Get Off the Treadmill - The Power of Gratitude

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I am not much into science fiction, but during a recent long flight I decided to watch the movie “Passengers.” The movie is about a 120-year journey to a new planet, transporting thousands of people in hibernation who abandoned everyone and everything on Earth for a new life. Two of the passengers are awakened 90 years too soon.  That is all I will say, as I don’t want to spoil the movie for you.

What I will say, though, is that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and the quote below caught my attention: 

You can’t get so hung up on where you’d rather be that you forget to make the most of where you are.”  -- Aurora (played by Jennifer Lawrence).

That got me to think about my own life, and how many times I simply watched my life go by while I waited for some future magic event to happen which would change my life and make me happy. This could be a long-awaited trip to a dream place, moving to a new home, buying a new bike, getting a new job, the latest gadget, etc.

Every time there is always the expectation, the excitement, the planning, something to look for. Then the big day finally comes, and I am ecstatic, I'm so excited that I can't even sleep. I talk about it,  take photos,  share them with friends and family, post on social media, and life is good.

Time goes by and I resume my regular life. All the newness, all the memories, start to blend into my daily routine, and I adapt to my new circumstances. Life goes back to what it used to be before the big event. And I start taking things for granted. And I start looking for the next thing so that I can repeat the whole cycle over again.  So, what happened?

Psychology calls the above "hedonic treadmill," which is the human tendency to always return to the happiness baseline (or set point) after an event (positive or negative) has happened. That happens because we quickly adapt to life's circumstances, and these big events simply blend with the background of our lives.

While we are on this treadmill, though, we concentrate so much on what lays ahead and on our future happiness that we kind of forgo the most precious thing we have: the present moment. We get so hung up on where we want to be, where we want to go, on what we want to do, that we completely forget to enjoy what we have right at this very moment. We forget the make the most of where we are.

And we see our lives slipping away right in front of our eyes….

So, what can we do minimize the effects of the hedonic treadmill?  Practicing gratitude is a fantastic way to help us stay grounded in the moment, and allows us to become aware of all the good stuff we have right now, no matter how small it appears to be. It helps us to make the most of where we are.

According to Harvard Medical School, gratitude is "a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power."

Research shows that grateful people have more life satisfaction, have less negative self-preoccupation, have less stress, sleep better, and have improved overall sense of well-being. My own favorite ways to cultivate gratitude are:

  • Gratitude Journal - make it a practice to regularly write down 3 - 5 things you are grateful for. This can be as simple as expressing gratitude for the cup of coffee you had in the morning, to something bigger, such as your child's first step.
  • 3 Good Things - On a daily basis, write down 3 good things that happened to you over the last 24 hours and how you contributed to it. This will allow you to be more aware and mindful of the good things that happens to you, and will also give you the opportunity to notice how you are positively impacting your own life. Research shows that this exercise increases positive emotions and decreases negativity just after two weeks of practice.

And the best thing is that you can practice gratitude anytime, anywhere, and it costs nothing. The only requirement is that you must be willing to do it.  You have a lot to gain, and nothing to lose, so why not give it a go?

I have been practicing these gratitude exercises for a long time now, and I can tell you that my life is not the same. I feel I'm more in the present moment, more in tune with the good things in my life, and the urge to jump on the hedonic treadmill has diminished greatly. And I'm making the most of where I am. As a human being, though, it is quite possible that at some point I will falter, but I do know I will learn, recover, and will continue to improve as long as I stay on this path.

With gratitude.

References: In Praise of Gratitude, Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing, November 2011 - https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude