I don’t know if there is a more misunderstood tool you can implement in your life than gratitude. But why do so many people find it hard to implement? Why do so many subconsciously ignore it or even flat-out reject it?
For one, it may be because we are accustomed to thinking about what we don’t have, rather than what we do.
We are hardwired to be ungrateful
As human beings, we tend to be cynical and pessimistic because anthropologically that is what has worked to keep us alive. In modern times it’s essential to shed this tendency. Tony Robbins says it this way: “One of the key traits of successful people is their ability to see things only as good or bad as they are, but not worse!”
There are two authors whose writings have illuminated this concept for me greatly and helped me overcome my own cynical tendencies. I will introduce you to their findings.
Expert #1: Hans Rosling
A Swedish physician and professor, Rosling wrote an excellent best-selling book titled Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, in which he lays out the following 10 human instincts that change the way we think about and interact with the world. I recommend taking the time to think of an example of how each of these shows up in your life.
- Gap instinct: We divide everything in two and assume there is a massive difference between the two extremes.
- Negativity instinct: This is our tendency to see the bad instead of the good or the glass as being half empty.
- Straight-line instinct: It’s easy to assume that trends follow straight lines from A to B when every single trend curves.
- Fear instinct: We pay more attention to things that scare us.
- Size instinct: We have a tendency to misjudge proportion.
- Generalization instinct: We automatically categorize things, but that can be misleading as it’s often done incorrectly.
- Destiny instinct: This is the assumption that things have and always will be the same for some immutable reasons.
- Single-perspective instinct: It’s easy for us to look at things only from our perspective without considering other ways to do things.
- Blame instinct: We naturally look for scapegoats or a way to assume that others are the reason for our problems.
- Urgency instinct: Everyone is in a rush, so when we see a problem, we try to solve it immediately.
The goal with these “cognitive distortions,” is not to dismiss them entirely but to develop a heightened awareness of them so we can refine them over time to align with our goals, as opposed to our fears.
Expert #2: Martin Seligman
Martin Seligman is a leading innovator in the field known as positive psychology. He developed the “three Ps of pessimism,” sometimes referred to as the “three Ps of learned helplessness.” Understanding them can make it much easier to be on guard against the negative effects of our own biases.
- Permanence: This is an error of time. We assume that because one or more things are bad right now, they will remain that way indefinitely.
- Pervasiveness: This is an error of size. We believe that if there is something in our life that’s negative, it applies to all aspects of our life.
- Personalization: This is an error in assigning responsibility. We tend to think we are more to blame and responsible for fixing negative things that happen than we actually are.
Even as gratitude becomes conditioned, it will likely never become automatic. Unlocking our full potential demands that we transcend short-term survival instinct and play a longer game, one in which gratitude is essential.
Start right now
To get started, try taking an immediate action of gratitude. Write a letter. Pick up the phone. Pay someone a visit. Whatever it is, make it heartfelt. Tell someone how you feel.
Identify those people in your life who you are the most grateful for and let them know it.
If this is uncomfortable for you, dig deep to figure out why. What is it about unbounded expressions of appreciation that makes you uncomfortable? Don’t judge yourself, just sit impartially on your own shoulder and watch yourself be you, taking notes.
And as gratitude becomes more natural and frequent for you, hold on tight. Now you’re ready for “the shift.”
Gratitude is just the first step, a catalyst for becoming outward-focused and unburdening yourself from the beliefs and patterns that keep your potential locked up. It is a series of changes that in hindsight will be a defined phase of your life when awareness was awakened and potential was unlocked.
Life after the shift is fundamentally different from life before it.
Excerpted from Unlock Your Potential: The Ultimate Guide for Creating Your Dream Life in the Modern World by Jeff Lerner. Published by BenBella, August 2022.
Jeff Lerner is the founder and chief vision officer of Entre, one of the fastest-growing education companies in the world.