I’ve got this daily habit of printing out a form I created in Google Sheets that serves as a combination calendar, to-do list, and checklist of daily habits. And on this form, I handwrite mantras and affirmations to keep reminding me of the things that I claim to value. You would thing that if I actually valued these things then I wouldn’t need to remind myself, but I do it anyway. The current version is just one sentence: "Be grateful, be ethical, work hard, and carpe diem!". It used to be four sentences and was much wordier, but I’ve boiled it down quite a bit.
The "be grateful" part is on my mind this morning. It’s in the list because it’s supposed to be a key to happiness. That’s right, I’ve done a bunch of internet research on how to be happy and what the field of positive psychology has to say on the subject. I know what you’re thinking: how hopelessly nerdy. But I ask you, am I supposed to just hope for happiness to happen to me, or is there a way to actually go out and get it? What the scientific research shows is that practicing gratitude is one of the keys to happiness. It’s an ancient idea that features in many religious practices, and it turns out that there is actual scientific evidence supporting it. So, I added "be grateful" to my daily affirmation in the hopes that the reminder will help me be a happier, more satisfied person.
Which brings me to why the topic is on my mind: I went out for a drive last night and was listening to the Invisibilia podcast episode "Frame of Reference". I love my podcasts because I learn so much, and some of it is even of actual use in my daily life. This particular episode is one that is sticking in my head because I haven’t quite been able to figure out how to be grateful on a daily basis, and this episode showed in a very concrete way how to do it. Basically, it’s all about "relative deprivation", or the "it could be worse" school of thought. One of the hosts (Alix Spiegel) is the child of a Holocaust survivor, and she was interviewing a comedian from the Daily Show who is the child of a guy who escaped from India during the wars of partition after independence from Britain. Their parents didn’t have much patience for the trials and tribulations of their American offspring. "Are you a lamp made of skin?" is how the holocaust survivor phrased it to her daughter. "Come back and talk to me when you have real problems."
Once you adopt the frame of reference of these survivors of real hardship, then it’s so much easier to recognize how terrific your life is. And thus, happiness.
But the thing that the Alix points out in the show is that it can’t be our only frame of reference or we’ll fail to make progress. Progress requires dissatisfaction with the way things are.
We have to be able to swap out our frame of reference. We need to see things from more than one perspective. Yes, my life is great compared to a lot of other people’s lives, but there are ways that my life could be so much better. So, when I want to practice gratitude, I need to adopt the perspective that shows me how terrific my life is, and when I need a reason to work hard and improve my life, then I switch perspectives and try to see how my life looks to a person who experiences more comfort, privilege, and joy than I currently do.
The trick is to not get stuck with just one perspective. It’s going to take some practice for sure, but I have no doubt that looking at things in more than one way is a good thing.