25 Apr Chapter 5
Gratitude and joy
Have you ever felt like you can’t get too happy about something just in case it goes wrong? Or you stop yourself from feeling the full amount of joy because you feel like the moment could be lost any second? Other times, when we’ve had the perfect weekend and have a warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts, we could maybe think to ourselves “it’s too good to be true, the week ahead is going to bring something bad”. With my children, especially, I often look at them with an overwhelming feeling of love and fear at the same time. Fear that something could go wrong at any moment – they could break an arm, fall and scrape their face on the tar, get a ball thrown into their forehead. It may sound ridiculous, but this is the kind of stuff that goes on in my head. Every day. These thoughts are what hold us back from feeling true joy. In these moments, we don’t allow ourselves to feel the full extent of the emotion because we’re afraid we’ll lose it in the next instant.
Feeling joy is scary. In that moment we are so vulnerable to the emotion and our armour is dissolved a bit. But so much abundance can come from allowing ourselves to feel that joy. I believe that as we grow up and experience different things through our lives, we slowly build up an armour to protect ourselves from the things that can go wrong. So much so, that sometimes our armour stops us from fully experiencing the good and the joyful moments.
It was the perfect beach afternoon. There was a cool breeze coming off the cold sea, mixed with the warm winds from the sand and mountains behind us. The beach was packed with people playing ball games and chatting happily with family and friends. There were hundreds of children enjoying the sunshine. Three of those kids were mine, running in and out of the water, trying to beat the end of the waves. My youngest daughter tripped over her little feet and crashed down into the soft, wet sand. I expected tears and a cry to follow, but all that came from her smiling face was a screech of joy, as her siblings tumbled down around her. I could have watched them for hours. They were so happy. Pure, fully in the moment, concentrated joy.
It got me thinking about how we experience joy differently as we grow up. Why, I thought. Why did it look like the children on the beach were enjoying themselves so much more than the adults? How did they focus so intensely on what they were doing right there and then, running into and out of the waves, as if nothing else in the world mattered more than that? I have a theory and it has two parts. One is that we think about too much, too much of the time and are not fully present to experience the fullness of the moment. Two, is that we think thoughts that create limits to how and what we feel and how and what we do.
My eyes were watching them and my heart was loving that sight. But my mind was thinking about dinner plans and packing for our drive the next day, between about twenty other thoughts that floated through during that time. Do they need more sunscreen?, argh my legs feel wobbly, I shouldn’t have had that rusk this morning, I really must drink more water, who’s watching the bags, we should go before they get too cold. Most of the time, my mind is a hurricane of thoughts (the type you see in the movies, with flying plastic chairs and roofs coming off) that involve some sort of planning, thoughts that are cautious or of warning, thoughts that hold me back or dilute the contentment and joy that could be in that moment. As adults, I think this is what we do. We learn these behaviours over time. Our minds evolve from those of the kids playing undistractedly in the waves, to minds that think too much about too many things, usually at one time.
These thoughts then hold us back and distract us from what could be. We take the safe road, the safe option, the path that stays well within our comfort zone. We begin to limit ourselves within the confines set by our own red danger tape. And then, we lose out on what’s out there beyond the boundary. We lose out on the joy of running into and out of the waves because we’re too busy thinking about dinner or what could go wrong if we fall or stay on the beach until we’re cold. We miss the moment because we aren’t in it.
There’s also no room to lean into the joy because we are too afraid of what that space may be or bring. We’re scared to truly feel the emotion because we know that it will fade, it will change. It’s not a constant. So, we choose to not even go there, to avoid the disappointment that could come when the moment passes and we move on to the next event, the next responsibility. It’s so sad, because what we’re doing is creating our own limitations on our own happiness and joy. We’re choosing, maybe unconsciously, to miss out on the moments that bring full meaning to our lives.
So how do we undo the patterns we’ve taught ourselves over the years and start thinking more freely, as we did as kids? How can we grab onto the abundance of our lives and lean into the moments that matter? Here are a few ways that have helped me.
