When I was twenty-one and fresh out of college, I had no clue what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I took advantage of my lack of direction and responsibilities and hopped on a plane to Morocco.
I lived in Marrakesh with a few young Moroccans around my age. There were six of us sharing a small two-room flat. It was a pretty standard apartment for Marrakesh, which meant there was no hot running water.
There were many wonderful and enjoyable aspects of daily life in Marrakesh. There were also many challenging ones, and not having a hot shower whenever I needed one was among these. By the time I arrived back in New York half a year later, I felt incredibly thankful every time I turned on the faucet and warm water came gushing out. I told myself I would never take a shower for granted again.
So do you think that now, fifteen years later, I still say a small prayer of thanks each time I step under a stream of steaming hot water? I wish I could say that I do, but I’d be lying. For a few months after I returned I still felt that appreciation, but gradually it faded. Hot water became just another one of the many things that I paid little attention to as I went about my everyday life.
Every so often I remember what it was like to not have it. That experience was priceless for me because when it does come to mind, it’s a reminder of how much I take for granted every single day that I could be giving thanks for.
It’s so easy to forget to appreciate the simple things. We tend to focus instead on what we want that we don’t have. We wish that we could be stronger, smarter, sexier, prettier, or richer. If people or situations don’t live up to our expectations, we feel disappointed and dissatisfied.
It’s worth taking a step back occasionally to acknowledge and appreciate what we do have, just as it is. Pressing pause on the ceaseless wants and worries of life's unfolding drama, even for just a minute or two, can be liberating and invigorating.
The cultivation of gratitude goes hand in hand with santosha, or contentment, which is the second of the five niyamas (personal observances) that Patanjali outlined in the Yoga Sutras: “From an attitude of contentment, unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.” Santosha is essentially the opposite of desire, or lack, or feeling that we need things to be different before we can be happy.
The Yoga Sutras were written approximately two thousand years ago. Science is now proving what Patanjali taught way back then: the more people appreciate what they have, the happier they are. Study after study has shown that if people actively work towards being more grateful in their day-to-day lives, they become happier and healthier as a result.
Recent research has provided evidence that feeling grateful increases feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, and enthusiasm; reduces anxiety and depression; strengthens the immune system; lowers blood pressure; improves sleep quality; strengthens relationships; promotes forgiveness; and makes people more helpful, altruistic and compassionate. [Visit the Greater Good Science Center to learn more about these studies and more.]
It’s all too obvious these days that our world is in turmoil. Right now we desperately need the optimism that thankfulness has been proven to promote! When we’re constantly confronted with the darkness, hatred and violence that blare from the headlines, it’s not hard to be sucked into a downward spiral of sadness and hopelessness.
Practicing gratitude is a powerful antidote to this despair. We don’t need to put blinders on in order to shut out all negativity; rather we can recognize that for every heinous act of violence and terrorism that occurs, there are many small acts of kindness and love between friends, family and neighbors to feel thankful for.
We mustn’t lose sight of all the goodness in the world. Taking a few moments every day to remember this goodness and give thanks for it increases our own happiness, which then impacts every life that we touch and enables us all to work towards positive change around and within us.