Gratitude X Attitude = Grattitude. Bronx, NYC, 2016 - Photo by D. Wiacek
Humanity has some room for improvement.
I’m here in my living room, having just recovered from a flu-like cold (or maybe a cold-like flu?), with a residual cough so loud it could cause an avalanche. And, yet, despite my unpleasant physical state, the only thing on my mind is gratitude. I used to commute via MetroNorth from Westchester to Manhattan every day (the above photo was taken from the train as we passed through the Bronx), and I used to be bummed not about how sad or exhausted my fellow commuters looked, but about the fact that I probably looked just as bad as everyone else. It wasn’t a pleasant realization. Of course, most of my fellow passengers came from at least middle-class if not upper-class households, so the misery was all the more striking. After all, most of the train’s occupants had no reason to look so wretched—at least from a material standpoint.
I’m a recovering psychology major, and over the years, I’ve leafed through thousands of books, journal articles, online blogs, and other digital clippings devoted to various self-help topics. One theme that permeates most of the literature is the idea that harnessing gratitude can help get you unstuck from life’s ruts. For the longest time I didn’t believe that anyone could use gratitude as a tool to combat real troubles, whether professional or personal. I’ll save you the time-consuming burden of reading all those books and articles (and I won’t charge you a dime for the thousands of hours I’ve saved you, either—it’s my gift to you!). Below is a distillation of those countless and very valuable books and blogs, colored by my own experience and that of my friends, relatives and career coaching clients on the “how/what/why” of practicing gratitude.
Consider making it a regular practice.
As with any good habit, daily practice yields maximum benefits. If not every day, then practice gratitude as often as you remember to do it. Certainly not just once a year at the Thanksgiving table. That’s often just for show, or because of social pressure. Rather, set up a daily reminder on your phone, but during a time of day that makes sense for you. If your mornings are hectic, you’ll just hit snooze and ignore the reminder. You know yourself better than that! Be honest with yourself. Find that minute or 5 in the day or night when you have some time to pause and reflect.
Start it first thing in the morning.
I know that above I said find time either in the day or night, but I’m a huge proponent of starting the day off on the right foot (which in my case, being a leftie, is my left foot). I do my best, as we all do, to avoid my phone as the first interaction of the day, though sometimes I fail. I even go so far as to “hack” my internet browsing experience: I set my browser’s default home page to show positive news (inspirational, funny, nature-related, cute, etc.). Rather than reading an urgent email from a client to make my heart pump, or seeing the tragic news of the day to make my heart sink, I make sure the first thing I do in the morning is pause and reflect on all the good things in my life. I have a job—no, a career—that I absolutely love (it wasn’t always that way). I have a roof over my head, and clothes, and a puppy who makes my heart melt at least thrice a day (I lied! He’s a 6-year-old dog but he looks and acts like a puppy; he even taught me a few things about the job search). Practicing gratitude as the day's first order of business colors the experience of my entire day. I’m that much more upbeat and resilient, no matter how tough the day may become. And that’s no lie.
Make it viral.
Share gratitude with others. I call gratitude-sharing the “contagious silver lining syndrome.” Think about it: when you come across someone who is joyful and grateful, it rubs off on you. It immediately elevates your mood and reminds you to find the good in your life; whereas when you encounter a miserable creature--whether at work or at home--it just drains your mood and depletes your energy, clouds your judgment, and decreases productivity/creativity/desire. Well, you can become that inspirational person for others. If you are grateful for something, it doesn’t hurt to share that sentiment (it can be gratitude for anything, and doesn’t have to gratitude for that person specifically, although you do earn karmic bonus points if that’s the case.). A smile, a kind word or gesture… these things go a long way. Whether you’re heading to an interview or you see someone else who is, share the love. It’ll come back to you some day, in some way (or at the very least you’ll feel good about it in the moment).
Workplace gratitude for your talents… and limitations.
Be grateful for your own strengths. Own what you know! Be proud of what you have already accomplished—whether it’s a technical task or an interpersonal achievement, like leading a team to success on a tough cookie of a project. But also be grateful for your own limitations. These shortcomings may feel uncomfortable and cause bouts of low self-esteem, but they are the universe’s way of forcing you to interact with others, to lean on other minds and hearts. Other people will fill in the gaps, complementing the skills and knowledge you don’t yet have. Praise others (within reason), and actively learn from them. I often recommend to my career coaching clients that they invite industry leaders to an informational interview by treating them to lunch or coffee. It works wonders for building networks, and sometimes leads to a real job interview. This sort of interpersonal gratitude is, in my humble and flawed opinion, a cornerstone of any successful individual, team, organization, or work initiative (e.g. diversity/inclusiveness). Start to replace fear/doubt/inadequacy/jealousy with gratitude and you’ll go far.
