Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When Gratitude Does Not Bring Happiness

"Finish your dinner and be grateful you have something to eat when other children in the world are starving!" Well, we didn't feel grateful. Just guilty.
"No, you can't have a pair of new sneakers. Your old ones are still fine. Be grateful that you have so much when more unfortunate children have so little." No feelings of gratitude resulted from this either - just more guilt and disappointment.
I remember as a little girl, learning that Jesus died a grueling death for our sins and that we were forever grateful to him for that. I felt ashamed and fearful and not grateful at all.
As we grow up, our associations with gratitude and counting-our-blessings often creates very mixed emotions in us. We secretly suspect that there is a great lack of gratitude within us, and a shadow of moral judgment accompanies that suspicion.
There have been many publications and self-help books on the theme of “finding a way to happiness” by counting your blessings at the end of every day and writing down the things you are grateful for. So, if you have had a rotten day, thinking about all the things that are good in your life will make you feel grateful - which equals happiness - and you'll sleep with the innocence of a baby. The idea is that eventually, with continued practice, you’ll focus only on your blessings and will thus able to ignore all the negative and hurtful things that do occur in the average person's daily life.
The problem with these happiness-through-gratitude exercises is that they can feel trite, and even naïve.  There are days when we can't make ourselves feel grateful for a damn thing.  I would like to offer a more genuine, and realistic, picture of  “living a grateful life.”  Let's change the word “grateful” to savor. Savoring comes naturally, without guilt or judgment at any level. Being aware and paying attention to the things you enjoy is savoring your life as it happens.
I remember how every Christmas morning, after all the presents were opened, Mom and I would open the box of chocolates that came every year from my grandmother in Germany. These were always special to us. Mom and I would each choose three pieces, sit one on each end of the couch with our feet stretched out, and very slowly and deliberately savor each tiny little bite with the occasional "yum yum" in testament to the goodness. There was real gratitude to Oma in this, which we experienced through savoring.
I have written before about how much my mother dislikes cooking, and the clever ways she has found to eat well without going to restaurants.  I usually invite her to dinner at least twice a week, and she is - above all others -  my favorite person to cook for. Her face reflects the pleasure she finds in every bite, and she likes to note all the different spices she detects on her tongue. Then she reminds us of a time in history, when only kings and rich merchants were lucky enough to experience these flavors. We all become more aware of what we are tasting and enjoy it more. As Mom savors the meal she didn't have to cook, she is quite obviously grateful. (She says so too.)
Another thing Mom and I share and savor, and I hope to pass this on to my children, is our love for Christmas decorations on the outside of other people’s homes. When I was little, my parents were relatively poor, and glad to have enough for Christmas on the inside. So, to increase our Christmas spirit even more, we would take nightly rides beyond the neighborhood to marvel at the beauty of the lights. We were amazed at the effort people made to bring joy to all who drove by.  We picked our favorites, continuously changing our minds as we came upon bigger and even more complicated displays. We would shout, "Thank You!" to anyone still working outside, as we became infected by the magic of that special time. We felt grateful to the many people who worked so hard and brought us so much joy. We still do.
When you can savor the good company of a friend, conversations around favorite memories, or the flavor of a really good cookie, you are living in gratitude naturally.  That's what it's all about, and that's all there is to it.
Past studies have shown that grateful people are in general happier. This is the kind of gratitude they are talking about -  enjoying to the fullest the things you love and being completely present to it.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What's Happening Now?

Helena was a first generation American with an uncompromising attitude towards time. Her father ruled her home with a loud voice and a clock in his left hand. Being late for anything was unforgivable and severally punished. Helena learned from her mother, who had given up her voice years before her daughter was born, how to do things quickly and well - always keeping one eye on the clock. To have a semi-peaceful family outing, mother and daughter knew it was best to be already standing next to the car, when father was still putting on his coat.

Later in life, always being the first one at work and getting more of it done than anyone else, Helena was rewarded for her ingrained habits by receiving generous raises and frequent  promotions. Her workload was also raised right along with her salary. Well, after all, she had shown she could do it.

