26 – Want to be happy? Practice gratitude


Gratitude is the key to happiness but gratitude requires practice. In this episode, I will discuss how we can develop a practice of gratitude. “The root of joy is gratefulness…It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” ― David Steindl-Rast

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 26. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about gratitude.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. I am recording this episode from a room in the Seattle airport while I’m waiting to catch a flight, so I want to apologize in advance if you hear any background sounds that you don’t typically hear when I record these podcasts.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. I am recording this episode from a room in the Seattle airport while I’m waiting to catch a flight, so I want to apologize in advance if you hear any background sounds that you don’t typically hear when I record these podcasts.

This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” So please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. And as always, if you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. And if you’re in the position to be able to help, I would greatly appreciate if you were able to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting SecularBuddhism.com.

Now, let’s jump into this week’s topic. So in the past, I did a podcast episode that was called “Freedom from the Pursuit of Happiness” and it was a podcast about happiness and reframing the way that we approach our pursuit of happiness, and kind of shifting our mindset from the pursuit of happiness to the happiness of the pursuit. And it was a very popular podcast episode and I wanted to expand a little bit on that idea. So in the past several days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic of gratitude and how gratitude plays into happiness.

So before we can talk about gratitude, I wanted to talk about happiness for a minute, because typically, you know, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish in life? If you were to ask somebody that question, including yourself, most of us are probably going to say that what we’re trying to accomplish is more happiness. We’re trying to experience the joy of happiness and trying to minimize everything else that doesn’t make us happy. That’s typically the path.

That’s why you’ve heard the expression, “the pursuit of happiness”. It’s like this thing that you can pursue and catch it, and we treat it almost like we do the other word “meaning” as if it was something that was out there that you can go and find, and you dig under a rock and there it is. There’s happiness, and now I got it, and it’s mine. When the reality is that happiness doesn’t work that way because happiness is just an emotion. And like all of our emotions, whether that’d be happiness, sadness, anger, you know … These are impermanent emotions, and when the causes and conditions are right, you experience and emotion, and then when the causes and conditions are gone, it’s no longer there. That’s the nature of our emotions.
So that trap that we fall into is thinking that happiness is thing that we can get, and we can’t. But the irony in this is that there is a way to experience it, but it doesn’t have to do with chasing after happiness. So the Buddha taught that we are what we think, and all that we are arises with our thoughts. And it’s with our thoughts that we make our world. So the way that we think will influence the way that we are, and when we think … When we are pursuing happiness or we think that happiness is the goal, we can get trapped in this hamster wheel, so to speak, that we’re running and running, and never get in there because we’ve misunderstood what happiness is.

So what I wanted to focus on in this podcast episode is something different. Rather than pursuing happiness, what if we develop or practice gratitude? And the irony in this is that it’s by practicing gratitude, it’s by developing a sense or an attitude of gratefulness that we experience happiness. Because remember, happiness isn’t something that you can’t catch and get. It’s not a thing that’s … There it is, there’s happiness, and I got it. You experience it, and you experience it by being grateful.
So what if instead of focusing on the pursuit of happiness, we focused on the practice of gratitude? That’s what I really wanted to discuss in this podcast. And practicing gratitude doesn’t come naturally. It seems that we’re not really hardwired to be grateful, and I have no doubt that you know somebody who tends to be more naturally grateful. And isn’t it pleasant to be around people who tend to be grateful? I know, I have several people in my life that I look up too, who are people who tend to be very grateful. And the thing about gratitude is that it’s like any skill. It’s a skill that requires practice, and we can develop an attitude of gratefulness or gratitude by practicing it.

Dr. Robert Emmons, who’s the author of a book called Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier … He talks about the three stages of gratitude, and says that, “First, you recognize what you’re grateful for. Then, you acknowledge it and appreciate it.” So recognition, then acknowledgement, then it’s the actual act of appreciating it. And that sounds simple, but the benefits of practicing gratitude can really be life-altering.

So I want to talk about this a little bit more because we tend to see gratitude as something that, when the circumstances are right, then we’ll be grateful. But gratitude isn’t about the circumstances, and you can look at this because you can put yourself in any set of circumstances and just change the scenario, and you’ll see in one circumstance you’ll be grateful, and the other one, you’re not, and the circumstances are the same. So it’s not about the circumstances.

For example, if you were driving down the road on your way to a job interview and you got a flat tire, you would pull over, and you know, the last thing you’re gonna do is be grateful for your flat tire, because you don’t want to have a flat tire. You want to be at the job interview. Now, if you were in a prison transport vehicle on your way to jail for something that you didn’t do and you’re really terrified to go to jail, and the transport vehicle gets a flat tire, well now you’re gonna be very grateful for the flat tire, and you’re gonna hope that it takes them a hundred years to change the tire. So if you were looking at the circumstance, the circumstance is you got a flat tire, that’s not the problem. It’s only a problem if you don’t want a flat tire.