Dig a little deeper. Be specific.
How should one practice gratitude? Well, that’s really a personal matter. You’ll figure it out, if you haven’t already. One thing that works for me, though, is that I don’t just perform a rote Thanksgiving Day-esque list of what I’m grateful for (i.e. home, family, health). I pick one or two things each day and get much more specific. For example, I am grateful for my legs, because they let me walk, and run, and dance, and travel. I am grateful for my friends, who gently (although sometimes not-so-gently) remind me of my shortcomings, and help me become a better human being. I’m grateful for my dog, because he shows unconditional love and gets me enjoying the outdoors several times a day. I’m grateful for this laptop: it’s light as a feather, very fast, and it connects me with friends, family and clients around the world without ever complaining (okay, maybe the occasional error message). The more specific I am, the more meaningful the exercise, and the better I feel. The gratitude spills into everything else: interactions with clients, with friends, with relatives, and even with my dog. Now if only I could learn to practice unconditional gratitude like Nacho...
Don’t force it on other people, but maybe force it on yourself.
You can’t force other people to be grateful. In fact, it might even backfire because humans can easily get jealous/righteous and respond with a “$%^@, you don’t know me! You don’t know my life! Let me be miserable!” It might seem like I’m trying to convince people in this post, but really that's not the case. I just wanted to share some insights, and if you're reading this, I'm grateful for that alone. Don’t worry; I won’t get offended if you think gratitude is a waste of time. Or maybe you practice gratitude on a regular basis, in which case you can probably skip this so-called lecture (but if you are still reading, maybe teach me a thing or two by sharing your experience in the Comments section below). After all, I’m only a novice gratitude practitioner, if that’s even the technical term for it. Sure, I hope more people would focus on gratitude rather than blame, on strengths rather than weaknesses; but at the end of the day, I can’t force anyone—except for myself. And I choose to make the effort to practice gratitude. Sometimes it feels like a chore, but not often. Even so, getting your chores done is important for a happy, fulfilling life.
Perhaps this is a stretch, but I even go so far as to be grateful for the people who drive me crazy. Whether it’s that rare but precious prospective client who contacts me 14 times before deciding to purchase my services, or a friend who knows which of my buttons to press—it’s all just a playground of life’s twists and turns, and gratitude helps me deal with it best I know how: with a patient smile.
If with this post I happen to remind just one person, in one moment, to pause and reflect on the wonder in their lives, then that’s just dandy. Icing on the cake, really. Oh, man, do I love cake. I also love my clients, and nature, and equality... so as a token of my gratitude I proudly earmark 5% of my profits toward environmental and social causes. 5% isn't much but it is something and, besides, that overpriced cup of fancy coffee can wait.
If you have any personal insights on how practicing gratitude has changed your life, feel free to share below. Thank you for reading. Have the loveliest day.
David is a career coach and copywriter. He helps professionals find more meaningful, better-paying jobs; he also crafts compelling copy for small-to-medium size businesses, both for print and digital media.
Below is a collection of 10 ideas for how to increase the perceived hours in your day. It's not a time machine, but it’s the next best thing...
1. Don’t just read. Do.
Don’t just read this article. Sure, it’s fine if you do, but if you only read it and don’t actually implement some of the ideas below, then you’ve just wasted a few precious minutes of your day on another forgettable blog entry. Sometimes I read (or publish) these blogs because I'm looking for a good distraction, but usually I am driven by a deep desire to share (and receive) positive messages and helpful life tips. There is so much useful information out there, generally for free -- there is no reason not to take advantage.
2. Recognize that you already know most of this.
If a coworker or a younger person asked you for some advice on how to manage time, how to deal with a tough interpersonal situation, or how to get better at skill XYZ, I'm sure you could come up with a couple of good ideas, ideas that you have compiled after years of being human and observing the behavior of others. Nothing I share with you below is earth-shattering. But at least it's a reminder. You don't have to learn a new skill, you just have to implement something you already know (if you skipped #1, you can read it now).
3. Do the same thing, but differently.
Sit in a different chair at the weekly meeting. Take a different route home. Try a new restaurant. Studies have shown that making these small changes to your routine will alter your perception of elapsed time. By spicing up your day, the experience will stand out as a unique memory instead of blurring into the routine of everyday, and in this way you can trick your mind into lengthening your day, your month, your year. At the very least, you'll make new memories and fend of boredom. Plus, it's always good to know an alternate route home.
