Research has shown that gratitude and contentment can lead to happiness, health and success when practiced regularly over time. Furthermore, it was found that people who are generally more grateful showed greater neural sensitivity in the area of the brain associated with learning and decision making. There is also research to suggest clinical depression and anxiety are best treated with cognitive behavioral therapy but even this study states gratitude can result in lower incidences of mental health problems and lead to better relationships.
But what happens when life doesn’t always go as planned or it is unfair? In 2015, I had a number of struggles with my health. After feeling run-down and experiencing fairly substantial joint pain, I made an appointment with my primary care physician. He noticed arthritis in my knees and started me on a physical therapy regime. When the lab results came back, I was surprised to learn I was suffering from moderate anemia that was contributing to my tiredness and joint pain. I went through a battery of tests, and everything came back negative after a brief scare that it could be cancer. I began taking iron supplements and started to improve.
Just when I started to make real headway, I caught a virus. This was no ordinary virus. After vomiting for several hours over a couple of days, I thought I was on the mend and started eating bread again. Then that night, I completely lost my balance and hit the bathroom wall. The room started spinning. I crawled back to the bed and lay down, but the spinning only intensified. Within a minute, I was uncontrollably sick again and disoriented. My wife tried to help but nothing we did lessened the symptoms. Eventually, I found myself in an ambulance headed to the emergency room while my wife stayed behind with the children.
Lying in the hospital, I focused my attention on a small sticker on the bed rail to maintain sanity as the spinning and nausea persisted. As I waited for the doctor, between tests and for medication (four hours), I reflected on gratefulness. I was thankful my wife and children were healthy and safe at home. I was thankful the medication I received in the ambulance was starting to cause my queasiness to subside after an hour. I was thankful for the warm blanket I received after shivering in my shorts. I was thankful I could take a sabbatical from work and focus on getting my anemia under control while simultaneously strengthening my relationship with my daughters. My light momentary afflictions were nothing in comparison to people suffering from severe diseases, burns, or military wounds. Coping was much easier when I focused on the positive things in my life rather than my current circumstance.
Gratefulness inspires positive thinking and hope. It helps us relax, lower stress, and feel good. It is an excellent tool for coping when we find ourselves in less than ideal situations. Gratitude lessens the severity of bad circumstances and helps us get to a place where we can get back on our feet. Furthermore, when we focus on the good we have, it inspires contentment, acts of kindness, and generosity, all of which unleash joy in our lives.
Gratefulness also helps to minimize resentment and creates a path to conflict resolution. As you consume yourself with feelings of gratefulness, resentment you have towards another individual will lessen. It’s debatable whether the brain can feel gratefulness and resentment simultaneously in a precise moment. However, experience has shown me that gratefulness makes the cause behind resentment less significant, letting it fade to the point where it’s not all-consuming. This will give you time to process the anger and sadness that led to the resentment and come to a place of logic, rather than revenge. In a previous article, How Positive and Constructive Thoughts Win the Mental Tug-of-War, I spoke of resentment I held towards my former boss? The resentment hurt me, not him. Refocusing on gratefulness for all the positives in my life and growing my business allowed me to come to a place of peace and forgiveness. This made me much happier. Gratitude puts life in perspective and allows you to cherish things that are most important. Without it, you become a whining, selfish person whom nobody wants to be around.
There is also great wisdom in balancing contentment. What do I mean with balancing contentment? It’s embracing things you cannot control and not being overly consumed with gaining items constantly out of reach. If you are working eighty-hour weeks for prolonged periods in a job you don’t love hoping for that next promotion, you are missing out on life. Advertisements want you to believe more is better, but it’s not the truth. Having an empire is laborious. Maintaining and keeping track of things consumes precious time. There will always be someone richer, with a nicer home or car, smarter, better dressed, and better looking than you. Being content gives you peace of mind and much-needed rest from comparisons or racing up the corporate ladder (both time-consuming). In your newfound time, you can cultivate relationships with people you love.
Furthermore, material things will not make you happy. If you are not happy before obtaining something new, you will not be happy after gaining it. We don’t find happiness in things. Happiness is a choice, and it finds a home in gratefulness, family and friends, a satisfying profession, positive thinking, contentment, and balance. This is more real in the context of stories.
In my teens and twenties, I was uncomfortable in my skin. I had a slender build and I wanted a larger, more athletic body. Being discontent, I starting weight lifting in high school. I worked really hard to build muscle mass, but it was a challenge because I tried to do it without supplements. I spent hours in the gym. I got strong and more toned but never achieved my goal. It wasn’t until I embraced my body type and accepted how I was made that I found peace of mind. It was a huge weight (literally) lifted off my shoulders. It’s perfectly fine and beneficial to weight train or work out, but I was doing it for the wrong reasons. When I changed my perspective, I exercised in moderation and became much happier with myself.