So with gratitude, it’s never about the circumstances, or the event, I should say, and maybe not circumstances, but the event. It’s not about the event. It’s about everything around that. So I think to understand gratitude a little bit more, we should talk about: Why is it that we don’t feel gratitude? What is it that’s preventing gratitude?

And I think a big part of this is what we call dualistic thinking. It’s the idea that there’s life as it is and then there’s life as I think it should be. And that’s the dualistic part of it. I’m creating two realities. There’s reality as it is, and the reality that I want. And that separation puts us in a position where when I’m looking for something that isn’t how it is, it’s hard to experience gratitude. The sense of expectation or the sense of comparison, we don’t what is. We only see what we … You know, the woulda, coulda, shoulda scenarios of life. And the thing is, gratitude is just there. It’s a part of the reality as it is, and it doesn’t know any of the stories that we’ve created about how things should be. So we … It’s important to understand that it’s resentment and bitterness that can blind us from being grateful. Well, blind us … We simply just cannot experience it because we’re experiencing resentment and bitterness.

So it’s important, I think, to look at your life and to analyze in what way, or in what areas of my life am I experiencing any kind of resentment or bitterness. And this will typically have to do with, you know, woulda, coulda, shoulda. Because resentment and bitterness typically from dashed expectations. There’s … How the way life is different from how we want it to be because we think it should’ve been differently had this … This or that changed. And when we’re in that mindset, what is there to be grateful for? You can’t be grateful.

When the world doesn’t fit our stories, there’s tension from, you know, how things are and how I expected things to be. And in that world, you’re just not going to experience any form of gratitude. So then we need to look at that a little bit more, and if you’re not experiencing gratitude naturally, then maybe you can ask, “Why am I not feeling grateful? Why am I not experiencing gratitude?” And then follow that up with, “Am I experiencing some kind of resentment or some kind of bitterness?” Because typically, we go through life experiencing these things, but we don’t pause and give ourselves the time of day to actually be with those emotions and to analyze them a little bit.

This is where practicing gratitude really comes in. And I want to talk about this because I think there are five steps that we can take to start to develop gratitude, and consider this a form of practice because by practicing this we get better at it just like going to the gym makes you stronger or practicing meditation makes you more mindful. So developing gratitude, we could say, is something that can be practiced and we’re gonna go through these five steps to develop gratitude.

So the first one is about … Is centered around awareness. You want to become aware. So step one is become aware, and this is asking yourself, “What am I not noticing here? What should I be grateful for?” Because if you’re not experiencing gratitude naturally, that’s okay. But at least you can notice, “Hey, I’m not experiencing gratitude. Why aren’t I grateful?” And you’ll be amazed if you were to … To become aware, you would be amazed at all the goodness that we take for granted, all the things that we should be grateful that we don’t typically or naturally experience. And there’s a good video, a TED Talk called “A Good Day” that you could check out and that’ll help get you in the right frame of mind. So just developing a sense of awareness, and this could be the awareness that … Of things that you’ve realized, “Oh, I’m grateful for this.” But it also entails the awareness of realizing, “Oh, I’m not grateful.” The fact that you’re aware that you’re not grateful is a good start.

The next step is writing it down. You’ve probably heard of the idea of keeping a gratitude journal. But really, all it takes is writing down one or a few things that you’re grateful for on a daily basis and developing a habit out of that. And you don’t have to have a fancy notebook for that. There are apps that will do this that you can put on your phone and they’ll remind you every morning, and say, now what are the one or two or three things that you’re grateful for? There are many ways you can develop this as a daily habit, and just write it down because when you’re forced to ask yourself, “What am I grateful for?”, you’re going to … You have to pause and you have to think about it. So it’s a really good way to start developing the practice of gratitude.
The third step is learning to identify the negative. So if you identify something or someone with a negative trait, you know, for example, some people have the tendency to approach things from the negative point first. For example, you walk into the office and the first thing you notice is it’s cold, or … I don’t know. There are a lot scenarios here, but what if you could practice switching it in your mind to see what is the positive aspect of this? You know, for example, you walk into a room and it feels cold, then think, well, okay … Try to extract out of this something that’s positive. You look out the window and realize, “Oh, but this room has a good view.” And so now you’ve practiced switching that, identifying the negative so that you can switch to the positive. And this is just, again, a practice. The more you do this, the more habitual it become to see positive things simultaneously as you see the negative things, and then eventually, seeing less negative things.

