We’ve all heard the secret to happiness is gratitude. I love gratitude! Experts tell us to keep gratitude journals, and spend time each day reflecting on at least 3 things you are grateful for. But what if your gratitude work is like trying to dilute the salty ocean by adding buckets of fresh water? I'm here to tell you that your efforts are never going to get you to the deep levels of happiness that the experts are talking about.
This is a big bold statement, so how can I be so confident taking this position? Because, I am like a human guinea pig in the test laboratory of life and my experiences have taught me some important and sometimes painful lessons. Surprisingly, I discovered my lifestyle was actually taking me further and further away from the fulfillment I really wanted. I had a lifestyle many would think is awesome but it turned out not to be. This discovery for me, took many years, and now my esteemed colleague Lynn Sumida and I have been diving deeply into the formula that creates real fulfillment and lasting joy. We’ve been unearthing core elements and the missing pieces in this equation.
But before we get into what Lynn and I have learned, let’s start with the bigger picture to get the proper context on this topic. In North America we have a lifestyle and an economy that runs on consumerism. Consumerism is defined as a social and economic order that encourages an acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. Governments measure how well the country is doing financially by its Gross Domestic Product -GDP. An economy that runs on consumerism means the majority of the GDP is created by citizens (consumers) continually spending money on goods and services in order to drive the country's economic engine. In Canada, consumer spending accounts for nearly 57% of GDP*1. Our government and corporations need the citizens, you and me, to keep spending money, otherwise the system will collapse. (We can see the need for consumerism, at a global level. as an example, the coronavirus is stopping production, creating uncertainty and interfering with people's spending patterns, causing major disruptions on the world economic stage).
What does this have to with gratitude and fulfillment? I believe most people’s sense of fulfillment is impacted profoundly by the world they live in. We are inundated with manipulative advertisements and rhetoric designed to make you think you’re lacking something. You are sold a “story” – “To be happy, feel good about yourself and fit with the “cool crowd” you need more new stuff”. This marketing strategy targets two fundamental human fears: “will I fit in and “Am I good enough”. This marketing promotes the belief that something outside of you is needed for you to feel better or be better. Once you get lost in this story you develop unconscious behaviours to feel okay and “become good enough”. All of this drives a cycle of consumption that has people buying far more than they need. This compulsive consumption cycle reinforces feelings of anxiety, dissatisfaction, isolation, comparison, and lack, all of which exacerbate the issue.
I could have been a “poster child” for all of this. Most of my life I’ve been chasing and striving to get “more”. My chasing was fueled by a strong desire for financial success. Because of this I’ve enjoyed many monetary achievements and been able to explore over 40 countries around the world. As I look back, I remember people regularly saying to me “I wish I had your life.” I get it, from the outside my life looked fantastic, money was always flowing my way, I was adventure traveling to the hottest spots around the globe, going to all the fancy restaurants, clubs, and hotels. My life was straight out of the movies. When I was fully in the fast paced, big money lifestyle, I believed I was happy. What could be better, right?
Before I dig into the downsides that come with that lifestyle, I want to acknowledge that you might be thinking “Ya, that’s easy for you to say, you’ve already experienced all of that. Let me have those experiences and then I’ll decide.” I thought the same thing in my past but If you were thinking something like that, I invite you to pause for a minute to look at your thoughts and where they were coming from? Did your thoughts come from a place of “I wish I had that”, a sense of longing that suggests you are lacking something external that would bring you happiness?
In a nutshell the biggest downside to the fast and exorbitant lifestyle I lived, was “the endless need for more external “things””.
