A Whole New Way to View Gratitude
Ok so I've talked before on Willie's vlog about how I use my school commute - usually around 40-45 minutes - to listen to podcasts these days. Freakonomics, Oprah's Super Soul Conversations, Tell Me Something I Don't Know, and NPR's Fresh Air are some of my favorites. But for the last few days I"ve been listening to Ted Radio Hour and just stumbled on one called "Simply Happy".
Guys. I have been in some sort of funk for the last few weeks/months. And the hard part was that I recognized it, and furthermore recognized that there was no real reason for it. I was laying in bed the other night, reading, and just sort of miserable. I laid there thinking, "I know I have the option to get out of this...I know I am choosing to wallow in this sadness that is based on nothing (except maybe some neuroendocrine imbalances in my brain) but it's so much easier to just lay here and be miserable." What a sad, sad state to be in. Do I really want to spend the precious moments of my one life miserable, especially when there is no reason for it???! No, I do not.
Well then, as I was listening to my TED radio hour on the way home from school, this Benedictine Monk, David Steindl Rast, came on and boy did he throw me a for a loop. So simple and so freaking profound.
Essentially, he noted the importance of the distinction between being happy about everything and being happy in every moment.
Wow. That hit me like a brick wall. In any given moment, we can look around and be grateful for so many things. Even in the midst of struggle, even in the midst of tragedy - there are things to be grateful for. A psychologist that spoke earlier on the podcast - Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert - noted how, after not being able to walk for a period of time, he now, every single day, says "Wow. I can walk. This is amazing." And he feels - really feels - that gratitude.
So, to connect the monk's concept with a concept that Gilbert brought into view, let's talk about the brain for a second. The major evolutionary change in our brain - what took it from 1.5 to about 3lbs - was the development of the prefrontal cortex. Now, what is unique about the prefrontal cortex is it gives humans the incredible ability to "experience something before we even have to experience it" ("Simply Happy", TED Radio Hour). Think about how many times you do this - you "experience" a conversation gone wrong before you even have the conversation; you "experience" what that sunburn will feel like if you don't put on sunscreen right now. This has an evolutionary benefit - it prevents us from doing dumb things. But I also argue that we could use this ability - this "superpower" as Gilbert puts is - to learn to appreciate the small things - the blessings you have in that one single moment - and thus be able to cultivate real gratitude and happiness.
I am a big believer in gratitude lists - as I've written before - but I find this simple practice these two gentlemen taught me to be so much more powerful. And it can really be applied to the most simple things. I walk by a fountain on my way home at night most of the time and the water just makes the most beautiful, peaceful, noise. I try so hard. I say "Appreciate this Heide! Appreciate it appreciate it appreciate it! be grateful for it!" and it's like I have blessing constipation (hah!). I'm trying so hard. But then, as soon as I use my prefrontal cortex superpower, I "experience" what walking by the fountain will be like when winter comes and it no longer makes it's beautiful splashing noise. And wow! It's like gratitude flushes over me. It's a beautiful thing. Imagine doing this when you're trekking on your subway commute, ruminating on all the things you didn't like about the day. As you go up the stairs, use your superpower to imagine how much extra effort you would have to go through if you were on crutches. REALLY IMAGINE IT. Look at the details - where you would have to go, how many people you would have to ask for help. I promise it will feel you with peace. And then, let me say, you can take that gratitude and that peace and, when you see someone with crutches struggling, you will no longer be so focused on pissing and moaning about your own day, but you will have the joy and lightness of heart to help them with a smile on your face. and I think that is what true happiness is.
Here is the full podcast if you'd like to check it out for yourself: http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/267185371/simply-happy