Developing and Maintaining Gratitude

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As I reflect back on 2020, a year that was tough on human civilisation as a whole, I am nevertheless grateful for the many positive experiences of this year. This post is not a ‘humblebrag’ or a denial of the many negative things of 20201, but rather a brief recipe and reminder to my future self to (further) develop and maintain an attitude of gratitude. This post is written in the form of questions that I used to ask myself, as well as the current set of answers I came up with. It is my hope that readers will find some wisdom here.

Why should I be grateful? Because, fundamentally, your life is not about you. At least, it is not just about you. You are interacting2 with so many other people and doing a lot of things on a daily basis. You take all of this for granted—until it is not available any more. So why not make an effort to be cognisant of their positive impact in your life?

Can I choose to be grateful? Yes, you can (see below for more concrete tips). It is not built into most of us—and as the last year mercilessly demonstrated, we often take things for granted, until they are gone, and only then do we start bemoaning their loss.

But is focusing on the positive not a denial of the negative? Our brains are—at best—capable of producing medium-fidelity representations of events in our lives, told from our perspective. While some parts of our memory are more reliable than others, we are still plagued by ‘bugs’ such as the misinformation effect. Hence, why not make use of this and deliberately store the positive things? In my experience, negative events, such as the loss of a loved on or a severe illness, do not need additional reinforcement to be remembered. But the small stuff, such as receiving a nice ‘Thank you’ note, will probably fall through the cracks. So, without denying that bad things happen, why not pay attention to the positive ones?

Will gratitude not stymie my efforts? This is a though one that I admittedly wrestled with for a long time. If I am grateful for what I already have, will I not stop wanting to be more? Setting aside the question of whether it is useful to want ‘more’, I realised that gratitude also brings a certain amount of clarity with it. For example, I realised how grateful I was for the interactions with my colleagues and students this year. This gave me a good idea of how large I want my future research group to be—so in this sense, I now know that I do not necessarily require a larger group, but this does not stifle my application efforts or my research efforts in the slightest. On the contrary: it makes me appreciate the time I can spend on these things even more! I think that it is possible to be grateful for what you have, and still aspire to improve your skills, your life situation, your relationships, and so on.

How to be grateful and remain it? Living on the command-line and in vim for many of my working and waking hours, the easiest solution for me is to have a file in which I can journal things I am grateful for. This could be anything, from having a nice cup of coffee while reading a well-written paper in the garden to receiving a nice e-mail about my research or blog, thus reminding me that this is not a solipsist adventure3. Put everything in there whenever you are moved to do so, and after a few months, you can go back and re-read the list—I promise you that you will be positively surprised!

As a parting thought, I can also encourage you to be included in other people’s gratitude files: do not hesitate to express your gratitude to those that helped you, inspired you, and went out of their way to support you in any way!4 With that, I wish you a blessed 2021. May of all you find lots of things to be grateful about. Until next time!

  1. And for all of us, there were plenty of these! ↩︎

  2. Maybe not in person, but certainly through other media… ↩︎

  3. One of my (many) blind spots is not being aware of the impact that even a short positive e-mail or tweet can have on people. Keeping track of these things is a powerful reminder. ↩︎

  4. I am the first to admit that I do not do this often enough, hence this post as a reminder. ↩︎