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Nate’s Notes 6: Gratitude

By March 7, 2021June 8th, 2023No Comments

Every few months I look at one of my favorite spreadsheets titled, “Life by Months.” The spreadsheet consists of 912 small boxes, organized in 12 columns and 76 rows. The 12 columns represent the number of months in a year, and the 76 rows represent the average life expectancy for men. In other words, the spreadsheet is a visual representation of my life, and specifically, how many months I’m expected to live. But what I especially like about the spreadsheet is that every month the spreadsheet automatically grays out one of the boxes, making it easy to see how many months I’ve lived relative to how many months I hopefully have left.

When I show this spreadsheet to my students, I always hear several audible gasps. I ask them to raise their hands if they think I’m nuts for having a spreadsheet like this, and most students raise their hands. But inevitably a few students send me an email after class asking for a copy.

The spreadsheet makes most people uncomfortable because most people don’t like to think about their own mortality.  But for me, the spreadsheet is especially meaningful for another reason—the spreadsheet taps into a philosophy of life that is more than 2000 years old—a philosophy that has been called a paradoxical recipe for happiness, a philosophy practiced by Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Arelius. The philosophy I’m referencing is Stoicism.

Stoicism, is frequently, but incorrectly, thought of us a religion. However, whereas religions are primarily concerned with guiding people to a good afterlife, Stoicism is primarily concerned with guiding people to a good life. In other words, Stoicism is a philosophy for living, aimed at helping people flourish.

When some people think about Stoicism, they immediately think that Stoicism requires people to banish all emotions. But the goal of Stoicism isn’t to ban all emotions, but rather to ban the negative emotions that keep us from flourishing. Abraham Lincoln was tapping into Stoic philosophy when he wisely said, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  What is really foolish, claimed the Stoic philosophers, is to spend life in self-induced dissatisfaction when satisfaction lies within our grasp by simply changing our thought patterns.

And one of the primary ways Stoicism helps people flourish is by helping people be grateful.

Many of us have been confronted with the simple question of whether the glass if half full or half empty. The pessimist focuses on what they don’t have and sees the glass as half empty. The stoic, however, sees the glass as half full. But that is only the beginning for the Stoic. The Stoic delights in the glass itself…delights in its durability, functionality, and beauty. The glass is smooth to the touch and has no taste. It doesn’t leak, it doesn’t break easily, and wonder of wonders…we can see through the glass to see what’s inside of it. The Stoic also recognizes how convenient it is to walk to the sink, press a lever, and watch clean water, nearly free water, flow from the tap in a seemingly endless supply. Finally, the Stoic appreciates that the glass still has water in it, as the glass will inevitably be empty someday, and that the glass is not broken, as it will inevitably break someday. So yes, the glass is half full to the Stoic. But the Stoic derives infinitely more pleasure from the glass of water than simply recognizing that it’s half full. In terms of increasing happiness and flourishing, viewing the glass in the Stoic way is like picking up free money, so to speak. Anyone can claim this extra happiness every time they drink a glass of water.

What the Stoic understands is that nothing in life is guaranteed, and therefore, we can derive satisfaction from the simplest of pleasures. And three primary ways we can gain satisfaction out of simple pleasures is to 1) use negative visualization 2) learn to want the things we have, and 3) expose ourselves to voluntary discomfort.

Negative visualization refers to the practice of thinking about what we have, and then visualizing our lives without those things. For example, as we go about our day, simply reflecting on the fact that we will not live forever can help us appreciate the moments that we do have. Using negative visualization helps us remember that whenever we do something, it could very well be the last time we do it, and therefore it endows each behavior with an intensity and significance that would otherwise be lacking. Another way to think about negative visualization is that it helps us not take our good fortune for granted.  For example, think about two fathers: one who periodically practices negative visualization by thinking about his child’s mortality, reflecting on how much he would miss his child if the child were not his. Compare that to the father who only thinks positive thoughts about his child and refuses to acknowledge the child’s mortality. Which of the two fathers will be more grateful when they see their child each morning? I think the answer is self-evident. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, reminds parents that children are only given to us “for the present, not inseparably, not forever.” Remembering this truth can help us be more grateful for the blessings we have today.

Though it may seem unnatural to practice negative visualization, most of us already participate in it, at least in some form. For example, prayers, such as saying grace before a meal, can be a form of negative visualization. It is a moment to acknowledge that not everyone has food, that we have been fasting since our last meal, that we ourselves may not have food in the future, and so we are grateful, in that moment, for the food we do have.

A second way Stoics promote gratitude and happiness is by learning to want the things they have, rather than always wanting new things. The problem with always wanting new things, is that as soon as we get a new thing, a new desire will pop into our head and take it’s place. As a result, if we always strive for new things, we can get caught in an endless cycle of desiring new things, acquiring new things, adapting to those new things, and then desiring more new things. For example, lottery winners tend to see a bump in their happiness in the short run, but in the long run end up about as happy as they were before winning the lottery. This suggests that if we attain the life of our dreams, we will eventually adapt ourselves to our new circumstances, we will eventually start taking them for granted, and we will eventually start chasing new dreams. By always spending our time thinking about things we don’t have we are prone to be dissatisfied. But by thinking about all of the great things we have, and routinely imagining our life without those things, we are much more likely to be satisfied.

Chasing, and then achieving, the life of our dreams…especially if that life is a life of luxury, also has an important side effect… it may prevent us from taking pleasure in simple things. For example, if we get used to eating the finest foods we face the danger of being unable to savor a bowl of chicken noodle soup for example. If we get used to traveling in only the finest cars, we face the danger of being unable to appreciate the miracle of automobile travel in and of itself.  By undermining our ability to enjoy simple pleasures in life, we undermine our ability to enjoy life and find happiness.

A third way Stoics promote gratitude is by intentionally exposing themselves to voluntary discomfort. For example, exposing ourselves to uncomfortable temperatures by taking a cold shower or sitting in a hot sauna, is a form of voluntary discomfort. In the same way that rest is especially satisfying after a long hard day, or a drink of cold water is especially satisfying after a long hot run, intentionally exposing ourselves to discomfort increases our appreciation for our comforts. For example, I always enjoy sitting at my desk in the winter and looking out the window at the cold white snow. But to really appreciate the warmth of my office, I need to walk outside in the cold for a time and then return to the warmth.

We might be tempted to think that the best way to be comfortable is to avoid discomfort at all cost. The Stoic, however, believes that to truly be comfortable, we must experience discomfort. And furthermore, by exposing ourselves to frequent discomfort, we simultaneously expand our comfort zone, allowing us to be comfortable in situations in which others would be uncomfortable. Stoics aren’t the only ones who recommend voluntary discomfort, however. Religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Judaism, all prescribe voluntary discomfort in the form of periodic fasting. Food is never so satisfying as it is after a long fast.

Exposing ourselves to voluntary discomfort also has an additional benefit besides just helping us be more grateful. By periodically experiencing discomforts, we can develop confidence in our ability to withstand discomforts. And if we are confident in our ability to withstand discomforts, we need not fear the discomforts we may have to face in the future. In the words of Seneca, “If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”

In summary practicing negative visualization, learning to want the things we have, and exposing ourselves to voluntary discomfort will help us flourish. In other words, looking at my 912 boxes and recognizing that I might not be able to gray them all out, but being grateful for every single box I have grayed out, will make me happier.

In the words of Seneca from 2000 years ago, “everything we have is “on loan” from fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission—indeed even without advance notice.” Thus, we should, strive, in every moment, to be grateful for what we have.

In summary, kids, please be grateful like the Stoics.

It’s a simple idea, please take it seriously.

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