedside at night, and give us our "blessing" for the evening. That was his way of tucking us in. And if we ever told him that we were having trouble sleeping, he would tell us to count our blessings, like Bing Crosby in White Christmas. It's the sweetest song, and the truest sentiment. When we count our blessings instead of sheep, it puts us in a relaxed and happy mood, and is a great way to bring a sense of comfort and calm even amidst the most difficult of circumstances.
If literally counting your blessings feels a little too pollyanna-ish to you, I get it. You can also use this time to try out a guided meditation. These are great because you literally have to know zilch about meditating. All you need to know is how to get in a comfortable position, and anyone can do that. I love using apps on my phone for this. My two favorites are Unplug Meditation and Headspace, but Buddhify, Calm, and Simply Being are great as well.
Another way to relax and feel better at night through meditation is to do a lovingkindness meditation that sends love and peace to others. Sometimes we can feel better through doing something nice for other people. This meditation is a great way to send the people you know the equivalent of a mystical Facebook poke. I'll write more about this in an upcoming post.
Step Six: Remember What the Buddha Said: You're still alive and everything is figure-out-able.
"Let us rise up and be thankful,
for if we didn't learn a lot today
at least we learned a little,
and if we didn't learn a little,
at least we didn't get sick,
and if we got sick,
at least we didn't die
so, let us all be thankful."
"tomorrow is a new day.
sometimes just be grateful
Remember always the abundant wealth and joy that is inherent in just being alive. At the end of the day, no matter how hard it has been or how deep your losses may feel, remember you are here and that you are capable of healing and growth. Everything always looks better in the light of a brand new day.
Be well, and do some good.