Don’t Like Meditation? Try Gratitude Training. (Plus: Follow-up to "Testing Friends" Firestorm)

111 Comments

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Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and zen teacher once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., has a knack for making the esoteric understandable.

In discussing what some call “present state awareness”–experiencing and savoring the present—he offers a simple parable:

Let’s say that you want to eat a peach for dessert one evening, but you decide to only allow yourself this luxury after washing the dishes. If, while washing the dishes, all you think of is eating the peach, what will you be thinking of when you eat the peach?

The clogged inbox, that difficult conversation you’ve been putting off, tomorrow’s to-do list?

The peach is eaten but not enjoyed, and so on we continue through life, victims of a progressively lopsided culture that values achievement over appreciation. But let’s get specific.

If we define “achievement” as obtaining things we desire (whether raises, relationships, cars, pets, or otherwise) that have the potential to give us pleasure, let’s define “appreciation” as our ability to get pleasure out of those things. To focus on the former to the exclusion of the latter is like valuing cooking over eating.

How then, do we develop the skill of appreciation, which is tied so closely to present state awareness?

There are a few unorthodox tools that we’ve explored already for state awareness, like the 21-day no-complaint experiment, but the most common mainstream prescription is meditation.

The problem with meditation is that it too often gets mixed with mysticism and judgment (attempting to forcefully exclude certain thoughts and emotions). Who really wants to visualize a candle flame for 30 minutes? It can work, but it doesn’t work for most.

Here’s where we enter the 60-second solution: gratitude training. From Cornell to the University of Michigan, scientists are looking at the far-reaching effects of practicing gratitude just like exercise.

Here is one example from Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas:

“The first group kept a diary of the events that occurred during the day… the second group recorded their unpleasant experiences, [and] the last group made a daily list of things for which they were grateful.

The results of the study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy. Additionally, the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, was more likely to help others, exercised more regularly and made more progress toward personal goals. According to the findings, people who feel grateful are also more likely to feel loved.

McCollough and Emmons also noted that gratitude encouraged a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness among people since one act of gratitude encourages another… McCullough suggests that anyone can increase their sense of well-being and create positive social effects just from counting their blessings.”

In practical terms, here is one example of how you can test the effects of gratitude training in less than 10 minutes over the next week:

Ask yourself the following question each morning, immediately upon waking up and before getting out of bed:

What am I truly grateful for in my life?

Aim for five answers, and if you have trouble at first, ask yourself alternative probing questions such as:

What relationships do I have that others don’t?
What do I take for granted?
What freedoms, unique abilities, and options do I have that others don’t?
What advantages have I been given in life?
Which allies and supporters have helped me to get to where I am?

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Odds and Ends: Postscript to Test-Driving Friends

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Am I really a bastard? (photo (c) sgs_1019)

I returned from a media fast this weekend to quite a firestorm over my last post. Suffice to say, there have been more than a few flame wars.

I’d just like to point out a few things that are easily missed:

First, this is the “Experiments in Lifestyle Design” blog! I go out of my way to try unorthodox things for limited periods of time, after which I share what was interesting, what worked, and what failed. The 21-day no-complaint experiment is another good example. I covered AJ Jacobs’ attempt to follow the bible word-for-word for one reason: it’s thought-provoking and causes people to test assumptions about what can and can’t be done, not because I’m recommending everyone go out and stone adulterers, for example.

Some of what I explore will naturally be controversial because it’s unusual or even the opposite of common practice. I don’t do it for “flame baiting” (I can do without the headaches) but because that’s the nature of this blog. Test new things and share the outcomes. Some of it will be extremely effective and useful, some of it will be impractical but funny, and some of it will end up impractical in all but a few contexts. I just hope all of it is thought-provoking on some level.

Second, I find it funny that a few smart bloggers have personally attacked me with every 4-letter word under the sun, all in the name of criticizing how rude I am! One thing noticeably absent from my blog is personal attacks. It’s too bad that people who are otherwise civil sometimes use the informal nature of their blogs as an excuse to attack people instead of ideas. It’s a waste of intellectual horsepower. C’mon, guys. I’m not rude in person, and the blog post didn’t hurt anyone. Take a breather. Please don’t miss the end of the post in question, where I write:

“A good long weekend of getting lost with someone will reveal most of the character you need to see. No need to orchestrate bad service at a restaurant, for example, if you can achieve the same end doing something fun but uncontrolled.”

No need to get nasty.

Posted on: November 19, 2007.

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111 comments on “Don’t Like Meditation? Try Gratitude Training. (Plus: Follow-up to "Testing Friends" Firestorm)

  1. “…that you have than others don’t” – this is still part of the problem (if not the whole problem), gratitude can only be genuine if doesn’t include the ego, but that’s maybe asking too much

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  2. I have been doing gratitude training for the last couple of months and along the way added in new twist to get my creative juices flowing thanks to one of your earlier episodes that I heard. Big fan of your show man. It has lead me to change a lot of the way I have been living. [Moderator: link removed]

    Thank you for being you. And may you continue to guide us to better lifestyle.

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  3. Also would like to mention that while practicing gratitude and writing down the things you are grateful for does not necessarily change your life or fixes your problems but it does rewire your brain in a way that even if you are going through the worst phase of your life you are wired to be positive to yourself. Does it make sense? But you do not feel happy. That comes when you do this plus workout.

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  4. Hey Tim, love your work and relate to a lot of it and find it very helpful at times. I am wanting to try this and just finding that ‘finding things to be grateful for’ feels fake to me, for example I am grateful for having both of my parents still, however as much as this is true it doesn’t feel like it has deep meaning when I say/ think it. I also just wonder with your recommendations above such as what relationships do I have that others don’t if this just creates yet more thoughts on comparing yourself to others, which seems a little counterproductive in this type of practice? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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  5. I don’t understand what was so offensive to upset someone about this post. I think it’s great and it’s just the resource I needed. Thanks for sharing your magic with us Tim!

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