How To Cultivate Gratitude: Is A Life-changing Experience Necessary?

If anyone were to ever suggest that getting cancer can be a good thing (and I’m sure someone somewhere already has), many people would be inclined to clobber them over the head with something heavy — myself included. And having had cancer before, I would be the last person to suggest that anyone should be glad they’ve experienced cancer. I know it has made me anything but happy. But at the same time, it has made me more grateful. I just wish I could have experienced the benefits of gratitude without having to go through surgery, fear and everything else that comes with a cancer diagnosis.

I found out I had bowel cancer when I was 22. On the day I found out, a nurse put me in a room and sat me by a desk, which was home to various pieces of paper and two boxes of tissues. My stomach churned. Then the doctor came in and started saying things I didn’t like the sound of and I wondered what he was building up to. I remember thinking he should just get to the point. We’re all spinning plates waiting to fall. He told me he had found cancerous cells in my large intestine and even though he had removed them, I should have my bowel removed to prevent any future problems. So I had the surgery and had a stoma for five months, and just when I was sort of getting used to the colostomy bag, I had a reversal, which means they made a new large intestine out of part of my small intestine, and I didn’t need the bag anymore. Five years later, my internal pouch and I are now living in relative harmony.

Fast forward a little while (the timeline is a little hazy), and a genetics counsellor is telling me and my parents that I (and both of them and some of our family members, too) have something called Lynch syndrome. Lynch syndrome is a hereditary condition that means a person is more likely to get certain types of cancer. As if I wasn’t worried enough about the future since my first experience of cancer, I was now even more afraid of a recurrence. Every new lump, bump or twinge made my stomach flip. What is that? Is something wrong with me? Has it come back? Since my operation in 2010 I have experienced periods when I have felt afraid every day, dwelled on the past, and generally felt awful about the whole thing.

While in the throes of what I’ll simply refer to as a time when I was struggling, I decided it would be a good idea to write down all my negative feelings about cancer, and then counter them by turning them into positives. For example, I wrote down that having Lynch syndrome makes me scared for the future, and then I countered that in two ways — the fear makes me more vigilant with my health, and having my mortality rendered so firmly in sight gives me a sense of urgency to have as many great, new experiences as possible. It also makes me appreciate everything I love and have experienced so far. I wrote down a lot of other negative feelings such as anger, guilt and loss of control, but I found it impossible to say anything optimistic to counter them. Gratitude was pretty much the only positive thing I could think of.

Of course, the gratitude I’m referring to isn’t just saying thank you when someone holds the door open for you or passes you the sprouts; it’s a deep appreciation of what you have, even if it’s nothing special or new, and an acknowledgement that the things you have are impermanent, that one day you may not have them, and that it’s important to appreciate them right now.

There are plenty of reasons why we should strive for gratitude. For one thing, it helps to enhance relationships — surely a relationship must improve when a person shows their partner how much they appreciate everything they do for them. Grateful people are also more likely to look after their health because they take better care of the body they are grateful for. They have more empathy and are kinder to others. They sleep better, have higher self-esteem, and are just plain happier in general. Knowing all of that, who wouldn’t want to practice gratitude?

I feel grateful for every day that my partner and I spend together, and especially grateful for our current good health. I also feel grateful for the different outlook on life that cancer has given me, and extremely grateful to all of the wonderful health workers who have helped me over the years. But does a person have to have a life-changing experience to serve as a reminder to be grateful for what we have? I certainly wasn’t quite so appreciative before I found out I was unwell. And even though I feel grateful for the things I have in case I lose them one day (which I certainly will, as nothing lasts forever), I don’t always remember to be grateful for everything. And typically, it’s not a natural habit for people to feel grateful just for waking up in the morning, or spending another day at work, or tucking into their usual lunchtime sandwich. It’s easy to feel grateful for some things more than others — usually unexpected things. So how do we practice gratitude for things we’re so used to and have come to take for granted? Do these things need to be under threat for us to appreciate them, or is there another way? And why don’t we always remember to be grateful? It’s so important for our wellbeing — you could say it is essentially the key to happiness — so why is it so hard to remember?

I believe there is a way to feel more grateful, short of a life-changing experience (though you could argue that becoming more grateful in itself may be life-changing). I consider myself a Buddhist, and practicing gratitude is an important part of Buddhism. Someone once said “Happiness is not having what you want, it is wanting what you have”. It isn’t known who said it, but I have seen it floating around social media. I don’t know if this person was a Buddhist, but the quote certainly sounds in line with Buddhist teachings — let go of desires and appreciate what you have, and you won’t need anything else. I would think that most Buddhists are pretty well-versed in all things appreciative.

