Happiness Ingredients: Appreciate Your Life
Appreciation comes in many forms. For example, one can have appreciation for a situation, a work of art, a gift, or the energy it took to accomplish a task. To appreciate something is to understand or admire its true value or importance. Although the definition of appreciation does not involve any emotional attachment, many things we appreciate do indeed have emotional ties. For example, one appreciates a nice gift from a loved one, not just for the object itself, but for the love and fondness one feels for, and from, the giver.
In this article, we'll discuss how to truly appreciate your life, even when it seems there is nothing to appreciate. The key is gratitude. But first, let's explore the concept of human needs.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published his paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation," in which he proposed human beings have certain needs arranged by importance (known as a hierarchy). In order to progress, said Maslow, we must meet basic needs, before higher needs can be addressed. This hierarchy is usually illustrated using a pyramid, such as the one below.
In looking at the pyramid, we see basic physiological needs make the base of the pyramid – food, water, and sleep. The next level, safety, involves "security of body" – health, resources, property, family, morality. Third is love/belonging – friends and family. Next is esteem – confidence, achievement, and respect of, and by, others. The top of the pyramid Maslow called Self-actualization – morality, creativity, acceptance of facts, problem-solving skills, and lack of prejudice. According to Maslow, self-actualization is the highest level of human needs and can only truly be accomplished after all other (lower) needs have been met.
Maslow's Hierarchy will come into play later in this lesson.
Gratitude – The Key to Appreciating Your Life
"What you focus on expands, and when you focus on the goodness in your life, you create more of it. Opportunities, relationships, even money flowed my way when I learned to be grateful no matter what happened in my life." -- Oprah Winfrey
Gratitude is a feeling of thankfulness or appreciation for something or someone. You may have heard the term, "attitude of gratitude," but what does that really mean?
To live with an attitude of gratitude is to look at life through a "lens" of realistic appreciation, not whitewashing problems with false "positive thinking" mantras. Cultivating a true attitude of gratitude often requires a change in perspective – not merely looking at the glass as "half full," but looking at each aspect of your life with appreciation for what's "right" with it, even though you understand it is not perfect. This can be accomplished by counting your blessings.
Counting Your Blessings
A search of the Internet for "count your blessings" quickly turns up a hymn of the same name. The lyrics begin:
When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
(Words: Johnson Oatman, Jr., in Songs for Young People, by Edwin Excell (Chicago, Illinois: 1897). Music: Edwin O. Excell)
This is actually good advice, whether you have spiritual beliefs or not. By thinking through your life situation, piece by piece, you will discover you do, indeed, have things to be grateful for. (Here is where Maslow's Hierarchy comes in!)
The "Counting Your Blessings" Exercise
We'll assume if you're going through this course, you have some type of consistent food and shelter. You may also have an Internet connection and computer at home, as well. Likewise, you probably have some type of income. These things satisfy Maslow's two bottom hierarchy needs, and all these are things to be grateful for.
In order to feel real gratitude for these needs being met, think through each one. What do you enjoy about your home? Do you have a nice, warm bed? Food you like eating? Housemates, a spouse, children, or pets you enjoy sharing your home with? Are you living on your own and enjoy your peace and quiet? How about reliable transportation, good friends, kind neighbors? (If, during your ruminations, you begin to think of the "bad" things – a lousy job, a mean neighbor, etc. – do not dwell on this thought. Instead, shift your perspective to a positive, true, thought – like, "At least I have a job, many people I know don't," or "My neighbor must be unhappy to behave that way. I am glad I am not an unhappy person.") All these examples, and more, are reasons to be grateful.
Continue on through all aspects of your life, as far along the hierarchy as you can go. If you are finding life is more difficult than usual, or feel you haven't any blessings to count, start with the little things. Even simple things, such as a new coffee maker, or finding something you thought you'd lost, are reasons to feel gratitude in your life.
Looking on the Bright Side – And What if There Isn't One?
