Much is written about the hard, brutal truths of life. Yet people spend so little time acknowledging the beauty around them. Instead, they drown themselves in ancient embarrassments and dwell on feuds from years past. They are sole spectators of long-forgotten failures.
Gratitude is one of the very few things research strongly and consistently associates with greater happiness. Our lives are immersed in blessings that go unnoticed and uncelebrated. One can only appreciate beauty by choosing to see it.
The very concept of life
It’s estimated that more than 100 billion people have ever lived. Today, the living number around 7.8 billion. In our Solar System alone, the percentage of living matter is vanishingly small. The number is buried many zeroes to the right of a decimal place.
And not only that, you are a human. Of all the creatures you could have been born as, you are the most privileged in history, with internet, air conditioning, advanced medicine, and airplanes. You could have been born a herbivore in the Sahara, surrounded by predators.
You and I share a membership in this profoundly exclusive and incredible club. Anytime I think about this fact, I am filled with calm and wonder. Somehow life sprung into being through some sheer fluke of science, or perhaps the hand of God. Against a cold and dark universe, each of us breathes and pulses with millions of chemical reactions, with trillions of cells all working together to keep us alive.
Yet humanity still to finds goofy, superficial reasons to fight, judge, and hurt each other. People forget we all share this one, incredible thing. So as you go out into this world, remember the gift of life you have been given, and that you share it with your peers. Saying that we are one is not a platitude. It is amazing and true.
My trip to prison
In my senior year of high school, we went on a “scared straight” field trip to a local prison. The entire point was to show us how our life could turn out. We walked down halls and saw inmates in their actual cells, toiling away, bored, staring at walls, taking naps. It was a jarring visual, a future available to any free person.
I sometimes look back and picture the realities of spending an entire life in those cells. You’d have to use a toilet out in the open. You’d have guards walking by your cell every hour. There’d be noise all night from shouting prisoners. You’d eat prison food the rest of your life. You’d have to get into fights. You’d spend 23 hours a day in that cell.
This grim meditation has the unexpected effect of making the world come to life around me. There are no bars on my windows. I can leave the room I sit in. I can sip on a coffee and read a book by my window while it rains. I can see my dog wag his tail like he hasn’t seen me in years. I can shower alone and crawl into my clean sheets after a long day. I have privacy. I can sit on the beach with my girlfriend and drink a beer and talk about life. Take a moment to recognize that freedom is a powerful gift and it isn’t afforded to everyone.
You don’t actually have many problems with people
My ex-girlfriend used to rage behind the wheel. She would shout and curse at people who cut her off. The first time I rode with her I was totally caught off-guard by it. I wondered if I was dating a crazy person and I was just now seeing her dark side. Her road feuds were all anchored in a false assumption.
It’s as Hanlon’s Razor asserts, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.” It speaks to our tendency to see the world through an overly adversarial lens.
Go forward and assume innocent ignorance and foolishness rather than aggression. It’s an exercise in optimism, which is proven to be good for your health and happiness.
For example, think back to a time you might have been rude to a stranger or employee. Perhaps you felt bad about it after the fact. I can think of two cases where I was unfairly rude. The first happened with a store employee, two minutes after getting into a huge fight with my wife. The other was when I was very stressed and fatigued. It didn’t excuse the behavior. I regret it. But it gives context when strangers are rude or hostile towards me.
Most human beings don’t have it out for us. In fact, despite what is often said, science already shows that we aren’t inherently selfish. We are literally programmed to work together. People care about the welfare of others more than we realize. Choose to see people with kindness and empathy. Every stranger could have been you, seeing the world through their eyes.
For the next 10 days, I challenge each of you to practice gratitude. The next time you have a negative thought, swap it out for something positive. And if you so choose, try one of these three.
Recap for memory: three beautiful things people forget
- The incredible rarity of being a living, breathing organism, and even further, a human. You were chosen amongst a vast, cold universe to have this gift, and share it with all humanity.
- That you have a freedom prisoners don’t. The smaller joys of life are within reach. You have privacy. You can cook a meal of your choice and jog in the rain. You get to sleep in your own bed and customize it to your liking.
- The vast majority of people have a deep capacity for love and kindness. They aren’t out to get us. Most issues you’ve had are misunderstandings, neglect, foolishness, and bad days. Practice empathy. Don’t judge a stranger by one interaction.
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