My fast-paced lifestyle had me mindlessly using up money, carelessly wasting relationships and simply unconsciously devouring time (the most valuable resource we have in life). I was a consumption monster buzzing ahead with a narrow-minded focus on gobbling up more, and needing the newest and next best thing. In hindsight I recognize my lifestyle and the behaviours aligned with the saying “been there, done that, and got the t-shirt.”. Although from the outside it seemed I was living a life that many would people desire, in reality I was just checking off boxes on my mental list of “things I must see and do.” My noisy lifestyle of speeding through experiences, wanting to do as much as I could, didn’t leave enough time to stop and truly digest my moments, to be fully present with my experiences. Without slowing down and doing less, my capacity to appreciate had become extremely limited. While I was in this compulsive consumption lifestyle, appreciation and fulfillment could only be experienced in short bursts of happiness that quickly faded and were easily forgotten.
In my journey out of this I’ve searched for anything that could bring me happiness in a different way. Of course, I knew about gratitude, and I was grateful. I knew I had it “good” by many people’s standards. But gratitude didn’t really penetrate deeply enough for me. You could say that was just my experience, or you could read on as I share what I discovered about gratitude and appreciation.
What is the difference between gratitude and appreciation?
It could be said I am splitting hairs and that gratitude and appreciation are the same. Maybe for you that’s true. In my exploration I’ve experienced a significant difference which I want to share with you.
Let’s begin with the definitions:
Gratitude, in the dictionary is defined as “showing or expressing thanks, especially to another person, for benefits received”.
Gratitude can be an exercise of “being thankful for.” At times, gratitude can even seem like an obligation that carries a sense of guilt. “You should be grateful”.
Appreciation has many definitions. From our experience, Lynn and I define it as a felt sense that happens when you increase the value of something by slowing down to be present with it, and acknowledging its intrinsic worth.
Another way to express it might be - Appreciation is a felt experience that arises in you when you look beyond the surface to reveal the innate value and discover the magic in the moment.
“There is a moment when appreciation bubbles up in your body. It is a visceral experience, an internal expansion of joy that goes beyond your thoughts and mind.” - Lynn Sumida
One of the most spectacular things about these moments of appreciation is they stay with you forever. You can recall them any time you want, replay them in your mind, and you will re-experience the glorious emotional flood of JOY. And you can relive these experiences by sharing the stories with your friends.
Both gratitude and appreciation are very important in creating a joyful and fulfilled life. I focus on appreciation because it goes beyond something “you are thankful for” and creates a more elevated experience by expanding your connection to its innate worth, knowing it has great value simply because it exists. Appreciation can bring a richness that, even for the briefest of moments, fulfills all your needs and leaves you desireless.
In the absence of appreciation and gratitude a sense of lack expands into a deep inner void. This leads us to search for ways to fill the void by seeking "more" and can create an unquenchable feedback loop that gets us stuck in the compulsive consumption cycle. When we combine a mindset of lack and unhealthy competition, like “keeping up with the Jones”, it sets a trap that distorts our perceptions. Many of us measure our quality of life by the ways people around us are living. We are greatly influenced by the neighbourhood we live in (or want to live in), by our colleagues at work, by our family’s standards, by our friend’s lifestyles. Our successes and failures are largely based on what is relative, in our life experiences.
When I lay it out like this it seems the problem starts the “absence of appreciation and gratitude”. Although this observation would be partly correct, it misses the bigger issue. If you simply go back and attempt to increase your appreciation and gratitude once you are unconsciously lost inside the compulsive consumption cycle you will be mostly unsuccessful. Once your perception is distorted by this compulsive cycle you have effectively, although unwittingly, diminished your capacity for appreciation, gratitude and joy. Simply focusing on rebuilding those qualities will not be enough to overcome the addictive behaviour patterns.
What blocks you from deeper levels of appreciation, gratitude and fulfillment?
When I was living that “big life”, I told myself I was happy and I believed it. If you had put me on a polygraph and I would have passed with flying colours. The truth was I was ignorant. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was too busy chasing the next best thing and being distracted by the accessories of life. Underneath all of my world travel, wealth creation, alcohol consumption, and sexual exploits, was my unconscious avoidance of an inner sense of emptiness. I had built up so many walls around my heart that I was numb to the real joys of life. I had lost touch with the simple things that brought natural joy to me as a child, I had forgotten the things that really matter in life and I didn’t even know it.
