❝It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which we have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that in the world of light the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than a means of adding fullness to life.❞ -Hellen Keller
It's dark as I leave my house. I'm going for a run in the morning before the sun comes up. I live on a running trail crossing a busy road and train tracks. The trail routes me to an overpass over the train tracks and then to an underpass underneath the busy road. This seems like a lot of extra running, so many of us run directly across the train tracks.
It's challenging to run on the rocks that are around the train tracks, so I'm up on the boards. Even on the boards, it's still difficult to run because the sun's not up yet, and although I have my night vision, it's not clear what I'm exactly stepping on.
Out of the blue, I feel a sharp pain in my foot as I very quickly fall down. I don't have enough time to put my hands out to catch my fall, so my face smashes down on the wood and the rocks. I land on my arm, nearly breaking it.
After several seconds of wondering what in the hell just happened (and a few curse words), I'm able to get to my feet and figure out what happened. It turns out there is a rogue spike, and my foot kicked it unexpectedly, causing me to fall to the ground and nearly break my arm, and cut myself up and down my face and arms. I allow myself to feel angry, disappointed, embarrassed, and shocked, but these emotions pass pretty quickly.
Standing there, covered in blood, cuts, scrapes, and gashes, I realize just how lucky I am. I very easily could have broken my arm, but I didn't. Had I broken my arm, I would have paid a lot of money to get back to this situation I find myself in, where I can walk home and clean off my wounds. And even if I broke my arm, I can feel grateful that I could have been in a hospital in minutes. I can even be grateful that I was in the position to get injured while running, because there will be a time when I'm no longer able to run.
WE'RE LUCKY WE'RE HERE
Think of all the things that had to happen for you to exist. It's pretty incredible if you think about it. Many incredible cosmic-scale things have had to happen. Some believe that human life required that Earth get pummeled not once but twice. The first was so hard that a chunk of Earth was launched into space but couldn't quite get out of Earth's orbit and became our Moon. The Moon moderates how Earth spins on its axis and causes the tides, making Earth a more livable planet. The second collision that made it more likely that we would exist as a species is the meteor that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. That made room for mammals to thrive and thus for us to eventually exist.
But you don't have to go so far back in time. The number of things that had to happen for you to exist just in the realm of your own family is still incredible. Not only did your parents have to live in the same city, but they had to meet. That's not enough. They also had to like each other enough to have a child (there are exceptions to this, of course, but one might argue that's even more of an incredible situation). Not only that, but they had to have a child at the exact moment they did.
There are a lot of events in the chain that had to happen just for your parents to have you. You can trace that back one step further. The same thing had to happen for each of your parents. Each of your parents' parents had to meet and create your parents. And you can follow this line of reasoning back a long way.
As you trace your family back in time, an enormous amount of people created an enormous tree that led to your existence. Consider what would happen if any single link in this enormous chain didn't happen.
If one link in the chain is broken, all subsequent links fail to exist. In other words, if all the events that had to happen for you to exist didn't happen, then somebody else would exist in your place.
You're lucky to have a life.
ACCEPTING (ALL OF) LIFE
Once you have a life, you get all of the costs and benefits of having a life. It is tempting to grasp at what is desirable and recoil at what is undesirable. Yet we can't pick and choose which parts of life we want. Acceptance means being willing to experience whatever we experience without judging it, wishing it was different, or trying to avoid it.
A life is a life. Period. Life comes with the human condition. Sometimes life will be good. Sometimes it will be bad. But in both cases, good and bad are simply value judgments that we place on experience itself. Accepting all of life helps you be grateful even for the negative experiences you may have. Much like a teenager getting a car with an 8-track track player that barely works can be grateful for the 8-track player because having an 8-track player as part of the car that provides independence.
It's all or nothing. Sometimes life will be bad, and that's okay. More often, though, life is pretty good. We just fail to realize it.
TAKING LIFE FOR GRANTED
If you are reading this in a comfortable, climate-controlled living environment on a supercomputer you carry around in your pocket, then life is pretty good for you. It may not always feel like it because we, as humans, are very good at getting used to our environment. Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation. We adapt to whatever life throws our way and barely remember that it happened. Once we get what we set out to achieve, we quickly get used to it and set out to achieve something new. We end up comparing ourselves to a smaller and smaller subset of our peers and always feel like we're behind. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill. This feeds the phenomenon known as loss aversion - telling us that losing something we already have hurts us more than gaining something we don't yet have.
To drive this point home, consider that there are well over a billion people that would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with you on your worst day. It's very easy to take our lives for granted. Not long ago, having air conditioning in the car was considered a luxury. Today, many of us would feel cheated if our vehicles didn't have air conditioning.
Cultivating gratitude despite everything is the antidote to taking our lives for granted.
LIVING A LIFE OF GRATITUDE
Our brains come with a negativity bias that says we will notice and remember negative experiences far easier and longer than positive experiences. While there are some evolutionary reasons for this, it's a tough enemy to be up against. Cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude is a way to notice more of the positive experiences and all of the good things that are already going on for us. It helps widen our spotlight of attention so that we're focusing on more than just the negative.
There are many gratitude exercises, and you may be familiar with some or even use one yourself. If you do and it's working, keep using it.
Those looking for a gratitude practice on steroids might consider daily feeling grateful for each of the following:
A person in your life.
Something in the present moment.
Something in the recent past (e.g., yesterday).
Something in the distant past.
Something you're looking forward to.
Something bad that's happened, but with hindsight, you're happy it happened.
Something bad that didn't happen but easily could have.
It's easy to take life for granted because we get used to our surroundings very quickly. Once we get used to our position, we fail to notice how lucky we are. Gratitude reminds us that life is better than we think, even when we feel down on our luck.
You get one life; live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What
Boniwell, Ilona: Positive Psychology in a Nutshell
Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness
Delucca, Gina & Jamie Goldstein: Positive Psychology in Practice
Emmons, Robert: THANKS!
Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works!
Frankl, Viktor: Man’s Search for Meaning
Frankl, Viktor: Yes to Life, In Spite of Everything
Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness
Glasgow, Joshua: The Solace
Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus
Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here
Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness
Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient
Harris, Sam: Waking Up
Hefferon, Kate & Ilona Boniwell: Positive Psychology
Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life
Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge
Ivtzan, Itai, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon & Piers Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology
Kabat-Zinn, Jon: Wherever You Go, There You Are
Kinder, George: Transforming Suffering into Wisdom
Lindsay, James: Life in Light of Death
Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked
Pennebaker, James & Joshua Smyth: Opening Up by Writing It Down
Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor
Steger, Michael & Pninit Russo-Netzer: Meaning360
Wallace, David Foster: This is Water
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.