Isn’t it time for some evolved person to remind you about gratitude and counting blessings? As a yogi and psychotherapist, don’t you think I’ll write some inspirational tale of why we should give thanks and take nothing for granted? If so, feel free to go here, or here, or probably a few thousand other online yoga blogs. It’s an awesome message which we could all use, don’t get me wrong. But for now I want to add a different twist and talk instead about why this practice isn’t so easy. If all it took was reading inspirational words, why aren’t we all more grateful all the time? Truly fantastic achievements and life events tend to leave us excited and thankful for only so long. Tragedy humbles us for a while, encouraging us to look with more sober eyes at our blessings, and then in no time we return to our old ways of taking things for granted. Why is it so hard to engage in thankfulness, especially when swimming in the bliss of true gratitude feels really good? Well, ongoing science is continuing to show us that, in many ways, our brains are wired to be critical at best, brooding and negative at worst. There are a few different phenomena at work here, and my hope is that knowing something about them may help you to start to grow new practices (and therefore new neural pathways), helping you to avoid the common tricks of our wiring.
For starters, quite often, we’d rather be unhappy than uncertain. Humans tend to stay in situations that make them miserable rather than risk improvements. The thought of trying for something better and ending up with even less is frightening, and the courage it takes to initiate change isn’t always available. Requesting the vulnerable conversations, sharing authentic feelings, knowing you may disappoint or hurt another–these are not skills we learned in school (unless you’re a psychotherapist! Bonus!) and most of us haven’t learned them elsewhere. So instead, we stay “safe.” Are there places in your life where you’re choosing the discomfort you do know over not knowing? Are there places where living authentically would require some change? Are there ways to take some steps away from the mundane or the miserable? Furthermore, we think being optimistic means being delusional. Most people–or at least, the pessimists among us–misunderstand what optimism is. It’s not about turning away from reality; it’s about understanding your challenges while knowing that you can likely get through them if you keep pressing on.
It’s what some call The Stockdale paradox, after a Vietnam POW who found that the “optimistic” victims broke first–or rather, the ones who tried to lie to themselves, saying they knew they’d be out by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving… Per Stockdale, they eventually “died of a broken heart.” Perhaps your over-optimism in the past has, over time, hardened you to some degree. Perhaps you feel you’d rather be surprised than disappointed and have trained yourself to keep expectations low. While understandable, this kind of “realism” tends not to serve us or our higher aspirations. Allow your lenses to be clear, yes, but hopeful and enduring as well.
Lastly–and perhaps most fascinatingly–due to how the brain works, minor inconveniences enrage us more than tragedies. Look at social media: a terrible human rights violation might get nothing more than a few retweets while a minor glitch in a new tech toy elicits a storm of death threats. We often adjust quite well to relatively serious changes in our lives, while bemoaning inconveniences. This is because our brains have built-in coping and compassion functions, but they don’t kick in unless it’s bad enough. This is known as the Region-Beta Paradox. We find a way to accept and rationalize the missing finger by giving thanks that we have nine others, while allowing the chronic hangnail to seriously piss us off. For most of us, it is the proverbial hangnails that ruin the week. The snide comment from the waitress, someone parking in your spot, the friend who forgot to say thanks, that mystery sound your car has been making. These things get under our skin and play on repeat, keeping us stuck in the sympathetic nervous system mode (fight, flight, freeze) instead of parasympathetic (rest, digest, relax). Let’s be honest, some of you have been telling the same rude waitress story for years. Perhaps you’re also aware of when you’ve been the hangnail to someone else: you know the relative who still brings up the one time you failed to X or Y? You’re left baffled and frustrated about why they’re holding the grudge after all these years.
We stay stuck in victim mode, fearing change. We assume positivity will let us down. We allow “imperfections” throughout our days to cloud the bigger picture. All of this leads to a face which expresses a furrowed brow and a life that feels uninspired. Without the lightness and connectedness we get from recognizing all the blessings and joys in our lives, we find ourselves stuck in drudgery. Not a healthy pain: the kind of despair or confusion that helps us see what changes we need to make to lead a healthier or happier life. Not grief, painful and cutting, which at the same time reminds us of the delicacy and preciousness of life. Drudgery in my mind is worse than all this. A life being lived by just putting one foot ahead of the other, a trance or a sleepwalking at best, a constant grumbling about all that isn’t working at worst. Negative judgements of almost everyone and every situation, out of habit.
So when you think of Thanksgiving, sure, think of turkey and football. But also be aware of the thanksgiving in Thanksgiving. The practice of gratitude–not just for all our blessings, but for life itself–is one of the most deeply nourishing practices possible. So know the pitfalls of the modern brain, and laugh at yourself. Know that at times, risk feels like the wrong choice because of fear and habit, not because it is in fact the wrong choice. Know that being optimistic means you’re skilled and strong, not naive, and for goodness sake, work on ways to let the little stuff go! Your continued practice at all of this can make the difference between drudgery and a life that feels awake, inspired, content, peaceful and connected. Namasté and enjoy your holidays!!!