The fourth step is gonna be practicing, and we’re not gonna fake it. You don’t have to fake being grateful. You don’t have to pretend to be grateful, or say, you know, to someone, “Oh, thank you,” just because you’re faking it. Consider this practicing it. So try to give at least one compliment everyday, and the reason this is helpful is because if you know, “Today, I’m supposed to give a compliment to something or to someone,” it forces you to look for the positive because you’re not gonna want to just compliment and be inauthentic. So you will start to practice being authentically looking for something to be grateful for so you can share that. So, you know, this could be very easy. Smiling and saying thank you to someone for something is a wonderful way to practice gratitude. So find something to be grateful for and then express it. I think we go through a significant portion of our lives feeling gratitude but never expressing. And gratitude feels good for us but you who else it feels incredible for? The person who’s receiving it, on the receiving end of gratitude.

Practicing … I guess what we’re really practicing here is practicing the expression of gratitude. So when you feel gratitude, feel free to express it. Share it with the people, especially people that you know and care for and love, it’s very meaningful to feel appreciated. So practice expressing gratitude and it can be for anything, you know, the waiter who brings you your food, someone who opens the door at the gas station. It can be to your spouse or significant other who did something kind for you, or … There’s just so many ways, so many moments to be able to feel and then more importantly express your gratitude. So we’re practicing the expression of gratitude.

And then there’s the fifth step which I kind of like. I think this might be a challenge for the podcast listeners to go in on this challenge of making a vow. So this is kind of a complement to the practice, it’s making a vow to not complain, to not criticize or to gossip for a set amount of time. Maybe let’s say, 10 days. A 10-day vow or a 10-day gratitude challenge, and rather than focusing it around the positive aspect of it, of being grateful, because we’re already practicing that. Remember, you’re gonna do it everyday, you’re gonna compliment someone … At least one compliment everyday.

This is focusing on the negative side, “How do I eliminate the negative side?” Well, what if you take a vow to not complain, criticize or gossip for 10 days? And if you catch yourself messing up, you don’t have to do this, but maybe if you catch yourself slipping, you know, maybe you can have some form of punishment where you put a dollar into a jar every time you mess up, and at the end, take that money and maybe donate to someone or to something. I don’t know. That just might be a fun way to do it, but you don’t have to do that. But I would love to see if you’re willing to take a vow to … For 10 days to not complain, to not criticize or to gossip. I remember gossiping is just speaking of someone when they’re not there in a negative way. There’s never a need to do that.

So those are the five steps. Number one, become aware. Developing an awareness of the things that we’re grateful for, or at least an awareness that we’re not grateful. It can start with that. Step two, write it down. Step three, identify the negative approach. If you have negative approach, identify when and where and how you do that, and try to counter it with one positive. So as soon as you identify the negative, counter it with a positive, and just practice that. Step four is practicing the expression of gratitude. You know, try for 10 days to at least give one compliment daily, and you know, keep going past the 10 days. This is a great one to do. Maybe it’s a daily thing that you do for the rest of your life, that would be awesome. So practice expressing gratitude especially to the people who you’re close to. It would mean everything to them. And make a vow, 10-day challenge. No complaining, criticizing or gossiping for 10 days. I’d love to hear in the comments on SecularBuddhism.com or on the Secular Buddhism study group on Facebook or just the Secular Buddhism Facebook page, but I’d love to hear you tell me about it if you make that vow, if you take that commitment, or you can email me: Noah@SecularBuddhism.com. Tell me all about it, I’d love to hear that.

But that’s kind of what I had in mind for this topic on gratitude. So how we can shift our mindset from the mindless pursuit of happiness? Well, I guess I shouldn’t say that. It can be mindful. But what if we focused our attention away from chasing after happiness to just practicing gratitude? And the irony, like I said before, the irony in this is that, experiencing gratitude is what helps us … It’s what makes you feel happy. So if you want to chase after happiness, don’t chase after it. Practice gratitude. There’s no greater gift than the gift of gratitude, of feeling grateful for our lives, for the fact of being alive, for so many little things. And I think we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about all the things we can be grateful for.

One of my teachers [inaudible 00:20:02] was talking about the little things in life that we typically don’t even think about, we don’t think to be grateful for, and he specifically mentioned his shoes and how at the end of everyday, he takes off his shoes and says, “Thank you, shoes, for protecting my stinky feet.” And it was so interesting for me to hear that and to think not once in my entire life have I ever thanked my shoes because you wouldn’t think to have to do that. You know, these are inanimate objects and they don’t have feelings, so why do I need to thank them? But it’s not about them. It’s about my disposition and my attitude, and I thought, “Well, how interesting.”

