Each month at Balanced Achievement, we explore various personal qualities that are exhibited by the world’s most successful, happy, and fulfilled individuals. In this on-going series called ‘The ABCs of Personal Qualities’, we not only highlight individual personal characteristics, but also explain why they are important and provide definitive steps that you can take to cultivate the given attribute within yourself. Today, we look at gratitude and the personal quality of gratefulness, which can be cultivated within to greatly increase our levels of subjective well-being.
It wasn’t until nine years after the country of Tibet was initially invaded by Chinese military forces when the Tibetan people rose as one to protest China’s continued occupation of the once independent nation. On March 10th, 1959, a day that has since become known as the Tibetan Uprising, citizens in Tibet’s capitol city of Lhasa revolted in hopes of regaining the freedoms they had enjoyed only a decade early. Unfortunately, the imposing Chinese military quickly swatted the call for independence and began enforcing their will on the Tibetan people in an even more violent and hostile manner. Due to the increasingly dangerous situation, this was when the then 23-year-old Dalia Lama, Tibet’s great spiritual leader who was entrusted to lead his fellow countrymen and women as a child, was forced to secretly flee into exile through the treacherous Himalayan Mountains.
Since His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama first arrived in India on March 31st, 1959, he’s been forced to helplessly watch as Chinese forces continue to oppress, torture and kill the people he leads. From thousands of miles away, the great spiritual leader of Tibet has had to come to grips with the fact that over one million Tibetans have unjustly faced the ultimate penalty of death. Yet still, for anyone who knows the revered spiritual leader well, or even those who’ve just seen him interviewed on TV, it’s clear to see that the qualities of anger, depression, fear and hate that one would expect him to exhibit don’t existence within him. Although he was wrongly forced to flee his country and witness the Tibetan people face the most inhumane atrocities, his demeanor shows a man that’s deeply in touch with life, compassionate for even his oppressors, and eternally grateful for the opportunities each day brings.
While most of us in the western world wouldn’t be able to deal with such trying circumstances, much less the prospects of living a modest live without sex, alcohol and fine material possessions, the Dalai Lama illuminates the life-affirming power that comes from cultivating gratefulness, or an attitude of gratitude, within one’s self. To move ourselves closer towards the levels of happiness and fulfillment we crave at the core of our being, we can rely heavily on the advice of His Holiness, who tells us:
We don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate. Right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness.”
What is Gratitude?:
When thinking about what it really means to be a grateful person, it can be useful to consider the closely related personal quality of contentment. While a contented individual would generally be satisfied with their life, as well as the people and things in it, a grateful person would consciously reflect on how lucky they are for their many blessings. By regularly offering heartfelt thanks for one’s health, the food they eat, their most meaningful relationships, and the opportunity to learn, grow and positively impact the world, individuals can replace detrimental ways of thinking, and negative perceptions, with the more life-affirming feelings that emanate from gratitude. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us who don’t take the time to think about how lucky we actually are, these life-affirming feelings of happiness and joy aren’t regularly experienced. It is certain that the only true way to become a grateful person, and attain the immense benefits that come with it, is by consciously and consistently bringing attention to the various aspects of our lives that make us feel blessed.
In addition to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, a variety of other inspirational figures have similarly shown how it is possible to cultivate an unwavering sense of gratitude, and become an authentically grateful person, even in the most trying of times. One such person who undoubtedly understands the immense power of gratitude and exhibits the personal quality of gratefulness is Nick Vujicic, the motivational speaker who was born with no arms or legs. While it would be quite easy for the Australian native whose become globally famous for his No Arms, No Legs, No Worries speech to continuously sulk about the unfortunate set of cards he was dealt, he instead has decided to use his condition, tetra-amelia syndrome, as an opportunity to show others how their state of well-being originates from within. One of Vujicic’s main messages is that each of us has a choice to happily rejoice in the gifts we have been given or to limited our levels of happiness by focusing on what’s missing in our lives. He tells us:
Often people ask how I manage to be happy despite having no arms and no legs. The quick answer is that I have a choice. I can be angry about not having limbs, or I can be thankful that I have a purpose. I chose gratitude.”
