The Gratitude State of Mind: Confronting the “Comparison Trap”
We hear “have an attitude of gratitude” a lot nowadays. Thinking about what we are grateful for is associated with a multitude of positive emotional and physical effects. I have some further thoughts about gratitude using my integrated approach. Why might gratitude be good for us?
In my opinion, we humans are meaning making beings. In order for us to act in a world so filled with ambiguous sensory and emotional information, our minds constantly organize our experience into packets of meaning. One very salient and well-worn meaning meme is comparison. From the time we are children, we learn to organize through comparison– that ball is bigger than this ball, that dog is younger than that other dog, etc. Soon these comparisons include us– that girl is older than me, that boy is taller than me, I have more toys than that kid. At some point the comparisons are not only factually meaningful, but emotionally meaningful and self-contextual as well: My thighs are bigger than that other woman’s thighs, he makes more money than me, I have a better house than she does, he has a better job than me, he is in better shape than me, my kids are doing so much better than theirs are. Even when we don’t articulate ourselves in the idiom of comparison, comparisons are often implicit in our thoughts about people and situations: Her child is out of control! (My child is much better behaved than hers). She looks really great for her age (Why don’t I look that good? Maybe I should get botox!). What a great house they have (Their house is so much nicer than ours). Following from all this meaning making comes a set of assumptions we make about ourselves based on our comparisons. “Look at her great career” becomes equated with “What did I do wrong? I’m a failure! I’ll never amount to anything”. Even comparisons where we appear in a positive light don’t seem to serve a developmental purpose: “Wow, look at that poor guy begging for money” can lead to feelings of contempt, guilt and unworthiness, as well as a sense of foreboding. When we rely so much on comparison to feel good about ourselves, we live in fear of losing it and without a deep sense of our own worth separate from our comparisons. We fall apart and lose a good sense of ourselves when we are stung by what Shakespeare terms the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. The comparison trap that many of us live in is not healthy and satisfying since placing ourselves in a hierarchy, no matter how high in we are in it, can never lead to long-term feelings of self-confidence and happiness. We are driven to move up the ladder or to desperately maintain our place toward the top, always terrified of falling. We don’t develop a sense of who we are and what our values are, separate from our comparisons to other people.
Not all of us live this way however, and I’m sure you know people who follow their own hearts and rhythms without seeming to compare themselves to others. And, of course you compare yourself to them! “They are so much more together than I am, so much more confident, they really know themselves”. These people are probably more likely to experience gratitude, as they take life and themselves for what they are and develop themselves based on their own needs and values. The people who easily experience gratitude are those who don’t live in comparisons and who don’t develop broad generalizations about themselves based on comparisons.
I am however talking to those of us (including myself) who are “graditudinally-challenged”. When we exercise gratitude in a growth enhancing way, we don’t compare ourselves to others. We don’t say (hopefully), “I’m grateful that I am not as loserish as Joe” or “I am grateful that I have better kids than Linda” or “I am grateful that my family is not as screwed up as Dana’s”. These comments don’t express a feeling of gratitude, but demonstrate cognitive calculation or measurement, which doesn’t reach deep into our hearts. Gratitude is a feeling based on our relationship with ourselves or if spiritually inclined, with our maker or the universe. It is thanks for what we have received, not who we believe we are– it is a feeling that is not focused on the self, but is focused on what has come to us from the universe. In the moments when we allow ourselves to feel gratitude for what we have, we feel it separately from any sort of comparison matrix and just feel good about what we experience as satisfying in our lives. When I truly feel gratitude for the food I get to eat everyday, I don’t think in that moment about the starving guy on the street or that Mario Batali is probably having a better Thanksgiving meal than I am! I just let myself feel a grateful warmth for my food. So, gratitude gets us out of the comparison trap. Now sometimes we do think of the people who are starving when we are feeling gratitude, but in the gratitude state of mind we don’t necessarily compare ourselves to others. We more likely feel compassion for them, rather than comparison with them.
The gratitude state of mind is an open, receptive and accepting state of mind conducive to growth and satisfaction. That is probably why exercising gratitude is associated with specific measurable positive outcomes in mood. The comparison state of mind calculates and measures, and as categorizing tool, may create a narrowed and more rigid mind state that inhibits growth and good feelings. So, keep practicing your attitude of gratitude and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
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