That’s not to say that you have to be a Buddhist — or any religion, for that matter — in order to be grateful. But practicing gratitude does takes practice. I don’t always remember to be grateful. You need to work at it so that it becomes a habit. Gratitude is something you have to cultivate and nurture, like a plant. So perhaps the answer is that you have to make it part of your routine. Put it in your diary. Remind yourself to be grateful for the big things as well as the small, ordinary things. Write down all the things you are grateful for each day. Tell people you appreciate them, and commit to making giving thanks an important part of your life.

After I had been practicing Buddhism for a little while, I realised I was starting to apply Buddhist thinking to many situations I found myself in, without even thinking about it. Being calm and reasonable instead of angry when someone upset me, and being more empathetic, began to come naturally to me. I remember driving behind a slow car and instead of getting annoyed that they were holding me up, thinking about who the person might be and the difficulties they could be facing. Maybe they were a nervous driver who had recently passed their test, didn’t know where they were going, or were having car trouble which meant they had to go more slowly. When I realised my way of thinking had changed for the better, it felt great. Gratitude feels great, too.

Another aspect of Buddhism which may help us to remember to be grateful is practicing mindfulness. Being mindful means to focus all of your attention on the present moment. It means not thinking about what happened yesterday or what you’re going to have for dinner, but about the feel of the comfortable sofa underneath you, the taste of your food, the sound of your child’s voice. When concentrating on the present moment instead of worrying about the future, there is so much to be grateful for. Sometimes I try asking myself “how do I feel right now? Is there anything for me to fear or dislike right now, in this room?” More often than not, the answer will be no. Then comes the thankful feeling.

While I was thinking about writing this essay, I was in the shower at the gym. I had hooked my locker key onto my swimming costume, and as I unhooked it, the safety pin scratched my hand. It didn’t hurt, but I instantly heard a nurse’s voice in my head saying “okay, sharp scratch”. That’s what the nurse says when you have a blood test, right before they put the needle in. And then I wasn’t standing under a slowly warming shower anymore. For a couple of seconds, I was in a small room with a stranger who was pricking me with a needle for what must have been the twentieth time. That’s just one example of flashbacks I sometimes get. Thankfully these days they are few and far between. Flashbacks aren’t very pleasant — some worse than others — but I don’t always mind them too much because thinking about the past is preferable to panicking about the future — with or without good reason. More gratitude that things aren’t as bad as they could be.

Cancer also gave me more tolerance to pain. These days I don’t care if I have back ache, stub my toe or get a cold, because I know what it is. It isn’t cancer, and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for something that won’t kill me, and I’m grateful for the certainty that I know what something is and that it’s essentially harmless. More gratitude. When we are harmed we can always be grateful it isn’t worse. There is a quote often incorrectly attributed to the Buddha, but I still like it. It is actually from “Born for Love: Reflections on Loving”, a book by Leo Buscaglia. I think these are words to live by:

“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

During another bleak period, I was doing some reading online (as I often do), and I found a Daily Mail article titled “The Downside of Beating Cancer”. The article talked about how people who have survived cancer can feel depressed, angry, and a whole range of other emotions after they’ve been given the all-clear. Not really news at all if you ask me (though when it comes to cancer, nobody ever asks). But the comments section featured a whole range of opinions, including comments from people who thought the whole thing was ridiculous and that people who have survived cancer should just be grateful to be alive instead of bemoaning what they had been through. Let it go, they would say. Move on, they would say. But it’s not that easy — getting to a good place psychologically can be difficult, and being able to feel grateful is an accomplishment in itself — a sign of mental strength. I wondered if those people who commented were grateful they were alive and in good health (and that they likely had never experienced cancer).

When I’m in a bad place, I don’t always feel grateful for my experience not being worse. I actually feel guilty because I think I shouldn’t be making such a fuss. I never even needed chemotherapy. I don’t have the right to feel so down when I’ve never had it half as bad as other people. I sometimes feel guilty for not feeling grateful, and that’s a downward spiral. That’s part of the reason why it’s important for me to feel grateful and hold onto that feeling.

I am grateful to cancer. I’m grateful for the new outlook it has given me. I’m grateful for my gratitude (but I still don’t think it’s worth going through cancer in order to achieve it). I’m grateful for the way things have turned out, even if I always have to end that thought with the caveat “so far”. And I am grateful to know I have Lynch syndrome, because it means I can keep an eye on it — knowledge is power.

So how can you reap the benefits of gratitude without going through some harrowing, potentially life-threatening experience? You just have to remember, persevere, and make gratitude a habit. I believe it is possible to always be grateful if we make the effort.

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