Encouraging Positive Change through Gratitude
By Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Clients often come to me in a state of agitation, impatience and panic (real or existential, sometimes both), wanting a “magic solution” for their current dilemma – which is, in fact, a microcosmic representation or symptom of their overall life dilemma. And while I really do have a “magic solution” to share with them, it’s never what they expect, and like any good magic trick, it takes practice to master. The magic solution? Gratitude. It’s like the skeleton key that opens whatever door is in front of you…
I remember hearing this same message about gratitude at a time in my life when I didn’t have much of it, and when I was sure that this approach was a fantasy solution based on denial. How could I, or anyone else, solve problems by being grateful for what makes us miserable? But I read from David R. Hawkins that “what you resist persists,” from the Dalai Lama that the point of life is happiness, and from these and many other masters that seeing “problems” is a misguided approach to life anyway. In spite of my skepticism, I felt an inner determination to understand why the calm, happy people of the world unanimously and consistently spoke of gratitude, non-resistance, realistic expectations and how our success and happiness has more to do with the way we approach our goal rather than the actual goal itself.
And it’s a good thing I kept reading, because it was here that I instinctively understood something crucial that would change my life forever: How we change in the present (process) determines how we can and will change in the future (goal).
As that relates to the question of gratitude, this means that if we don’t feel gratitude now, we can be sure we will not feel gratitude when we reach our goals, and our own efforts will always fall short of our expectations.
Most of us remember what it’s like to be the child at the store who has a room full of lovely toys at home, yet throws himself on the floor crying because he can’t have the new toy he would like. All of his attention in that moment is focused on what he doesn’t have and what he could have, but not on what he does have and what he could be grateful for. And while we can understand a child’s limited insight in this situation, what about our own capacity for insight in our own similar “grown up” situations? It’s all about our focus of attention.
When we approach life from a problems-approach rather than a gratitude-approach, we live by default in a perpetual state of hyper-focus and hyper-control. How many of us have hyper-focused on our problems, mired in negative judgments, feeling impatient to “solve everything”? We move the game pieces on the “chessboard” of our lives furiously here and there, looking for just the right positioning of all the elements…only to find that when we’ve put all the pieces in place (and sometimes after enormous effort), we feel no gratitude.
We feel no gratitude because, in our problems-approach, we can already imagine someone or some situation coming along to “mess up” our game – and this projected threat becomes our new problem. We then move our hyperfocus to the new “problem” and recommence our compulsive repositioning. We plan, achieve, panic, project, obsess, defend, attack…plan, achieve, panic…and on goes the vicious circle.
This “game setting” process based on a “problems approach” can be extremely mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. At some point, people find themselves becoming quite ill, depressed, or falling into an addiction cycle before recommencing the “repositioning” mode. It appears that in order to have the force to recommence a “game,” people need to give up for a while and escape the hyper-focus mode. In this way, illness, depression and addiction cycles can be seen as a positive insertion into a rather destructive pattern – giving us the opportunity to distance ourselves, reevaluate and change our approach.
With years of practice, guidance and humility, I’ve learned how to exit this vicious circle by reorienting my approach, and now it is one of the best gifts I can pass on to others. For clients who come to me stuck in a problems-approach, I often ask them to honestly estimate and answer the following questions:
→What percentage of your life do you already consider positive?
→And conversely, what percentage of your life do you consider negative and in need of change?
Interestingly, I’ve never had a client respond with a positive number less than 50%. In fact, the ratio is most often around 70/30. It’s Incredible. After hearing their list of problems, clients’ situations sometimes sound rather unbearable. But then, when they numerically represent their situation, both they and I are pleasantly surprised. Seventy percent of their lives are quite positive, and only 30% is in need of change. “Things are already improving!” I point out. And they really do feel better. Nothing on the outside has changed, but somehow the entire situation feels different, more approachable, less scary.
The “magic” of the “magic solution” is that change really only ever happens in the present, in our own minds, not in some future moment. But naturally, the next question from clients is how to deal with the 30% negative. I often ask them to continue the thought exercise with the following exploration: (read slowly)
→First, think about what percentage of your life’s energy you are currently devoting to “solving problems” and compulsively trying to change what is “wrong” or unacceptable;
→Okay, let’s say you’re using 80% of your energy on your problems, and that the overall positive/negative ratio in your life is 70/30 (these are very typical percentages);
→Then, do the math: if you are focusing 80% of your energy on fixing a 30% problem, and 20% of your energy on enjoying the 70% positive aspects, does this division of your life’s energy seem reasonable to you?
No one has ever answered yes; with percentages like these, the question is almost rhetorical. But these habits of attention and problem-focusing are often so deeply ingrained that it takes a strong decision, a real commitment to change them. Such as: I will reasonably allow myself to use 10% of my time to actively work on solving my 30% problems. Each person must determine the right ratio for himself, and it’s usually a fluid number, changing with life circumstances and with practice. Then it takes practice to use that 10% wisely. With clients, we celebrate that since they are engaged in the coaching process, they are already constructively using their 10%, so progress is being made in the present.
In reality, we need all of our mental, physical and emotional resources to construct positive change. If we use most of our energy focusing on “problems,” we exhuast ourselves and leave too little resources to imagine and construct the positive.
Our committment to changing the orientation of our focus from “problems” to “gratitude” is so important because it makes positive change for the first time really possible. Gratitude helps us evaluate our situation more honestly, makes us aware of the good in our lives and lets us be creative rather than compulsive when facing the more difficult aspect of our lives. With a gratitude approach, time slows down and we enjoy the process (of resolving the difficult aspects) as much as the goal (their resolution). And eventually, the “how” of the process of the “magic solution” reveals itself fully: the journey we take to our goals is an internal experience of ourselves; how we take the journey determines how we experience ourselves.