Let’s contrast this with 25 years later in life. I was 188 lbs. (30 lbs. overweight for my body frame) and not exercising. I was on a path to hypertension (showing pre-hypertension signs) and poor health. Should I be content? Absolutely not!
The picture of the left shows me before I made the decision to lose weight and the picture on the right shows my weight loss. I hope you get a chuckle at pictures. My daughters insisted on the pose on the left.
After helping my new rescue Italian Grey Hound, Zeppelin, lose 7 lbs or 25% of his weight per the veterinarian’s recommendation, I decided I needed to make a change too. I changed my diet to be more nutritious and began walking two miles a day. When I was hungry, I had vegetables rather than high calorie snacks. When I reached my target weight (so I thought), I added in resistance training and lost another 12 lbs. I returned to the physique of my twenties and felt great. The best part is I eat until I am full, greatly enjoy healthy foods (more so than ever) and can still enjoy treats in moderation. Furthermore, I am so grateful for the wonderful conversations my daughters and I have on the many walks we take.
Being grateful and content does not mean you have to be accepting of bad circumstances, regardless of how you got there. If you lost your job, work aggressively to find a new one. Sometimes you may need to work at an uninspiring job to get out of a rut. Once you are on solid footing, then you can pursue your passion with proper planning.
Upon graduating college, I boarded a plane to the Philippines. I planned to work with the poorest of the poor when I arrived, providing them with technical training. During our transfer from the airport to the shanties of Smoky Mountain, I saw many horrific things. Outside a local convenient store, an elderly woman in worn clothes lay on the concrete, asleep with her leg folded back and cockroaches running all over her.
We arrived at our accommodations in total blackness. I stepped out of the Jeep and without a flashlight fell immediately in a sewer drain. The smell was nauseating and vile. The next morning, I saw it in the daylight. It was black as tar with a dead rat floating in it.
While I was there, I was privileged to meet amazing people who were not content in their dire circumstances and were taking action to address it. They embraced the notion that education was their chance to end the vicious cycle of poverty. Although the parents waded through garbage daily for long hours to find enough recyclables to exchange for a small meal, they encouraged their children to attend school. Unfortunately, this was not possible without the help of sponsorships because of the cost of uniforms and needed supplies.
The organization I was working with provided these much-needed scholarships. These children had everything stacked against them. Yet they would not settle for or accept their circumstances. They wanted a better life and worked hard to achieve sponsorships. Once sponsored, they had to work diligently to ensure they achieved minimum grades to maintain their sponsorship, and have a chance at a job in the future. Many have graduated from college now and provide enough to support their entire family.
Filipino Children During My Trip in 1996
Despite being the poorest of the poor, the Filipino children who are sponsored are both happy and grateful for their opportunity to get an education. The children were so happy I visited with them and we had a fantastic time together. Many of the letters of gratitude will bring a person to tears.
If you are interested in helping disadvantaged students in the Philippines, you can contact Paul Grimsland at Hope for Change. These folks are very reputable and knowledgeable, and with your support, they can continue to change lives.
CALL TO ACTION: Three Steps You Can Take to Be More Grateful and Content in Life
- Focus on the good that surrounds you rather than the personal circumstance that is getting you down. It was very frustrating when my youngest daughter woke me before dawn to play, especially when I was up late the night before working to meet a deadline for a customer. However, it doesn’t take long before her laughter and smile remind me how grateful I am to have a healthy, vibrant child. I have also witnessed some of the most beautiful sunrises looking out our back-picture window.
- Show gratitude to another person or colleague. In marriage, gratefulness is sometimes taken for granted and goes unspoken. This can lead to resentment in your spouse because their efforts are not recognized. My wife and I have learned to continually show appreciation and gratitude toward one another even in the little things, like doing dishes or cooking a meal. It’s motivational and strengthens our relationship. It also sets an excellent example for our kids to show gratitude in their life toward others.
- Find an area in your life where it’s better to put an upgrade on hold and focus that energy into strengthening a relationship. For a while, I considered purchasing a speedboat. I was an avid scuba diver and water-skier, and my wife and I enjoyed being on the coast. However, when I looked more closely, it was a lot of maintenance. Instead, I found a local rental company that had a boat very close to what I wanted. The beauty of it was less overall cost and zero maintenance. I could use it when I desired, save money, and spend more time with friends and family. After coming to this conclusion, I never rented the boat. Instead, I picked up photography a couple of years later and returned to my passion for fine art that I enjoyed so much in my youth. My daughters and I love to go on photography trips together now. Here are a few examples of my work (scroll to the middle of the page).
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