Personal Hack: Becoming Genuinely Thankful

There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that being thankful greatly improves the quality of one’s life.

Living a happy and fulfilling life must be pretty easy then, right? Just think of each of your possessions and friends, followed by a mental, “Thank you.”

This was my initial perception of what thankfulness meant. So every now and then I’d close my eyes and start going down the list. I’d open my eyes expecting to feel liberated and fulfilled. Unfortunately, it never happened. The exercise was superficial.

A few months ago, I tried something new. I’m no expert, but this experiment has caused me to take a huge leap towards being genuinely thankful. It involved three changes in behavior: (1) Stop worrying about who to thank, (2) be in the right mental state, and (3) “trick” the mind by using happiness as a bridge to thankfulness.

Stop worrying about who to thank

My first problem was not knowing who I was thanking. I’m traditionally Jewish and believe in some kind of higher power, but can’t put my finger on exactly what that is. My general beliefs are:

  • Stuff happens for a reason.
  • You can’t connect the dots looking forward, only backwards (thanks Steve).
  • If you work really hard and are kind, amazing things will happen (thanks Conan).
  • Worrying about things you can’t control only leads to anxiety and unhappiness (thanks Stoicism / Epictetus).

You could say my belief system is a mix of karma, Judaism, philosophy, and science. There’s no singular person or being to “thank,” which caused me focus on the wrong thing. I stopped focusing on the “who” once I realized it was getting in the way of my goal to become more thankful.

When I let go of who I was thanking, it relieved some subtle anxiety related to belief systems, which allowed me to focus on my goal of being thankful.

Be in the right mental state

Trying to be thankful in an anxious state is like trying to get work done in an anxious state. It doesn’t work. You’re mind darts in every direction and nothing of substance is accomplished.

Nearly a year ago, I started meditating twice a day. Each meditation is followed with a two minute rest period where no mantra is mentally recited. For the first few months of meditating, I focused on deep breathing during the rest period.

Then I tried something new. About a month ago, I started thinking about my family during the rest period. Nothing too concentrated. I’d just visualize a quick image of each family member (even pets!) doing something that’s made me smile at some point.

Counterintuitively, I did not think about how thankful I was for each person. Something changed almost immediately from this point forward.

Use happiness to get to thankfulness (and vice versa)

That last point was the key. I removed the concept of thankfulness from my brain and replaced it with happiness or a sense of joy.

I’m happy that I have a small, loving family.

I’m happy that I’m in a privileged position compared to most other people in the world.

I’m happy that my dog resembles a miniature human-monkey-sloth hybrid.

Before I knew it, I had tricked myself into being genuinely thankful for these things that I was happy about. My thought process was something like: “I’m happy because these people/things are in my life…and I’m thankful for that.” The concepts became interchangeable.

Turns out that happiness and gratitude are tightly linked. Most studies conclude gratitude leads to happiness. My experience, however, was was vice versa. I think this was because I was suffering from gratitude “fatigue.” Or maybe gratitude “superficiality” is a better way to put it.

A lot of these studies on gratitude included tactics for self improvement, but they felt superficial and didn’t stick when I tried them. Keeping a gratitude journal just isn’t for me (not against trying again sometime).

Going forward, I plan to experiment with other things to be grateful for (surroundings, work, random things throughout the day, etc). These might be better topics to start off with for people who don’t have the best relationship with their family. Thinking of family members happens to work for me because I have a good relationship with them, which I’m quite thankful for. Heyo!