4. Ignore your inbox for an hour.
That’s right, a full 60 minutes or more if your work situation allows it (and it usually does). Listen, if it’s an emergency, the boss, client, customer will usually call. Successful people including senior corporate leaders as well as entrepreneurs rarely work from their email inbox. Instead, they prioritize their work first, then allocate a small amount of time each day to handling emails. Productivity soars, as does a sense of power over one's situation and, with that, confidence. The bane of most workers these days is the inability to focus and finish small tasks because of the constant influx of emails. Turn off the email auto-notification, and see first-hand how it impacts your daily workflow. In no time you might become one of those highly effective people who ignore unimportant emails.
5. Make a list of the 5 things you care most about.
Make a list in your mind, on paper, or on your device of the five things you care most about in life. The things that really matter to you (Starbucks coffee doesn't count). Don't worry about the order. For example: family, friends, dog, writing, baking. Now, take stock of your busy schedule and ask yourself: How much time have I spent tending to these important things this week? Have I reached out to grandma recently? When playing with Fido, did I put aside my phone and give him my full attention? Did I try out a new cookie recipe? All of the other distractions in our lives will eventually fade away, but the memories of the important stuff will last a lifetime. By decreasing the number of appointments, obligations and to-do's in your life, you'll have more time in the day to focus on what truly matters.
Volunteering? How is that going to free up anyone's calendar? Okay, it might not do exactly that. But, here is the real benefit: volunteering is infinitely better than time wasted surfing the social mediasphere. Ask anyone who donates their times to the service of others -- on volunteer days, many people find their moods elevated, and they feel better about the spare time they have left that day -- they're less likely to squander it or be bored by it, and more likely to enjoy it (even if it means lounging on the couch with a good book). If you don’t volunteer regularly, consider starting, even once a month. You'll meet new people, enhance your resume, feel better about yourself, and earn a better appreciation of the free time that you do have. Plus, posting a selfie as you volunteer is a much better use of your energy and social influence than "liking" a vain celebrity's post or tweeting about the weather.
7. Delegate… thoughtfully.
Delegating a task has several great benefits. First, it frees up your time to do something else (hopefully something more important). It also strengthens social bonds by cultivating trust. This applies at work as it does at home. If you don't quite trust a direct report to accomplish something competently, you can start by delegating a small sub-task, and build it up with every successful completion. But also, learn to let go. If you're heading home for dinner and your partner cannot cook, delegate a small but related task. Be specific with your instructions, but also be flexible that it might not come out exactly the way you want it -- and that's okay. If your partner asked you to complete a skill you weren't great at, you too wouldn't be perfect the first time around. Learn to count on others, but do so gradually. By delegating you will help those around you develop useful skills, and you'll earn yourself some free time in the long run.
8. Inject art into your life each day (especially if you don't consider yourself "creative")
First, just stop with the "I'm not creative" story you tell yourself. Every human is creative. Not everyone is a painter, or writer, or sculptor, but everyone creates and decides and changes the world around them in some small way. There is art in the way you comb your hair, or prepare your coffee. There is art in the way you walk, the tie you decided to wear, or the nail polish you chose today. Art can have healthful benefits -- it can calm us, inspire us, provide a healthy distraction, even clear our heads. And with the smartphone, you can make art every day. Take a photo of the sky. Draft a haiku. Write a short journal entry in your Notes. Think about the title you'd use if you wrote an autobiography. Take note of the beautifully arranged food of your coworkers. Allow art into your life every day.
9. Self-impose technology breaks.
Some folks have taken very long breaks from mobile devices, and they usually report a lot of positive side effects of such experiments. Besides, our eyes need an occasional break from the glow of screens. But you don't need to eschew the internet for 12 months. Start out with one hour in the evening, perhaps before you go to bed. Or a full day on the weekend, if you're up to it. Because you're not busy hemorrhaging your time on surfing the web, you'll find yourself with an abundance of time (and energy) on your hand. If you want to do this but lack the discipline, consider trying this with a buddy. Text your friend at an agreed-upon hour before the start of the technology break, and then reconnect with them once it's over. You can talk with each other about the withdrawal symptoms you experienced, if any.
10. Pick one thing from this list.
Trying to do everything at once is usually not the best option. In fact, that’s probably overwhelming and ultimately counterproductive. Besides, multitasking has been shown to be bad for our productivity, and bad for our brains. If there is an idea embedded in this article that resonates with you more than the others, give it a shot. You can set up a reminder in your calendar (on your phone, or in an old-school agenda, if that's how you roll) to come back to this item in exactly one week to see what progress you’ve made. If next week rolls around and you’ve completely forgotten about it, don’t give up. Try again. Tomorrow is another day. Use it wisely.
