A New Approach to Becoming Remarkably Thankful
Through Practicing Context-Based Gratitude
What is the answer to balancing progression and enjoyment? “You’ve got to have gratitude!” We hear it all the time from prominent business-people and personal coaches. But how does one practice gratitude in a way which will make it last?
All too common a problem that I and many others face with gratitude is that the feeling is so temporary. The way that most of us practice gratitude seems to lead to disappointing results in the long-run. Most gratitude practices go something like this:
1. We think about the things we are grateful for.
2. At best, we get a short burst of happiness as we count our blessings. At worst, we struggle to feel grateful in such an ambiguous and isolated context. Who is to say what is good?
3. We go back to the real world where we find that feeling of gratitude is short-lived as we come across problems and difficulties in our lives and see people who seem happier or better than us (thanks, social media).
So, what gives? Why can’t we seem to internalize gratitude so that it sticks and allows us to remain tranquil, present, and motivated? I think the problem is that by looking at the things we are grateful for in a vacuum, we are fighting a losing battle against human nature. Strong, long-lasting feelings of gratitude require a broader context than simply thinking about the things in our life that we appreciate or enjoy on their own.
Gratitude Requires Broader Context
It’s human nature to compare and contrast ourselves and our own lives with the lives of others. An experiment featuring two primates (who happen to be our closest relatives) demonstrates the natural tendency to stray from gratitude in the face of limited context.
In the experiment, two Capuchin monkeys in separate, see-through cages are trained to hand a researcher a small rock in exchange for either a cucumber or a grape. At first, both the monkeys are given cucumbers when they successfully hand the researcher a rock. They both seem quite content with the reward, as they begin nibbling vigorously.
Suddenly, the researcher begins rewarding the second monkey with a grape instead of a cucumber. The first monkey, still receiving cucumbers, sees this inequity and develops a new expectation for itself. When the researcher hands the first monkey a cucumber once again, the ape becomes furious and throws the cucumber back at the researcher in disgust!
What was once a nice treat has suddenly become unfulfilling when compared with the reward its primate pal was receiving. No matter how good humanity has it, we will always be making ourselves miserable with comparisons and relative thinking by default.
Instead of going narrow and attempting to view our lives through a tiny window in the quest for gratitude, I think it makes more sense to go broader and examine the whole of humanity.
A Brief Window into Human Lifestyle History
To take better advantage of the natural instinct to compare and contrast our lives with others, it helps to study the history of human lifestyle. Instead of simply telling ourselves what we are grateful for or comparing ourselves with others in our own point on the universal timeline, we can compare ourselves to every homo sapiens who has ever lived.
I do this all the time when I’m feeling ungrateful or down about my own standing in life, and I find that the gratitude I experience from this exercise is much more powerful than anything I’ve been able to generate before. My intention here is to give you powerful context and a useful exercise which will allow you to practice gratitude more effectively. This isn’t to say you should lower your standards or accept your current situation as one which cannot be changed, but rather to practice self-improvement from a perspective of gratitude, rather than anger, greed, or frustration.
Please note that I am not a historian by any means, so there may be a few minor historical inaccuracies. I did my best to scour the web for trustworthy information, but the point here is to experience gratitude, so try to put any nitpicking aside for now.
The Stone Age
Researchers widely agree that 200,000–300,000 years ago, the first modern humans (Homo Sapiens) walked the Earth. People in this era were hunter-gatherers, meaning they traveled a lot to hunt and forage for food. As you can imagine, early mankind struggled for survival. As such, everything in life revolved around staying alive and humans lived in constant fear.
Even the first artwork created by humans, cave paintings of hunting animals and clay statues of voluptuous women, were inspired by their most primitive desires for food and sex. Food was so scarce that some historians believe cannibalism of enemy tribes and dead kinsman was common in this age.
The discovery of ancient bones fractured in a way that implies butchering with stone tools serves as evidence for this claim. For a large part of the stone age, people lived in dingy caves and temporary huts made of nothing but straw with a stone base. Even the most basic things that we take for granted today did not exist for some time.
Simple clothing was not invented until 30,000 years after the dawn of homo sapiens. Clay ovens and pottery were invented 146,000–149,000 years after that. Notably, the invention of writing and the beginning of written history did not begin until over 195,000 years of modern human existence had passed!
This was a time where humanity’s existence was bleak, with people not living much better than the animals around them. The fact of the matter is that this period is the vast majority of human history, nearly 95% of it.
It sure makes me grateful knowing that I was born in the latter 5% of history when civilization began to take hold. I certainly would rather pay bills and work a 9–5 than have to run from a wild predator looking for a delicious hominid snack!