Why is Gratitude Important?:
When individuals become fully aware of their mind’s inner workings, which are influenced by both evolution and social conditioning, it becomes clear to see how a wide range of mental afflictions and problematic habits of mind prohibit them from living with the heightened levels of happiness and joy they crave. Psychologically speaking, while our most basic biological drives for safety, reproduction and enhanced preservation continually allow the human species to thrive, they also cause us to see the world with feelings of anxiety, judgement and envy. Of course these desires to stay safe, enhance one’s self and upgrade living conditions were vastly important for our caveman ancestors, but aren’t nearly as important for us today. Yet still, these inborn drives continue to effect the ways in which we operate, expressing themselves negatively, and limit our levels of subjective well-being. Additionally, social conditioning in western world countries builds upon the negative effects of our basic psychological drives and has resulted in highly competitive societies that cause collectively unhealthy levels of stress. When considering all of this together, in addition to the brain’s default mode network or autopilot feature, it should become clear to see why mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression are so prevalent.
By simultaneously coming to realize that our limiting psychological features prohibit us from naturally expressing gratitude and also that happiness is what we crave at the deepest level of our beings, we can begin to understand why consciously expressing gratitude is such a life-affirming practice. Furthermore, the importance of cultivating an attitude of gratitude becomes even more apparent when considering the various social and physical benefits we’ll attain, such as feeling more compassionately towards others and having greater energy levels, in addition to the previously mentioned psychological and emotional ones. Besides the Dalai Lama and Nick Vujicic, a third inspirational figure who understood the power of gratitude and relied on it to push her through a devastating set of life circumstances, towards a life of happiness and success, was the immortalized poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Although she dealt with a number of unimaginable events during her childhood, including being sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend at only eight-years-old, Angelou was able to turn herself into a globally beloved figure for her elegant words and authentically loving demeanor. Unquestionably, one of the main reasons she was able to thrive in the face of adversity was because she understood the importance of living gratefully. She tells us:
If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present…Gratefully.”
Cultivating Gratefulness to Increase Your Happiness:
Just as the Dalai Lama, Nick Vujicic and Maya Angelou have shown, each and everyone of us has the ability to use gratefulness as an antidote for overcoming mental afflictions and life challenges. Although these three inspirational icons faced very different sets of circumstances throughout their lives, it is clear to see how each of them used gratitude to make the best of their situations and get the most out of life. Regardless of if an individual is suffering from depression, anxiety, anger, envy or judgment, it is certain that gratitude can move them away from their limiting psychological state towards higher levels of subjective well-being. For us to become truly grateful individuals, and enjoy the life-affirming benefits that stem from gratitude practice, we’ll have to make the commitment to regularly reflecting on the reasons we feel blessed and can use a number of overarching strategies that’ll push in the direction of gratefulness:
For hundreds of centuries, the ancient practice of meditation has enriched individuals with benefits at the physical, psychological, emotional and cognitive levels. While meditation was originally used for religious purposes in the spiritual traditions of the east, it is now widely celebrated throughout the world in non-secular forms and can be practiced by all in a way that doesn’t encroach on one’s faith-based beliefs. In regard to cultivating gratefulness within, by undertaking a regular meditation practice, each of us can naturally increasing our levels of self-awareness so that we can more adequately monitor our psychologically limiting features and disassociate ourselves from our negative thoughts, troubling emotions and mental afflictions.
Conscious Questioning & Analytical Reasoning:
While many individuals falsely assume that practicing gratitude simply means offering prayers of thanks every once in a while, the truth is that to become a grateful person, individuals have to actively use their brain power to rewire the ways they think. Instead of offering a superficial thanks at predetermined times each day, it’s vitally important to ask yourself questions related to gratitude and use analytical reasoning to discover answers that induce truer feelings of gratefulness. Each morning when you wake up, for example, you can ask yourself ‘What am I grateful for?’ and ‘Why is it important to be grateful today?’ before spending a few minutes reflecting on these questions. It is important to point out, that to truly get the most benefit from this practice, it’s imperative not to answer the questions on autopilot but rather think in a conscious heartfelt manner.
Increase Your Understanding of Spiritual Wisdom:
In the ancient spiritual traditions of the east, there is a plethora of spiritual wisdom that illuminates the path towards true happiness and also the reasons why most individuals aren’t fulfilled with their lives. By delving into spiritual teachings found in Buddhism or Hinduism and increasing your understanding of universally applicable spiritual concepts such as attachment, craving, aversion, impermanence and unsatisfactoriness, you’ll begin to clearly see why gratitude is such an important quality to develop. Moreover, it is certain that by opening your eyes to the spiritual truths that underline your existence, you’ll naturally become more grateful and begin treating life as the blessing that it is.
In addition to these three overarching strategies, there are also a variety of additional activities, such as keeping a gratitude journal or scheduling time to talk about what we are grateful for with our friends and family, that we can utilize to increase our feelings of gratitude. Yet still, regardless of how you approach your gratitude practice, the single most important thing to do is consciously and consistently focus on the things that make you feel blessed.