Practically every positive self-help book, article, or piece of advice out there says, in one way or another, to think positive, or "Look on the bright side of life." That phrase might have worked well in Monty Python's hilarious film, Life of Brian, but it doesn't seem quite as amusing in real life!
"Positive thinking," a popular psychology method for decades, involves "thinking over" negative thoughts with positive phrases or mantras. A good (albeit slightly exaggerated) example comes from the comedy show, Seinfeld. In the third episode of the ninth season, entitled, "The Serenity Now," George Costanza's father, Frank, gets a "relaxation tape" from his doctor in order to help calm him and lower his blood pressure. Throughout the episode, every time he becomes upset (which is often!), he yells the supposedly calming mantra, "Serenity now!" By the end of the episode, he is red-faced, screaming it madly, his blood pressure higher than ever.
While this is exaggerated for comedy's sake, it's not far off. If you merely attempt to "drown" anger, upset, sorrow, or frustration with sugar-coated thoughts or meaningless mantras, you'll actually make your situation worse. "Looking on the bright side" is more successfully accomplished by using the "counting your blessings" exercise in this lesson – a realistic assessment of the good things in your life.
But, what if there is no bright side?
There are times in life when it feels nothing is positive or happy, or the world has come crashing down on you, crushing your spirit. The death of a loved one, a tragic accident, or being subjected to circumstances beyond your control, which force you onto a path you didn't choose, are examples of occurrences and situations that can leave you feeling defeated, depressed, and doubting the goodness of life. Often, the nasty emotion of regret (discussed in Lesson 1) comes to visit, digging a hole in your psyche. How do you combat this?
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for such situations, but key elements in this course revolve around the skills and exercises that can be used to combat feelings of hopelessness. In Lesson 1, we discussed a method for easing regret, an excellent tool for diminishing anxiety and depression.
Sometimes, however, no amount of thinking or practice can eradicate upset feelings. (That's a good thing - otherwise, we'd be robots!) Every individual processes experiences in their own way, but most people experience similar classifications of emotions when going through difficulties. One of the more difficult emotions to process for many is anger.
There is an excellent quote attributed to Buddha: "Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so, let us all be thankful." While this is quite true, to anyone truly angry with their life situation, a quote like this is often the last thing they want to hear! While you know you "should" feel grateful for the good in your life, sometimes it's just not possible, due to anger.
The answer to this problem is simple – allow yourself to be angry. Take yourself to a safe place and cry, shout, beat a pillow, or any other activity that allows you to release anger without harming yourself or others.
Writing a letter you never intend to send to the offending party (or show to anyone) is another excellent way to dispel anger. In such a letter, you can say whatever you wish without wreaking havoc in your (or anyone's) life -- provided you follow the last portion of this exercise, and do not send it or show it to anyone.
The key thing to remember is, do not wallow in the anger. The purpose of this exercise is to work through the anger by acknowledging it, not begin a process of bitterness.
Serving Others to Feed Your Spirit
One of the best ways to improve your outlook on life is to serve others. While this may seem counter-intuitive or incomprehensible, it is true.
Serving others gives one a sense of purpose, which we discussed briefly in Lesson 1. When you feel depressed, disenchanted, empty, or lost, a sense of purpose, no matter how small, can help ease these feelings and set you on a more useful and uplifting path.
There are many ways to offer service. In this lesson, we'll focus on what it means to feed the spirit, and how being charitable accomplishes this.
There are several passages in the Bible that mention "feeding the spirit," "spiritual food," and the like. Many think of "feeding the spirit" along religious or spiritual lines: reading scripture; singing hymns; visiting the sick or afflicted; prayer. Spiritual food also includes helping others feel happy with simple kindnesses such as baking cookies for your neighbors or co-workers, making someone smile with a kind comment or sincere compliment, or surprising your child or partner by performing a chore for them.
Perhaps one of the best ways to explain how helping others feeds the spirit, is with a quote from The Money Song, from Robert Lopez's and Jeff Marx's 2003 musical, Avenue Q:
Every time you
Do good deeds
You're also serving
Your own needs.
