Most of us suffer not from a lack of things, but from a sense that we lack things. It is not the lack of a particular thing that brings us unhappiness. Rather, it is our attachment to the things we don’t have that causes much of our suffering. Most Americans are among the luckiest people to ever live on Earth. Historically speaking, we live in a time and in a land of great prosperity and peace. Most of us don’t have to wonder where our next meal will come from. We don’t live in the midst of war, where our primary goal each day is simply to stay alive. We don’t spend the winter shivering and trying to keep warm.
If we are at all objective about it, most of us will realize that we live better than 95%—in many cases, 99%—of the world’s population. Yet, somehow, we feel otherwise. In fact, sometimes the people with the most things most tend to feel that they lack things. That’s because we often focus on what we lack, or on what others have that we don’t, or on what we hope to acquire someday that we don’t have now, rather than on appreciating what we’ve got.
None of this supports our happiness. And none of it is true.
Focusing on what we lack renders invisible many of the good things we already have. It also makes it harder for us to notice when something new and good comes across our path. It’s a kind of blindness that limits our view of the world.
We all know that peace and happiness come from security. But most of us believe that security comes from getting the things we desire and then hanging onto them. Or from turning the world into just what we want it to be. Or from making ourselves into just what we want to be—by getting the right job, or wearing the right clothes, or marrying the right person, or getting plastic surgery and liposuction, etc.
But none of those things makes us secure—rather they breed insecurity, as we know deep down we can’t always win the “getting and keeping” game. There is, however, another way—one that genuinely does create security and support our peace and happiness. It’s the security of knowing that an acquisition-oriented approach to life inevitably leads to fear and anxiety. It’s the security of understanding that we won’t always get what we want. It’s the security of openness, of awareness, of being comfortable with knowing that life is uncertain. It’s the security of focusing on being present and aware instead of on acquiring, keeping, and protecting. With this security as our foundation, we can enjoy and share what we have—and we can be thankful for it.
If we each spent just a few minutes a day being grateful for what we have, most of us would discover that we already have what we need. We’d also realize that it’s impossible to feel grateful and impoverished at the same time. And we might also discover equanimity and, yes, even happiness.
If you want to increase your feeling of gratitude, a well-known (but effective!) exercise is to write down ten things you are grateful for, and then just a sentence or two on why you are grateful. Write each one down mindfully in long hand and complete this exercise every day for a week. Although you can repeat ones you listed the day before, a few minutes of thought will result in a list of ten new things each day.
You’ll quickly discover that if you do this regularly, it will completely reorient your approach to life. Over time, it will change how you see the world and the attitude you bring to life’s events. As your perspective changes, so too will your experience of life, without changing life’s external events at all.
Adapted from FORTY THINGS I WISH I’D TOLD MY KIDS by John Allcock. Copyright © 2018 by John Allcock
John Allcock is the Co-Founder and Director of Mindfulness at Sea Change Preparatory, a trailblazing academy that regularly integrates the practice of mindfulness into it’s curriculum. His new book, FORTY THINGS I WISH I’D TOLD MY KIDS, shows adults and children alike how to use mindfulness to become more compassionate, resilient, and confident.