By the time Helena had a family of her own, she was in a real race to do things well for her family and her boss. Quite predictably, she started to experience very frightening anxiety attacks which increased over time, both in frequency and severity. Although she came to realize that her perception of time and terror of “lateness” was seriously hurting her, she lacked the insight or courage to seek professional help. She decided that she would deal with her anxiety by budgeting an extra hour into her travel time for appointments or invitations, in case the traffic was bad or there was an accident on the road. (The extra time was usually spent waiting in the parking lot until it was time to go inside.)  To keep from worrying about her family going naked if she got sick, she maintained a habit of having at least seven days worth of perfectly laundered outfits for everyone, ready to wear.

The tragedy of her life, and others like her, is that she was never present to the life she was living at the moment. Her thoughts were occupied with possible scenarios in the future, to remove potential obstacles for being late with, or to, anything tomorrow.

Sadly, many of us live life in an imaginary, sometimes fearful, sometimes hopeful future scenario. Although Helena's case is extreme and she probably would have benefitted from an early intervention, I’m sure many of you can relate to how she felt.

When our thoughts are trapped by worries and frantic plans for tomorrow (Buddhists call this “chasing the monkey,” because it is pointless), we give up the awareness of experiencing our life as it really is, at this moment, in real time. Think of all the arguments you have fought in your mind to be prepared for some future argument that never occurred.  All the potential threats to your welfare you lost sleep over for many nights, that didn't happen. Instead, you lost the experience of a warm bed, perhaps a loving partner, good sleep and the wonderful feeling of gratitude for having all that.

When you are not really tasting your food, or enjoying the sweaty smell of your little boy’s hair because he's been battling the bad guys with his deadly plastic sword, you are away in the future and missing out on the treasures that are here and only right now.

Hurrying through life is missing it altogether. Hurrying is both caused by anxiety, and creates more of it. We make more mistakes and have accidents. Caught in this current, we forget the smell of roses, the goodness of a cozy room on a cold day, and the taste of melting butter on fresh toast.

So, save yourself from the race that never ends and has no winner. Make a devoted effort to slow down! Before getting out of bed in the morning, promise your self, “I will not hurry today.” Leave yourself small sticky notes around the house, in your car and in your desk drawer, to remind yourself to become aware of this moment. Look around and observe, really observe, then go back to what you were doing without a sense of hurry.

Remember that you have begun to rid yourself of an old harmful routine. Each time you remind yourself to be present to your life as it is in the moment, you're ironing out the hard-edged crease of a bad habit. Be very patient with yourself, but stay faithful to your efforts.

Make this the holiday gift you give yourself.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Make Family Gatherings Better

The difficulties that arise at some family get-togethers are often the result of tense relationships between siblings and cousins. This tension - or even outright dislike - can stem from childhood memories of misbehavior and rivalry, memories that set the tone for how everyone gets along as adults. In some cases, differences of opinions, and goals that differ widely from the “family norm” maybe judged as weird, or even disloyal. Not all families grow closer with time.

The fact is that, first and foremost, we are each very much individuals with unique characteristics, who happen to also belong to a family. Our society admires us when we are strong and self-reliant, and our education is geared toward this goal. Ideally, the family supports each member to grow his or her own wings.

This is, of course, not true for everyone. In addition, who we actually have become as adults is more likely to be accurately discerned by friends or one's partner.  “Family” has always known who you are, and they are quite convinced that they are right, because they have known you from childhood. Growing differences in personality can become a point of irritation rather than curiosity.

It is not unusual that for some, sharing accomplishments and financial successes is less about making Mom and Dad proud, and more intended as a poke in the eye for the rest of the clan. Take that!

Knowing the dynamics and undercurrents that maybe present at your family celebrations, and understanding that we really don't  know all about each other, is the only way to achieve a permanent turnaround.

Treat your family members like a new friend, in whose life you are very interested.  You can make a good start by asking questions like, "So what does your day usually look like when you get to the office?" Ask about their favorite Christmas present. What was their most embarrassing moment? What do they like to read just for fun that isn't either educational or for work? To what part of the world would they like go for a month, if everything was free? What other type of work would they like to try, if it was possible?

Give the long answer to a question directed at you. A short throwaway answer will make no one come back for more. Don't be afraid to give a thoughtful compliment.

Make a start for change if your family gathers because they think they should, but not because they want to. They will catch on to the direction you want to take it, things will be more interesting and harmonious, and I bet you will actually have some fun. We are very complex beings, and sharing the little things brings us closer. It’s never to late to start actually enjoying your family!