When you help others,
You can't help helping yourself!
Most people get positive feelings when they are a part of a solution to someone else's problem, even a partial solution, no matter how small. For example, if you go to a restaurant for lunch and your server seems to be having a bad day, sincerely empathizing with them and treating them with respect will likely lift their mood. Not only have you lightened someone else's day and lifted your own mood, you have also ensured a more pleasant dining experience for yourself by being sincerely kind. That may not have been your motive, but it is a practically inevitable result of your initial caring for another. Voila! Good deed done, reward received.
Of course, rewards for good deeds are not always instant, and receiving rewards should not be the motivation for good deed-doing. To truly benefit from doing good deeds, they must be performed with sincerity and without expectation of reward. The deed itself is its own reward. It is important to remember this, particularly if the individual you do the good deed for doesn't accept it gracefully. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, people you attempt to show kindness toward are not capable of receiving it. Some may even find your overtures insulting.
The following tale illustrates perhaps the best reason for ensuring your kindnesses are sincere:
There is a story of Buddha about a bitter old man who sat in the same spot and cursed at Buddha daily as he walked to the market, with his bright, happy smile. Each day, the bitter old man's verbal abuse grew worse, but Buddha's smile and path to the market never wavered. At last, after several days, the man could contain his curiosity no longer, and stopped Buddha as he was leaving the market. "Each day," said the man, "I scream the most vile curses at you, and yet you never challenge me, you never change your path to the market to avoid me, and you never stop smiling. I know you can hear me, why do you refuse to engage me?"
Still smiling, Buddha looked at the bitter old man and said, "If tomorrow, I bring you an elegant gift beautifully wrapped, would you accept it?"
"Of course not!" exclaimed the bitter man. "I would accept nothing from you!"
"Well then," asked Buddha, "if you decline to accept my gift, to whom does the gift belong?"
"You, the giver," answered the bitter man with irritation.
"Ah," said Buddha. "So then, if I decline to accept your gift of anger, to whom does the gift belong?"
Like the old bitter man, if a gift of a good deed is done insincerely or with expectation or malice, you risk having to "keep" your own negative motives and emotions. If, however, your gift is given sincerely, but still rejected, you "keep" only goodness; the person who rejected the gift has lost an opportunity, but you retain your original, good intent.
Give Yourself a Break
At this point, you may be thinking, "All of this is such hard work!" In a way, yes. There are skills to be learned in order to pursue a life of real happiness, and they must be practiced repeatedly. Hardly anyone ever reaches "perfection" in this area. After all, we're only human!
As mentioned previously, everyone makes mistakes in life. Additionally, everyone has limitations, whether physical, mental, social, emotional, or otherwise. All human beings have weakness, whether due to external or internal forces. It is a fact of life, and must be accepted. In addition, our abilities change as we age; some increase, while others decrease. It is important to acknowledge and understand one's limitations, without allowing them to hinder your happiness or overshadow your life.
The first reaction most of us have to the term limitation is, "Fight it!" While this is admirable and often precisely what is needed, there are some personal limitations which should be understood and respected, if we are to be "our best selves."
For example, if you acquire arthritis at a young age, your body may not "look" ill on the outside, but you still experience pain during certain tasks. While those with arthritis are usually advised to maintain as much mobility as possible, there often comes a time when certain activities must be changed or eliminated due to physical limitations. If running is one of your cherished hobbies, yet each time you run, your knees cause you serious trouble and the situation is getting worse, you may need to consider swapping your hobby of running for one of lower impact, such as swimming. While you may be upset at losing your long-cherished exercise, it is not your fault the change has occurred. Understand the body changes, sometimes (often, perhaps?) in ways we don't care for, and "blaming" yourself for nature only adds to your stress and unhappiness.
If your actions are partially, or fully, responsible for your unfavorable circumstance, it is essential you forgive yourself – give yourself a break for messing up. Learn something from the circumstance, even if it is too late to change the result.