It starts in our minds, the thoughts we think manifest into the emotions we feel and the actions we take and how we behave. From the moment we wake up in the morning we are bombarded with thoughts – our own and those created by what we see and hear. So, before your feet hit the floor, before you unlock your phone to check your messages or emails or how many new likes you have, take a moment to check in with your thoughts. Sometimes we actually need to trick our brains into having a great day. Literally telling ourselves, “Today is going to be good. I’m alive, it’s sunny outside and I am grateful.”
We need to get intentional with our thoughts too. Not just every now and again, but regularly throughout the day. When a negative thought flutters through, catch it and ask yourself why you thought that. Is there any truth in that thought? What specific examples contradict the lie you’re trying to make yourself believe? Remember the story I’m telling myself tool from Chapter 3? Then intentionally flip the script to tell yourself the truthful side of that story rather than the story that’s putting you down.
How we end our days matter too. If we fall into bed, desperate to end the day, without consciously debriefing our day in our minds, taking time to highlight what we’re grateful for and noting what we’ve learnt, we quickly forget about the good that surrounds us and focus only on what gets us down. This, I believe has a big impact on how well we sleep. If I’m distracted at bedtime, without thought of the day that’s passed, I’ll sleep restlessly. A calmer, more grateful end to my day sets me up for a calmer, more peaceful night’s sleep. I believe it’s true, give it a try.
Gratitude though, has to be a practice. It’s not just an attitude of gratitude, but an intentional awareness of the good things in our lives. In her book, One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp embarks on a journey to find joy in the life she already has. She starts writing a gifts list. “Not of gifts I want but of gifts I already have”, she writes. She starts noticing rainbow reflections in the bubbles of soapy dish water and the deep colour of jam piled thick on warm toast. She is not oblivious or immune to the pain and struggle in her world. She feels it and wrestles with it but chooses to look through a different lens. A lens that allows her to see past the darkness into the light. She chooses to consider life through a different perspective.
This can be for us too. We can also feel the joy and the struggle simultaneously. We can also smile through the stream of salty tears. And we should. We should, because we have this life that has been gifted to us. This life full of so much colour and sweetness. We can choose the lens through which we look and it starts with consciously noticing and being grateful for those things you smell, taste, feel and see. Becoming grateful for these small things, together with the big ones, develops over time as we build gratitude into our daily lives. How? Here are four ways that helped me:
1. Make time for gratitude every day.
Tag your gratitude time onto something you already do as part of our daily routine, like when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil or the robot to turn green or during your quiet time or meditation. Choose something that you do every day and use that time to start thinking about a few things you’re grateful for. You’ll notice that, over a few weeks or months, this practice of gratitude will become completely natural, part of your daily rhythm.
2. Choose three to five new things every day.
This helps us train ourselves to be on the lookout for the beauty and blessings around us in each new day, whatever that day brings. Write them down in a journal or on your calendar. Notice the list start growing.
3. Be specific.
Being specific about things we’re grateful for helps us to acknowledge exactly why we’re grateful for these things. Being grateful for the sunshine so your new herb garden can grow and flourish is more specific that being grateful for the sunshine.
4. Express your gratitude.
Say thank you to the person who gave you that coffee or made you smile. Say thank you for the grace you receive each day to parent your growing children. Say thank you to your tribe for being your inspiration, your support, your connection. Say thank you for the flowers that make your home smell so sweet each time you walk through the front door.
We don’t need anything to change for us to enjoy and appreciate the fullness of our lives, other than the lens through which we look. Your gifts are already there, right in the middle of the muddy waters you might be navigating through. We don’t need more stuff, a quieter place, a bigger space, a higher bank balance or a smaller body. What we need is to start noticing the good things right where we are. And as we start taking note of the things we are grateful for, we begin to lose sight of all the things we think we lack and we begin to allow ourselves to lean in to the joy.
The thing is, what we give power to, has power over us. If we give power to our thoughts that hold us back from gratitude and joy, they will do exactly that. If we give power to the helplessness we may feel when the challenge feels too big, we will become clouded by that feeling. But, if we intentionally remain aware of what we think and how those thoughts impact how we feel and act, we can then intentionally flip the script and start leaning into the moments that bring meaning to our lives, moments that matter the most.