Ancient Egypt (The Bronze/Iron Ages)
Let’s fast-forward to the establishment of civilized society and class systems. In particular, I want to go over what life was like in Ancient Egypt, mainly because there is so much information on this civilization.
Life in Ancient Egypt was far from enjoyable for the majority of the population. Society was extremely stratified, with little room for socioeconomic growth or improvement. The economy and government were centralized, with the scribes, nobles and government officials controlling everything from prices to state-forced labor.
Most people were farmers who were tied to the land that they worked on. All agricultural crop and the land itself was claimed by either the temple or a noble who owned the land.
The average person lived in a mud brick home that was designed to give some relief from the blistering heat, although it certainly couldn’t be compared to modern air conditioning which we all take for granted.
The staple diet was a bland combination of watery beer and bread with some onions or garlic. Wine and meat were only enjoyed by the average person on very rare occasions during festivals. Compare that to the average industrialized nation today where even the poorest people enjoy meat and often “cheap” wine (which was probably superior to the finest ancient wines) regularly!
Music, dance, and games were leisure activities reserved only to those who could afford them. Today, we don’t even think twice about listening to some music through our headphones on or playing in an inter-mural soccer game on Sunday. This is all without mentioning the fact that slavery was both legal and commonplace, a fact of civilized life that lived well into the next few thousand years.
Ancient Rome (Classical Antiquity)
The Roman Empire conquered Egypt in 40 BC, near the beginning of its foundation after the fall of the Roman republic. Romans made a few advancements to civilization, such as their sophisticated aqueduct network, which would go on to be unrivaled until modern times.
Although the fresh water supplied by aqueducts helped with sanitation, sanitary norms in Ancient Rome were rather disgusting compared to modern times. For instance, the Romans made use of decomposed urine as a mouthwash and clothing cleaner due to the ammonia it contained.
Romans also had shared spaces for their restrooms, which were never properly cleaned by modern standards. These spaces were so disgusting that people would bring a special comb that was designed to pick off parasites from their bodies while they did their business. To make things worse, restrooms were equipped which what looked like a sponge on a stick for wiping after defecation. Did I mention you had to share these sponges on a stick with everyone who used the public restroom?
Thought it couldn’t get worse? Not only were Roman restrooms disgusting, they were also dangerous. Creatures living in the sewer system would crawl up and bite people while they were doing their business and the build-up of methane gas meant a real possibility of a torch or candle flame igniting the bathroom and causing an explosion.
These dangers were apparently common enough for Romans to paint magical spells on the restroom walls that were meant to cast away the demons who caused the explosions. Yes, you read that correctly. The Romans believed that invisible demons caused methane gas explosions.
Other strange and disgusting practices by Romans include people consuming raw gladiator blood and liver to cure epilepsy, women rubbing gladiator’s dead skin cells mixed with oil as a facial cream, and people using goat feces as a treatment for open wounds.
Before the end of the Roman republic, the oldest male in each household had absolute authority over everyone in his family. Women and children were seen as objects and could be sold into slavery, violently punished, and commanded to all obey orders by the patriarch of the household.
Women’s rights improved during the imperial era as they gained the ability to own property and basic sovereignty over their own daily lives. However, women were still not seen as equals as they could not vote nor hold public office.
Society was still very stratified during the Classical Antiquity, with class-determined lifestyles being the norm and almost no socioeconomic mobility possible. Slaves were made to perform horrendously back-breaking tasks, and most of the population were poor farmers.
The Middle Ages
If you thought that times would get better several hundred years after 400 AD, marking the fall of the Roman Empire, you would be completely mistaken. The rise of feudalism meant that the average person lived a miserable life filled with torturous labor and no room for socioeconomic growth.
Living as a serf meant plowing fields in the autumn, sowing seeds in the spring, and harvesting during the summer. A poor harvest inevitably meant that some of the peasants would starve to death as the food supply began to run out every late spring.
People worked from dawn to dusk, every single day. At the end of their days, the peasants would return to their thatch roof huts which had no windows. A fire burned in the middle of the hut for warmth, but since there was no ventilation, serfs constantly inhaled smoke which burned their lungs and watered their eyes.
The average person in the middle ages ate starchy vegetables, nuts, and berries. People often drank weak, home-brewed beer and wine instead of water because they believed that alcoholic beverages promoted good health.
Although society was fairly “prosperous” by the standards of the time from the 11th to 13th centuries, all of that went downhill with changes in weather patterns in spring 1315. Crop failure resulted in what is known as the Great Famine of 1315–17, a period marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death, and even cannibalism.
