Nov 21, 2011
How to feel gratitude
Our minds have an inherent tendency toward finding fault. In psychology, this is called negativity bias. As psychologist and regular Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, PhD, has pointed out, this results from our evolutionary heritage:
Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.
But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.
But we’re no longer hominids, and life no longer involves a struggle for physical safety and security — unless, for example, you’re in the armed forces and serving in a combat zone. So most of the time, for most of us, our negativity bias simply impoverishes us emotionally, making us think that our lives are much worse than they actually are. For we are, for the most part, blessed with wealth, security, and abundance that our hominid forebears quite literally could not have dreamed of.
Because the mind has negativity bias, though, we tend to lack appreciation for the blessings we have in our lives — no matter how abundant they are — and focus on what’s wrong, or what we think’s wrong (which is often not the same thing). And so we often walk around in a troubled and stressed state, even though basically 99.9% of our life is going just fine.
The Indian teacher Naropa described the negativity bias when he said “Samsara is the tendency to find fault.”
In order to feel a sense of security and wellbeing, we need to consciously remind ourselves of what’s going right in our lives. We need to reassure ourselves, and calm down the inner hominid who’s constantly on the alert for problems, and who often invents them when they don’t exist. In Buddhism, this practice is called “rejoicing in merit.”
- We can offer the mind reassurance by expressing gratitude. At the start of my meditation practice, these days, I often become aware that I am in a building, safe and protected from the elements, and I say (inwardly) to the building, “Thank you.”
- I notice that I have plumbing, and electricity, and internet access around me, and I say (inwardly) to all these things, “Thank you.”
- I notice that my body is whole, and basically functioning. The heart is beating: “Thank you.” The lungs are breathing in air: “Thank you.”
- Even if there is illness present I know my body has the resources to heal itself, and I say to my body, “Thank you.”
- I notice that my senses are intact, and I say “Thank you.”
- Even if a part of my body is in pain, I focus on the fact that it’s still functioning. I have back problems, and so I remind myself that my back is basically functioning well: it’s keeping me upright, allowing me to move around, and protecting the spinal cord. So I say, “Thank you.”
By the way, it’s important to actually make the sound of the words “Thank you” in your head. There’s something about articulating gratitude in the form of words that makes the emotion of thankfulness more real.
This practice doesn’t deny that there are problems in our lives. We may not have a job. We may be in debt. But we can balance our concern about these things with an appreciation of what’s going right in our lives.
By focusing on what’s going right in, we take our awareness away from the things that we image to be wrong, or that we imagine could go wrong, and come to realize that we are indeed blessed. When I do this simple practice, which only takes a few minutes, I feel an immense sense of gratitude and joy.
What about you?