Our first major challenge this year is to show gratitude for our blessings. This involves learning to be happy with what we have, focusing on the intangible qualities of the heart and soul, and finding happiness in those aspects of life that cannot be quantified. We discuss the reasons why we may engage in excess consumerism, and witness the power of gratitude from a gentle giant of the Earth. We explore the science of gratitude and the research that shows how being grateful makes us happier, healthier and less focused on materialism. We finally take inventory of our non-material assets.
Cultivating an attitude of gratitude takes our attention away from material objects and allows us to refocus our energies on identifying and expressing our unique gifts, developing our inner qualities, recognizing that we already lead abundant lives and finding happiness in simplicity and the small delights and joys of life.
Gratitude opens us up to a wider, larger experience and makes us less materialistic. A 2006 study found that grateful people may spend more time and energy on meaningful pursuits, developing relationships and leading lives of purpose, and less time and energy on striving to accumulate wealth and material possessions.
Is excessive consumption masking a deeper dis-satisfaction with life?
Excessive consumption may be a desperate attempt to fill a void inside of us. We have an ache in our heart or a yearning for something we can’t quite identify, so we try to fill this void with material objects. Unfortunately, advertising agencies know this, and they consciously market their products to our need to feel loved, desired and accepted. We are led to believe that if we only buy their products we will be happy, popular and attractive, as though who we are isn’t enough. We need to know we are worthwhile, valuable human beings regardless of what we own.
The 2006 study also explored the primary drivers behind materialism – insecurity and materialistic role models – and found that people who were insecure due to unmet basic psychological needs were more likely to be materialistic. Our lives are flooded with advertisements glorifying materialism and celebrity culture, while our current business models send us the message that striving to achieve wealth, power and success is a worthwhile goal.
Instead of looking for spiritual sustenance in material objects, identify what is missing in your life. Take a moment to listen closely and carefully to your heart to discover what it is you truly need. Excessive consumption is an addiction that is destroying the environment. Our current way of living is unsustainable in the long-term.
Learning the power of gratitude from an entangled whale
I want to share the remarkable true story of a humpback whale found entangled in several hundred feet and pounds of crab-pot fishing ropes and traps, in open water off the coast of San Francisco, nearly ten years ago, and how she taught her rescuers an incredible life lesson – the power of gratitude.
The fifty foot, fifty ton female was on the humpback whales’ migratory route along the United States west coast when she became caught. The ropes, wrapped tightly around her body, tail, flippers and mouth, were digging into her blubber. She was struggling from the heavy weight of the traps, trying to keep her blowhole out of the water.
The team of rescue divers called in to assist her knew the only way they could save her was to get into the water and untangle her by cutting the lines that bound her, a process that took several hours and required special curved knives. While the divers worked to free her, she floated in the water patiently, watching her rescuers.
When the whale was free, she began swimming in circles around the divers, and appeared to be clearly happy and joyous. She swam towards each one of them, gently nudging and nuzzling them in turn. The divers said she was very affectionate towards them and they felt she was thanking them for saving her.
The divers may have anthropomorphised the whale’s reaction, but it doesn’t matter. I think it’s their interpretation of her behaviour that’s important. If an outer event triggers a particular reaction within, it’s because the issue represented by that event is significant.
The divers said the experience was incredible, beautiful and life-changing. They were given some rare gifts – gratitude, humility and communion with another life form.
The science of gratitude
Does being grateful actually make us feel better and less focused on material things? Research suggests that it does.
Dr. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis found that people who make a conscious decision to be grateful and who see life as a gift experience many physical, psychological and social benefits, including:
- Improved emotional and physical health
- Stronger relationships and communities
- Increased ability to cope in a crisis
- Greater life satisfaction, empathy and humility
- Increased happiness, optimism and joy
- Lower levels of stress and depression
Other research supports Dr. Emmons’ findings. A 2002 study found that grateful people are more likely to believe in the interconnectedness of life. This finding may explain why divers felt a sense of connection with an entangled humpback whale. Gratitude and feeling connected to others seem to go hand in hand.
Dr. Emmons believes it is important to adopt a grateful attitude because grateful people have a different perspective on materialism – material objects become less important and they are less likely to judge success (either their own or others) in terms of accumulated possessions. The 2002 study also found that people with high levels of gratitude were more likely to have lower than average levels of materialism.
The University of Miami researchers who authored the 2006 study argued that gratitude reduced materialism and prevented the need to strive for materialistic goals as a way of coping with existential grief. They concluded gratitude and materialism were inversely related (negatively associated) and the relationship between these two factors may even be causal.
Taking inventory of our blessings
Some people living in Western countries may display a distinct lack of gratitude for our advantages. Every human being has a basic right to have easy access to nutritious food, potable water, clothing, adequate shelter and good health. We should be thankful every day for these blessings, because many people in the world don’t have these things. We must never take them for granted.
The purpose of this exercise is to get us thinking beyond the material, to appreciate the things in life that don’t have a price tag, and get us in touch with the non-material aspects of life that bring joy, instead of trying to satisfy our spiritual yearnings by purchasing things we don’t need.
Take a moment to think of five things to be grateful for, with one condition – they must be simple pleasures, not material things.
Here is my list:
- Swimming with dolphins
- My daily morning run
- Watching snails marching across a wet porch after rain
- Magenta cyclamens
- Reading a much-loved book a third time
We can continue this exercise daily by writing down our blessings in a gratitude journal or meditating on them before going to sleep.
Our inner qualities should define us, not the material objects we own. When we simplify our lives, we create more space for our true self to emerge, and we reduce the burden on the environment. Be grateful for the gift of life you were given and create an experience on this Earth filled with wonder, meaning and purpose.