Gratitude vs. aspiration with added skydiving, poetry and a great big comfy sofa!

For six years my husband and I were lucky enough to live, and work in Sydney, Australia.  It was a wonderful, carefree time, and it was there that we had our three children; a daughter and then very shortly after twins.  When the twins were born I remember changing over 20 nappies a day, with chapped hands and not a lot of sleep! 

People often ask me how I coped at that time with three babies under 18 months.  A hands-on dad and a year’s maternity leave were helpful, but what kept me sane were huge gratitude and an appreciation for the small things in our chaotic life.

I remember making a choice to focus on performing the basics, as best as I could and then viewed anything else as an upside - a walk to look at the sea, a trip to the corner shop, moments when all three were asleep at the same time.  As many parents will relate to, it is a bit like being stuck in an endless endurance event but utterly, utterly joyful.  

And gratitude was key.

There are many definitions of gratitude and appreciation but here’s one for consideration:

Gratitude is the ability to see and appreciate good.  Appreciation is about being in the present; a mindfulness of what you are grateful of.  So I am grateful for a warm home, and I appreciate in the moment, the comfort, sanctuary, and safety that that warmth brings.

The value of gratitude has been written about through history, especially in religious teaching.  More recently there are an increasing number of studies linking gratitude and well being.  The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology noted that of all the big personality traits gratitude has the highest connection with happiness and mental health.

Back in 2003, Dr Robert Emmons, psychologist and leading expert on gratitude, conducted a study where a group of participants who recorded weekly gratitude journals, felt more optimistic, exercised more regularly and reported fewer physical symptoms than the group who diarised the negative aspects of their week. (Emmons & McCullough, 2003)

So gratitude breeds contentment, calmness, feeling grounded and all round loveliness, in me at least! 

However, last month I read an article that suggested that it might have its limitations.

What if gratitude and contentment were the soft velvet cushions on a great big comfy sofa and aspiration was squashed underneath?

 Can we be so content that we don’t push ourselves out of our comfort zone and discover a newer, even more luxurious seat?

My own experience made me wonder whether this could be true.

I recently had the opportunity to take part in three different activities that would be stretching for me, and I mentally said no to all of them.  

 I could go down many psychological avenues here but the one I chose to explore was the role of gratitude.  My life would still be amazing if I didn’t accept the three challenges, because I am grateful.  And this has been my internal justification or excuse dialogue. 

 (In case you’re interested, the three are; indoor-sky-diving, entering an obstacle race ('Tough Mudder' style); and performing poetry in a drama event.  None of these are extraordinarily stretching for me.  (You don’t need to look far in your own friends, families and communities to find a proper definition truly stretching.)  However I have a low level of fear of all of them:

  • Fear of tumbling around a large windy tube, in a blue jumpsuit with my cheeks flapping - Tick
  • Fear of being left at the bottom of a large muddy wall in tears -Tick
  • Fear of exposing true emotion on stage in front of my family, an audience and a judge - Big Tick

So I could say no and life absolutely continues.  

But what would happen if I said yes?  What will I get from pushing myself?  Will I achieve new levels of gratitude?

Dan Pink certainly thinks so.  In his book“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” (Riverhead, 2011) he writes of productive discomfort”.  Facing our fears involves discomfort, and from discomfort comes growth, and from growth comes motivation.  Add to that the fact that doing new things motivates and helps us learn on multiple levels.

This fits with the ideas you may read on operating outside your comfort zone.  The well-known diagram depicts us (well, me) sitting in the centre circle, on my sofa in the comfort zone.  If able, we stretch out to the next circle that is the learning zone, and if we go too far, we risk lurching towards the outside ring and into the panic zone.  It is in the learning zone that we grow, and potentially have more to be grateful for.

But if you are grateful, can you get out of the comfort zone?  

Dr Robert Emmons studied the link between gratitude and complacency, to respond to his detractors, who suggested that gratitude leads to laziness and lethargy, amongst other criticisms.  He found the opposite to be true; when people practiced gratitude consciously, e.g. using a journal, they were more successful in achieving their goals.  Their gratitude practice led to a sense of purpose and desire to do more.  This was amplified by the fact that his respondents felt more energised and in better health and therefore more able to achieve their goals.  

So it seems we can be grateful and be driven, and face our fears, and as proof I have signed up for my three challenges! 

I remain a big fan of gratitude - my glass is usually half full rather than half-empty - and this time I’m going to have a go at filling it to the brim and maybe, just maybe, joyfully letting it spill all over the floor, comfy sofa, cushions and all!

Post Script:

I have completed Challenge one and I have to admit I quite enjoyed indoor skydiving.  Despite obvious nerves, I was able to fly the right way up and I found the blue jumpsuit rather fetching!