Compulsive consumption is an overindulgence underpinned by carelessly wasting, mindlessly using up, or devouring something. This leads to taking things for granted and an endless cycle of wanting more, “never enough” and addiction. Consumption can be experienced by carelessly wasting relationships, unconsciously devouring time, and/or mindlessly using up money, products, and services.
It is built on the belief that something outside of you is needed for you to feel better or be better.
“It is a mystery to me; we have a greed with which we have agreed. You think you have to want more than you need, until you have it all you won’t be free. Society, you are a crazy breed.” – Eddie Vedder’s song “Society”
We can easily see how this compulsive consumption cycle is affecting today's youth as technology steals their attention and time away from the things that really matter in life. There is plenty of research that shows how the internet has created a global community while paradoxically increasing a sense of alienation and isolation. We’ve all experienced what this looks like. Perhaps it was a birthday party, a lunch with a group of friends, or a Christmas holiday celebration and people were distracted by their cell phones. How many times have you been out for a bite to eat and looked around only to see another table of people where most of them were giving their time and attention to their cell phones instead of each other? On the surface these behaviours can seem disrespectful, ignorant, or cold and distant. Why is this happening?
I learned that without slowing down, and simplifying my life, to stop the unconscious and compulsive consumption cycles, I would never be able to have the levels of inner peace, contentment and joy I experience today. It is simply not possible to fully develop your capacity for appreciation and fulfillment when you are focused on external validations and believe your happiness comes from the outside of you.
What can you do about it?
How can you expand your capacity for deeper appreciation, and greater fulfillment??
Are you ready to look at your lifestyle? To discover where you could be caught in a consumption cycle?? Are you ready to shift your attention to new ways of being that create time for what really matters most?
The first step is to increase your awareness by taking a good look at yourself and your behaviour patterns.
1. Self-assess - Pause to recognize your unconscious or compulsive consumption behaviour patterns. Behaviour is a form of communication, what is your behavior saying? Look deeply at yourself and ask; Why do you need this? Am I identifying who I am with something, if so what? Does this behaviour bring me instant gratification, short term satisfaction, or long-term well-being and quality of life?
The second step is to take personal responsibility for yourself and your happiness. You choose everything you do.
2. Choose to take personal ownership of your life. Understand your happiness is not found outside of you. Where are you not taking ownership of yourself, of your behaviours? What is your part in creating this situation? How are your beliefs impacting your behaviours? * How do you want to show up in life?
The third step is to increase your willingness and commitment to simplifying your life.
3. Simplify, slow down, be patient, meditate, find balance, “make the normal super”. How can you simplify and slow down the speed of your life? What does it look like? Why do you want it? What will you do to get it?
The answers are within you. Appreciation and gratitude will bring your life enormous joy, but ONLY AFTER you change your lifestyle and break your unconscious compulsive consumption behaviours. AND replace your belief that happiness, fulfillment and lasting joy come from outside of you.
How are your beliefs impacting your behaviours?
*Belief work can be difficult because most people are unaware of their deeper beliefs. If you really want big change to happen quickly in your life, I highly recommend doing some work to uncover and change your limiting beliefs. My colleague, Lynn Sumida, is an expert in this area and has two powerful programs that will allow you to have experiential learning and transformative change. Success Beyond Beliefs*2 and Prime Potential*3
2. http://miruspoint.com/what-we-do/success-beyond-beliefs/ (Lynn Sumida - Success Beyond Beliefs)
3. http://miruspoint.com/what-we-do/prime-potential/ (Lynn Sumida - Prime Potential)
By Jeff Brown I am a mindset coach who works with men. My online programs deal directly with the 3 of these steps, as well as other important tools for developing personal success.