Do you feel like life is just full of one hardship after another? Do you dwell on things that have gone wrong? This kind of thinking tends to put us in a bad mood and make our stress even worse. But there is something that you can do; learn to be grateful. I know, that’s not your style. The good news is that people who do dwell on their problems, tend to get substantial benefits from gratitude – more than the average person.
Thinking about your problems is an easy trap to fall into. Your boss criticizes your project, your dog still thinks carpet make just as good of a bathroom as grass, you or your family are constantly sick with colds, flus, or allergies. Of course, there are an endless number of things that plague us. It’s so easy to dwell on them. This has been a struggle for me as well. Let me share an example.
A few summers ago, I bought the book, “A Complaint Free World.” The book is about how complaining has become an epidemic in modern life that is leading to misery and alienation. The author poses a challenge to get your own negative tongue under control. Try to go 21 days without complaining. To remind you of this commitment, you wear a wrist band, but if you complain, you have to switch it to the other wrist.
Well, to make a long story short, I could barely make it a few hours before switching the band. (I never did wear the band. I suppose I had a mental one). My wife joked that my wrist would be friction burned from how fast I had to pull the band on and off, so I couldn’t wear one for safety reasons.
Thinking About Problems Rarely Leads To Solutions
Dwelling on our problems rarely results in solutions. Often, it is a way for us to simply justify our anger, victimhood, or anxiety. The kind of thinking I’m talking about is not productive or problem-focused but repetitive, superficial. For example, we stew on the fact that we are so busy. We then mentally list all the things we must do each day. Instead of feeling empowered or coming up with solutions, we feel angry and start to ask “Why doesn’t anyone in this [insert group that mistreat you here] appreciate me?”
I challenge you to pay attention to how often your thoughts about your problems are aimed at solving problems vs. just gripping. If it were more than 20% productive, I would be blown away.
Why Be Grateful?
Studies on gratitude often ask people to intentionally focus on things that they appreciate in their life, be it people, possessions, or conditions they live in. Usually, people write about 5 things they appreciated over the past week and it only takes about 5 to 10 minutes to do this. Usually, this is done for one to eight weeks. (See this post to get simple steps to practice gratitude). But the results show all kinds of benefits from doing this, like more happiness, satisfaction with life, less depression, and improved self-care. I won’t claim this will cure cancer like some zealots, but it is like an expresso shot of positivity and who couldn’t use that.
The biggest effects of gratitude in research studies happen when you compare two very different types of activities. In one activity people list things they are grateful for. In the other, people list their recent hassles. The difference between these two activities on positive mood is large, almost approaching the effects of brief psychotherapy. I’m not saying this should replace psychotherapy but it’s impressive to think that a brief intervention could have such a big effect.
I’m A Complainer. How Can I Be Grateful?
It’s not hard to imagine why going from complaining to being grateful will lift your spirits. But is doing it, especially for the complainer, going to be hard? Yes, I won’t bullshit you about how simple it is to change who you are. This is going to be really challenging because, if you are a pessimist or a complainer, you’re used to thinking of the downsides of life.
Honestly, negativity has been my bent as well. The glass is not only half empty; there’s a hole in it too. But you don’t have to become an all-positive, there’s-no-problem-love-can’t-overcome kind of person. In fact, doing that would probably make you just as miserable as being a dark-cloud kind of person.
For me, one of the biggest motivations has been the realization that dwelling on my problems impacts my work, family, friendships, hobbies, and everything else. If you could measure the cost of dwelling on the negative in terms of dollars, it would probably add up to a comfortable sized retirement. How has your thinking impact you? Why not try an experiment and see what it is like to practice gratitude? Besides, if pessimism had solved all your problems, you really wouldn’t need it.
An Exercise In Gratitude
Think or write about 5 things you are grateful for in the past week, whether they’re trivial or significant. Do this once a day for 5 days. Pay attention to how your mood is before and after doing this. That’s it! See if you start to notice a difference. If so, why not continue?