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    An Attitude of Gratitude

    By Tom Moon, MFT–

    (Editor’s Note: Tom Moon is on hiatus. This is one of his more popular past columns.

    The distinguished philosopher Lily Tomlin once said, “Humanity invented language out of a deep need to complain.” It’s sad that those who are Homo sapiens, the most intelligent and resourceful beings on the planet, are also, by and large, the most miserable. If I feed, pet, and walk my dog, he’s happy and fulfilled. But if you’re that easily pleased, you probably either have a room temperature I.Q. or you’re the Dalai Lama: either you’re challenged or enlightened. Why is it so much harder for us to be happy than our pets?

    I sometimes wonder if we’re just wired in such a way that it’s easier for us to be unhappy than happy. The thing that makes us distinct—our complex cerebrum—isn’t an organ for dispassionately understanding reality. It evolved as a tool for anticipating and overcoming dangers, for protecting us from pain, and for solving problems; so dangers, pain, and problems are what it notices. What’s pleasant and harmonious, what isn’t painful or problematic, tends to slip into the background.

    But some of our unhappiness must also be culturally induced. When I visited India a few years ago, I was astounded at how many smiling, serene, unhurried people I met in the streets—many of whom were in what we would consider desperate conditions.

    When I came back home and watched my fellow affluent Americans rushing around impatiently, scowling, honking, and swearing at each other, I felt a wave of intense pity for my country. Visitors to Central America, Asia, and other places often have the same reaction. We are the wealthiest nation in human history, but almost all of us believe that we don’t have enough money. Our affluence has seduced us into the belief that our happiness lies outside of ourselves, and so we think that our poverty is financial instead of emotional and spiritual.

    I was interested to watch the starkly differing reactions of gay people who are single to the explosion of gay marriages in San Francisco. Some were thrilled and grateful to be alive at this time in our history. They talked about going to City Hall to cheer for their friends, volunteer to help, take pictures, and give roses to couples. Others said that they stayed away because all of the excitement just made them feel envious and more embittered about not being in a relationship. For some, the response was celebration; for others, it was self-pity, and some felt a little of both, but there was clearly an element of personal choice in which reaction predominated.

    This example is a reminder that our outward circumstances are less crucial to our happiness than our attitude toward them. In this example, the important attitude is sympathetic joy, the capacity to delight in the happiness of others. Buddhists consider this quality an essential aspect of happiness, and have created meditative practices for deliberately cultivating it, by focusing on empathizing with others and mentally sending them wishes for their well-being.

    A similar practice well-known in twelve-step programs is to work at cultivating “an attitude of gratitude,” by making regular, even daily, lists of everything in your life for which you’re grateful. This practice counteracts the tendency of the brain to focus on problems, pains, and deficiencies by concentrating, instead, on the background abundance that is almost always there, if we’ll only look.

    So, for instance, a man wakes up on a cold, rainy Tuesday, sour and grumbling about having to go to his boring, dead-end job just to pay the exorbitant rent on his tiny studio apartment. But in a morning practice, he concentrates on gratitude that he does have a roof over his head and a job; that he’s going to have dinner with a loving friend that night; that he’s healthy and has many sources of pleasure in his life, etc. Afterwards, while nothing outwardly has changed, he can go to work feeling a little lighter and more cheerful.

    A common unconscious idea is that there’s some way to live so that eventually we won’t have problems, disappointments, and losses. We’ll get all of the parts of our lives together, and then we’ll nail the whole thing to the floor so that it doesn’t move. But it never happens, because life is constant change, and so no state of static perfection can exist.

    That means that no matter how we live, losses, disappointments, and difficulties are inevitable. Maybe that’s what that old wistful joke was about—that you can have a great apartment, a great job, and a great lover, but you can’t have all three at once. If happiness is to be found at all, it has to be found within an acceptance of this reality.

    When Lincoln said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” he was pointing to a truth too-often forgotten in our outwardly-focused culture. Happiness is an inside job.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website

    Published on November 28, 2019