As a closing thought, I just learned that the average US life expectancy is just about 28,000 days. What will you do with yours?
(Don’t worry. I mean no harm. This is mostly a feel-good piece about harnessing the notion of death to help inspire your career, relationships and sense of purpose).
Death, A Few Feet Away. And Six Feet Under.
Death is always just around the corner. I mean that literally: I live right next to a nursing home, and the ambulance makes visits almost daily. The blaring siren and flashing lights are enough to induce an epileptic seizure or wake my pup from blissful slumber. It’s a relentless reminder that all things must come to an end.
At first, it bothered me a bit, the depressing presence of death mere yards away. My imagination ran wild trying to guess where the ambulance was headed, and whether the “horizontal passenger” would ever sit up again or, perhaps, would remain forever parallel to the ground. It’s a difference of a few feet: is he on the way to the hospital with a broken foot, or heading six feet under? My worries weren’t obsessive, but they did put a damper on things from time to time. When watching a light comedy at home after a long week, contemplating death was usually not my first choice for a Friday night activity.
An End to Worrying About ‘The’ End.
But humans can get used to anything, and pretty soon I came to accept the ambulance as a fact of life. Or, should I say, of death. I didn’t brush it off as a commonplace occurrence -- which it is, since 150,000+ people die every single day. I began to reflect upon it statistically, spiritually, and platonically. But before I continue, know that I’m wearing a smirk on my face because as I type this very sentence, the online radio station is playing an electronic and decidedly upbeat version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Funny how life manifests its sense of humor. As if to say, “Don’t worry. You’re going to die. Just smile.” That stressful project deadline coming up next week is not the end of the world.
You Don’t Die Alone. You Die With 149,999 Others.
If you’ve been a decent human being, chances are you’ll be surrounded by loved ones during your final moments on earth and so, in that sense, you won’t die in solitude. But there’s also the (reassuring?) fact that approximately 150,000 people will take their final breath on the same day you do. That comes out to nearly 55 million lives reaching their expiration date each year. But we rarely think about death from this perspective – the scale is just too great, unimaginable even, and it begins to look like something it’s not: a mass extinction.
Death Can Be a Win-Win, If You Let It.
I’m not romanticizing death. But if you’ve had a miserable life, then death brings the ultimate relief – to you, and perhaps to the people who’ve had to suffer in your wake (they’ll rejoice at your wake). Likewise, if you’ve had a beautiful time on earth, rife with love and friends and fantastic adventures, then death is an opportunity to celebrate all that you’ve accomplished. It’s a milestone that reminds us to cherish the sweet moments of life. Death (and tragedy in general) is a common muse for major life transformations – inspiring people to quit dead-end jobs and pursue their passions, to break free from unhealthy relationships, and to focus on healthy, self-actualizing behaviors. Like an ending to a marvelous book, it leaves you craving more, but the truth is you wouldn’t want life go on forever.
Poetically, the death of someone important can make us feel the most alive, can surface deep-seated emotions, and can remind us of what’s truly important. Not the money, not the material possessions, but the connections and memories we’ve collected over the years. Parkinson’s law states that you’ll take as much time to accomplish a task as you’re given. The finite time we have on this planet, a century and change at most, forces us to determine what’s most precious and urges us to pursue it vigorously. Following that law, if we had all the time in the world, many of us would accomplish very little. Because, you know, there’s always tomorrow.
Death and Culture – It’s All Relative!
Although common in many parts of the US and Europe, the somber and black-garbed funeral is not the only way to observe the ceremony of death -- not by a long shot. The way we mourn or celebrate death is largely a function of our society, religion and culture. There’s a fascinating TED talk on various funeral rituals around the world. Cue the music -- it’s party time! From Indonesia to Tibet, Bali to New Orleans, the ceremony can be an explosive feast of color and sound – and why not? The older I get, and the more funerals I attend, the more I think my own funeral should be a happy celebration. Perhaps it’s time to update my will...
How do YOU cope with the idea of mortality? Do you completely banish the thought from your mind, or do you spend countless hours at work actively planning your funeral – music playlist, party favors and all? Have you ever been inspired by death to do something positive? Share your comments below.
Poly-creative writer, brand marketer and career coach. Bakes a mean eclair and snaps thought-provoking photos, but is best known for helping clients achieve personal and professional growth.