Learning from Gratitude
mood & emotion
In this talk, Dan Armstrong shares how keeping a gratitude list every day for the past two years has changed his habits, actions and outlook on life. Every morning, he writes down five things that he's grateful for, five things that happened in the last day and five things that he is feeling right then. When he shared this talk, he collected over 3000 items on the list.
pen and paper | phone
So there is a guy called Mark Epstein, he’s a psychoanalyst and he’s big in the mindfulness movement. And he tells a story about a Buddhist Monk who was drinking from a glass and he says, in my mind this glass is already broken. So I can appreciate this glass, I can appreciate how beautiful it is, but if it falls off the table and shatters I say, well it was already broken.
And in telling that story, he’s showing his lack of attachment, but he’s also showing this sense of gratitude for ephemeral things, for things that aren’t going to be around for very long.
There’s a similar story, I was reading a blog recently and they were talking about how disabled people talk about people who aren’t disabled, and how disabled people talk about us. And they don’t call us abled. They call us the temporarily abled, because we’re abled now, but you know we’re going to get sick, we’re going to have accidents. Eventually we’re going to die. So you know, we are temporarily abled and we’ll be disabled. So it’s important to recognize that so we can appreciate the fact that we’re healthy.
So that’s what I want to talk about today is cultivating that attitude of sort of gratefulness for these ephemeral things that make us happy.
So if you Google gratitude research, this is what you find. You find lots of bibliographies, papers about where social scientists have discovered that gratitude works, that it makes people happier or less depressed.
Two of the trendiest things in psychology now are mindfulness and positive psychology and they’re both based on this idea that we have control of our attention, that we can direct our attention in ways that make us happy and we’re not at the mercy of these habitual thoughts.
In particular I like this primate social reciprocity in the origin of gratitude. I was just watching some monkeys recently and you know, they’re just like us.
So if you Google gratitude quotes this is what you get right. It starts with Plato and ends with Oprah, so this is not a secret. This has been around for a long time.
So here’s the idea. We don’t realize how much of our thinking is automatic. How much of it originates you know back when we’re two or three years old. And what I try to do is create an intervention so that I can kind of redirect my attention. So instead of being at the mercy of these spontaneously formed habits, I’m trying to kick-start this positive feedback loop, when you notice things that you’re grateful for and you write them down then you know there’s more things. And it kind of builds on itself. It’s kind of a self-perpetuating habit.
So this is what I did. Every morning and I’ve done this for the last two years, I’ve written down five things that I’m grateful for, five things that happened in the last day, five things that I’m feeling right now. I try to focus on things that are really like in the here and now, like the taste of coffee, you know the feel of the sun, the feeling of the breeze. I just try to look around and find things that are happening right in that moment.
So I used a don’t break the chain apps on my smartphone to make sure I was very disciplined about it. You know I’ve been doing it for two years and I have a long list now. I got over 3000 items on it, and there’s a tremendous amount of repetition in that list. Certain things come up again and again.
So what I did a few days before I came here was that I categorized it and I sorted the categories by the things that occurred most often, and those were the things I would try to concentrate on.
So, here are my categories. This is two years of gratitude list. I didn’t look at the whole two years. I just looked at a few hundred. The number one thing is social stuff you know and this is just social interactions. It’s a kind of a reciprocal social interaction with my family, with my neighbors. You know, ranting about politics with my friends, you know just this social interaction. That gives me a lot of pleasure.
The second category is interesting. It looked hard but turned out to be easy. This is something we can all relate to, there are certain things that we just dread. And sometimes, you know often infact usually they don’t turn out to be so bad, like you get through security at the airport and you’re waiting for the plane with plenty of time to spare, or you’re connecting your router and it works the first time, or your printer. Or you’re looking for a parking space you know and there it is. So when that happens, that goes on the list.
Food, I think I don’t need to explain that.
Visible progress towards the goal. I’m a writer and when I send out a draft, when I send out a deck, or when I accomplish some small thing, check it off the list that is a very pleasurable thing and that is something I can be grateful for. Then you can just go down the list. There’s a kind of a power law here. I mean there’s certain things that happen a lot and other things that don’t happen that much.
So, here are the lessons. You get more disciplined about recording it, and you develop a habit of noticing things. you start out every morning by writing down the things that you are grateful for and then you get into the habit of noticing things that are all around you. You start the positive feedback loop and then you do more of what is working out best
That’s my talk, thank you.