The famine seemed to spark a cultural toughness, leading to brutal wars and violence, and the end of chivalry. If you were unlucky enough to live between 1346 and 1353, you saw the Black Death, a massive plague caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, ravage the entirety of Europe, with an estimated death toll of 75 to 200 million people.
This meant that if you were living in Europe at the time, you had a 50/50 chance of dying an agonizing, painful death with no explanation and certainly no cure. Medical care was so unsophisticated that the best authorities of the time thought the Black Death was a punishment from God or that it was caused by bad air resulting from an alignment of 3 planets in the night sky.
In truth, the plague was caused by bacteria which spread so easily primarily because of the poor hygiene and pest control of the time. People did not bathe regularly nor did they wash their hands and the streets were littered with human and animal feces. Rats carrying flees which carried the disease littered the streets, with no one suspecting that they were the cause of the epidemic.
Overall, while the middle ages produced some technological advancement, it was mostly filled with wars over religious dogma, disease, famine, and generally tough working and living conditions. I sure feel grateful that chances are extremely slim that someone will kill me for my religious beliefs, or lack thereof, or that I will die from an easily preventable disease or starvation. Good times!
The Industrial Age
The Industrial Revolution was a major turning point in history, as daily life for the average person shifted from the farms to the factory floors. Although wages increased for the population with an unprecedented consistency, economists argue that the standard of living did not actually improve until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Factory workers often lived in crowded slums which were quite dangerous to live in, mainly because there weren’t any building codes for quite a while! If a fire broke out, people became trapped in flame and smoke and they often died with little chance of escaping.
Sanitation was non-existent, and people often died from diseases like tuberculosis. The water was frequently polluted and caused widespread sickness. Although the industrial revolution did help create a growing and thriving middle class who lived in better conditions, the majority of the population suffered immensely.
Work hours were incredibly long, with 10-hour days at a non-stop pace being the norm for an industrial worker (12 hours for a steelworker). Coal miners often developed lung cancer and died before the age of 25. Other workplace deaths caused by accidents were not uncommon. Child labor was rampant as there were no labor laws and no enforced education system.
Children were often worked just as hard as the adults and made to do dangerous tasks for only 10–20% of the pay that adults received. As late as the year 1900, people did not earn enough money to sustain themselves, as wages had not kept up with the cost of living.
When I say people did not earn enough to sustain themselves, I mean that literally. I don’t mean that they couldn’t afford vacations, retirement, or sending their kids to college (oh the horror!). I mean they often couldn’t afford to buy food.
I’ve always found it strange when I see the people of today complaining about their wages while on their social media accounts using their $800 iPhone, after having just eaten a large take-out pizza. In the context of the history of humanity, it seems a little silly, doesn’t it?
The Information Age: What Happened to Us?
After going through the growing pains of the industrial age, the end of widespread slavery, two world wars, hard-fought civil and women’s rights movements, and a cold war that brought us to the brink of nuclear extinction, we finally made it to the information age.
The average person living in an industrialized nation has a relatively safe living space with air conditioning, clean water, and sanitary plumbing. We have an excess of food to the point of many in America and other nations becoming overweight and obese. We have unlimited information, entertainment, and utility in the palm of our hands — think Wikipedia, YouTube, or Uber.
Almost nobody wakes up fearing that they will be drafted into a war or finding that their child died from an easily preventable disease. All men and women of all races are equal under the law (at least on paper), and most people work 8–9 hours per day in a relatively clean and safe environment. Yet so many people today waste their time, energy, and happiness complaining about their lives and weakening their sovereignty of mind, for what? To what end?
Look, I’m not saying that we don’t have our own issues to deal with today, nor am I attempting to justify any political or social belief. I’m also not saying that we should stop progressing as a society just because we have it better off than people did hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Who knows? Maybe in 2000 years, people may look back at our society with grateful awe, the same way I am looking back at the societies of the Middle Ages and Classical Antiquity.
Ultimately, having a good life comes down to how you perceive things. My intent was to broaden your perspective so that you can perceive things differently than the common person today. If you perceive your standard of living as the worst that it can get, you will likely live quite miserably, forever dependent on things outside yourself for your tranquility of mind. Conversely, if you have strong gratitude for the things you do have, you’ll likely have the contentedness and energy necessary to live a happy life.
Remember that in time, all will become dust. Although it can be considered virtuous to prefer a greater lifestyle as a reward for your hard work, it does you no good to lust after such a life. Therefore, I urge you to contemplate your legacy as a human being and think about how those before you lived, and how great you have it as a result of 200,000+ years of human progress and sacrifice.
Come back to this guide as needed, or even do your own research. Your intent should be to broaden the context of your lifestyle as a means of preserving and extending your levels of gratitude.