Monday, March 28, 2011

Focusing on What We Have: An Exercise in Building Gratitude

I don't know how many of my readers have spent time with small children, but I have done a lot of that recently, and it is giving me some interesting insights into the world. Here's a phenomenon that struck a strong chord with me.

A child is playing happily, focused on the toy in their hands. In the room are other toys, many of which have been ignored by this child for days or weeks. And then a second child enters the room and picks up one of the ignored toys. As soon as the second child's hands touch the toy, the first child (who, let's remember, was happy moments ago) is in immediate distress. "Why can't I have that one?" "We need another one." Their initial happiness is completely forgotten, lost in the longing for "something else."

It would be easy to brush this off as a childish issue. Point out developmental milestones, wonder secretly if these were really spoiled children. But here's the deal. I see this with adults all the time. "Why does she get a partner and I am alone?" "Why does he have a good job and I'm stuck in this one?" "Why can't my house/car/clothes be as nice as hers?" "Why can't I be taller/thinner/curvier/more muscular?" Sound familiar?

I am not sure what the reason for this hyper-focus on the experiences or possessions of others is. Maybe it is because of our media-soaked consumer culture. Or maybe it is because many of us are struggling with insecurity that we try to mask by focusing on what others have. Regardless of why it happens, the experience of focusing on what we don't have is a common thread for many of my clients. I know that it is an experience I have had.

Here's the problem. When what we notice is what others have, we are constantly in a state of loss, absence, & longing. The focus on others and their situations means that we are not experiencing our own lives. We are missing the joys and blessings that are mixed in with our challenges.

The irony of this is that, right this minute, someone is looking at us and thinking, "Why can't I have what she has?" Someone is focusing on our life and missing their own.

So, I invite you to try an experiment with me. When you're done reading this post, spend 1-10 minutes focusing exclusively on what you have. That might be a job, a friend, a pet, a book, the ability to walk or run without pain . . . the list is endless. I know that if you are reading this post from a place of pain, I'm asking you to do something challenging. I believe in you. You don't need to be thrilled with your whole life. Just look for one thing that you have--right now. Celebrate it. Focus on it. For this couple of minutes, let it define your attitude.

Try repeating this for a week--at least one minute per day. Feel free to check back with me in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook. I hope that you find yourself in a place of deeper calm and self-appreciation.