It’s just never occurred to me to be thankful for something so simple as, you know, what protects my feet all day long. So I spent a week after that trying to think of all the little things to be thankful for. And throughout that week, it was fascinating, you know, at work, a check came in and a signed it and I deposited it on my phone, taking a picture, and again, I had experience where I was like I’ve never thought to be thankful to my pen for being able to sign my name, to my phone for being able to take a picture and have that go right into my account, I didn’t have to drive to the bank, so I was like, “Thank you, smartphone. Thank you, pen.” And then, “Thank you, check.” Because it was able to just come in the mail, and then I was like, “Oh, well, thank you to the post office who does all these delivery and getting things from here to there.” And it just went on and on and on, that one single action brought up hundreds of things to be thankful for. And it’s just so interesting how so many of those things had never once crossed my mind ever to be thankful for. You can imagine that whole week was an intense week of being grateful for all the little things.

You know, even the drive home, I was thinking, “How can I be grateful for things I’ve never thought of being grateful for before?” For example, the red light. You’re stuck at the red light. You don’t ever thank the red light. But I looked at the red light and said, “Thank you, red light.” Because if it wasn’t for this red light organizing us all, it would be chaotic here. And while my light is red, someone else’s light is green, and they get to go. And then when theirs is red, mine is green, and you know, I was thinking I should thank the red light because thanks to their red light, I get to drive through this intersection when it’s green, and typically not have to worry about someone else running through the intersection and hitting me.

It just kind of reframes the way you view a lot of things if you practice gratitude. So I think it would be a fun experience this week, or whenever you listen to this podcast, to give yourself a 10-day challenge. Take a vow for 10 days to not complain, to not gossip, to not criticize, and during those 10 days, practice expressing gratitude, at least one compliment, one authentic compliment everyday to someone for something. And see how that changes you, see if it starts to change your mindset. And more importantly, what you should notice is the more you practice gratitude, the more you should experience happiness. And this is the best part of all of it, is that the goal isn’t to be happy. We’re not chasing after happiness. We’re practicing gratitude, but the effect of that, what you’ll notice is that you experience and feel more happiness.

And quickly before I wrap up this podcast, I do want to remind you that next year, in January … From January 26th through February 4th, I’ve been invited to teach mindfulness retreat in conjunction with a humanitarian trip that we’re doing in Uganda in Africa. And this is gonna be a really awesome opportunity to do humanitarian work, while at the same time focusing on the contemplate of practice of mindfulness. So if you are interested in learning about that, visit MindfulHumanitarian.org. This is going to be a wonderful and unique experience going to Uganda, experiencing mindfulness, humanitarian work and adventure. We’re doing a safari. If you’re interested in learning more about that, visit the website or reach out to me, and ask me any questions that you might have.

And as always, I want to thank you for taking the time to listen. When I started this podcast, my intention was to just make content and tools available for people to learn the philosophical concepts that are taught from the contemplate of tradition of Buddhism that ultimately enable us to live more mindfully. And I’ve been surprised to see how much demand there is for this presentation, this style of presentation for Buddhism, and it’s been an incredible journey and I’m very happy to be doing this and to be on this journey with you.

And I’ve said this before, but I believe that the key to contributing to making society or the world a better place really is about making ourselves better versions of ourselves, and that’s why I do these podcasts. I’m determined to continue producing content and creating tools that will help us to be more mindful, and ultimately, this is … I do this for myself. This is my practice. This is me trying to be the best me that I can be. And you know, at times, it feels like, well, it’d be great to do this for everyone else out there to listen to this, but ultimately, I don’t feel like I’m trying to sell anything. I don’t feel like I’m trying to push anything on anyone. I record all this, in a way for, myself. This is me being able to express myself in a way that my own children will be able to listen to this at some point in the future and know how I felt about these topics.

And if you listened to this and you enjoy it, well then, that’s all for the better. If we can be more mindful as individuals, we end up having more mindful families and ultimately more mindful societies, and we can end up having a better world and it’s not because we were trying to change the world. It’s ultimately because we were trying to change ourselves, and I really believe that.

So if you’re able to contribute in any way, your generous donations allow me to continue producing weekly content for this podcast, along with content for the workshops and the retreats and seminars that I do. And if you’re interested and you’re in a position to be able to help, please visit SecularBuddhism.com to make a one-time donation, or sign up as a monthly supporter of the podcast.

And as always, thank you for your continued support, and I’ll be happy to record another podcast episode next week. So have a great week, and until next time.