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By Morella Devost
Dear gratitude-challenged reader,
This is for those of you who find the idea of a gratitude practice somewhat syrupy.
I too have been gratitude-challenged. For years, reading the self-help advice from teachers and coaches alike telling me to “practice gratitude” or “just find one thing to be grateful for” made me feel totally inadequate. I understood that I was supposed to feel grateful, but in reality, that always felt so foreign. I’d ultimately feel a little resentful of the rosy advice and envious of the people for whom it seemed so easy.
From childhood and well into my thirties, all I could see was that life was simply not going the way I wanted. Therefore, practicing gratitude seemed forced. Whenever I did follow the advice of a daily gratitude practice, I’d end up writing pretty much the same thing every day: I’m grateful for my family, I’m grateful I have a home…
Then, some years ago, it dawned on me that I was a glass-half-empty person. It’s funny, because in our culture, it almost sounds like a taboo you wouldn’t want to admit to. Like a venereal disease nobody would be proud to talk about in polite company. If someone called you a glass-half-empty person, you might take offense.
I’m not a pessimist by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t expect bad things to happen. I’m never one to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I truly don’t have a negative vision of the future for myself or for the world. I actually expect good things to happen.
My glass-half-empty disposition is this: I more easily notice what’s not quite right in my life than what is good. I see what needs to be fixed or improved. I notice what’s missing in my relationships. I can list the quirks about my body that I wish were different. I’m very aware of the things I haven’t yet accomplished. And I know I’m not alone. As a counselor, I know that a large chunk of humanity believes that we must notice what is broken so we can fix it.
In addition to this, when you come from a family that shares an undercurrent of depression, it can be truly hard to find all that there is in life to rejoice over. Sometimes, we’ve lived in this cloud of subtle depression for as long as we can remember, so it feels as though this is who we’ve always been. The ever-present background hum tells us that life isn’t totally okay.
Throughout childhood, that dark cloud hovered over me. My life wasn’t exactly what I wanted, and I couldn’t wait for it to become what it could be. From an early age, I fixated on all of the reasons why I wasn’t happy: my parents were divorced; my siblings lived in another country; I didn’t have all the things that my friends had. As I grew older, noticing what was lacking in my life became my default state. It was my automatic habit and I wasn’t even conscious of it.
As an adult, I would dream of the day I’d finally have what I wanted and be blissful. I’d be married. I’d have my own family. I’d have my own beautiful home and amazing adventures. But as I breezed through my twenties and thirties, none of those things got any closer to materializing. The dream of future happiness remained that: a dream. It was finally sometime in my mid-thirties when I began to realize that I was living in the half-empty glass, always noticing what my life was not. Always noticing what was missing. Always feeling the subtle hum of depression.
The truth was that I had a great many wonderful things in my life. I had amazing family and friends who loved me. I was doing meaningful work. My health was starting to improve through self-care and good nutrition. But because there was so much more that I wanted, and I could only see what was not present, I was deeply dissatisfied the majority of the time. Gratitude was foreign.
Then one night, I had a really simple experience that started to help. It was a late winter night and I was alone at home, in my bed. As I lay awake in the darkness, I reflected on how cold and stormy it was outside, while feeling the coziness of my flannel sheets against my skin and the softness of my pillow under my head. I noticed the depth of the comfort of my bed in that moment, and more than ever before, I appreciated the simple fact of having a cozy bed. In that moment, I sunk deeper into the bed and it felt even more wonderful.
It was the first time I remember ever consciously practicing gratitude — not by paying it lip service, but rather by deeply allowing myself to have the experience of feeling profound appreciation for something quite basic, but also significant.
Since then, I’ve “inchwormed” my way into appreciating my life as it is, in this moment. I’ve learned to value each little thing, each simple gesture, and everything as it is right now. I’ve been increasingly releasing my impulse to dwell on what’s not here, or what will be in the future, and more fully embracing what is here, right now.
I’ve also learned to avoid the common pitfall of looking to practice gratitude by comparing myself to others (i.e., “Think of all the people who have nothing to eat”). The great spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says that practicing gratitude by comparing ourselves to others is ego self-consolation, not real gratitude. If this is the way in which you seek gratitude, you will always need someone to be worse-off than you. As Mr. Tolle says, real gratitude is the deep appreciation for life in this very moment.
So looking back on my journey, I find that appreciation is more accessible than gratitude for those of us who are recovering glass-half-empty people. What can we appreciate today? What’s something that was pleasant? What’s something that is going well for you? Appreciation allows us to start acknowledging, and as we open up to recognized the goodness that is already here, then gratitude starts to come within reach.
In the end, despite how inadequate I felt or how foreign it seemed, the syrupy coaches and teachers were right. Appreciation and gratitude are indeed the fairy dust of life. The more we sprinkle them on our days, the better life seems to go. It’s proving true for me as the dreams that were always a faraway vision in my twenties and thirties have become realities in my forties. I’ve come to appreciate life as it is right now, and the more I appreciate it, the more I find things that I genuinely, spontaneously feel grateful for. And the more I do, the more I feel I have to give to the world.
Morella Devost helps people turn their pain and challenges into their greatest source of strength. After receiving two masters degrees in counseling from Columbia University, she became a Clinical Hypnotherapist, NLP facilitator, and Reiki Master. Morella is a Venezuelan-Vermonter who works with people all over the world from her RV-office as she travels the US with her family. She is the host of the Thrive With Morella TV-radio-podcast show.
Facebook personal: @Morellad1