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How You Can Be Thankful Through Life's Disappointments

Updated on June 14, 2014

As strange as it might seem, knowing how to be thankful is a challenge for most Americans.

We are constantly bombarded with messages that remind us of all that we lack and the ways we fall short.

These messages are lies. Like the money used to grant sub-prime mortgages to pay for dream homes, the idea that you need a car or a house or a true love or a certain look in order to be happy is an illusion.

But this made-up notion burrows its way into our minds and tricks us into believing that if we don't have the newest toys, a fairytale romance, or a Photoshopped body, we have nothing to be thankful for.

In order to develop and maintain thankful attitude, we need to train our minds to dismiss these messages. Becoming thankful requires a focus on the good in life and in others. Gratitude, compassion, and living in the present moment are necessary elements of a thankful heart.

Developing a habit of keeping grateful thoughts doesn't happen overnight. In fact, for most it is a lifelong process. Be patient with yourself and thankful for life's lessons. Each challenge (even one that is in the form of a person!) becomes a teacher.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. --John Milton

In order to build an attitude of gratitude, reflect on your day and write down three things for which you are grateful. Research shows that making an effort to be grateful daily improves your sense of well-being.

In other words, knowing how to be thankful is an exercise that improves your life. The act of bringing thoughts of thankfulness to the front of your mind and writing them down reveals life's joys that tend to be overlooked. It trains your mind to be happy, whatever the circumstances. But like anything worth doing, it requires practice and a bit of self-discipline.

Do you find yourself staring at a blank piece of paper? There is no happy event too small to include. I have been keeping a gratitude journal for months that includes "minor" happenings like "a smile from a stranger", "a tasty dinner", and "nice weather for a bike ride". Some days are more challenging than others. For those, be sure to include, "tomorrow is a new day"!

Gratitude Takes Practice

Turn off the TV

"Envy is the art of counting the other fellow's blessings instead of your own." --Harold Coffin

Spending your time celebrity-watching puts your attention on the things that you feel you are lacking. Movies and television project a fantasy world where people make all kinds of money while enjoying busy social lives with family problems that always seem to work out in the end.

This is all a hallucination, but it tricks the mind into believing that you're missing out. And in this land of make-believe, constant marketing messages lead you to feel even more left out of the loop.

But the truth is, money can't buy happiness or feelings of gratitude. A gorgeous face and perfect body doesn't make a happy heart. If they did, Hollywood would be filled with the most joyful people on earth. We know that's not the case.

Don't Compare Yourself to Others

“Happiness comes from within. It is not dependent on external things or on other people. You become vulnerable and can be easily hurt when your feelings of security and happiness depend on the behavior and actions of other people. Never give your power to anyone else.” --Brian L. Weiss

Like losing yourself in the fantasy world of movies and television, looking around at what others seem to have can make you feel as though your life is lacking or meaningless. Focusing on those who have--or seem to have--a fulfilling job, the "perfect" body, an ideal relationship, and buckets of money makes it impossible to be thankful.

Everyone struggles in one way or another. Some people are addicted to plastic surgery and never become satisfied with their looks. Many who finally win the lottery find that the money they so desperately coveted made their lives worse. "Ideal" relationships fall apart every day. What looks like an enviable life on the outside is crumbling apart on the inside.

In other words, whether they're visible or not, everybody has problems.

Instead of looking at others and dwelling on what you're missing, take a look at what you do have. Instead of jumping out of bed to start your day, spend a few moments thinking about all of the good things you have in your life. Is there a roof over your head? Do you have food in the fridge? The list goes on and on. It sounds like a cliché, but focusing on the positive actually trains the mind to be thankful.

Matthieu Ricard on Making Happiness a Habit

Strengthen Your Compassion Muscle

All the suffering in the world comes from seeking pleasure for oneself. All the happiness in the world comes from seeking pleasure for others." --Shantideva

Compassion kindles thankfulness. Everyone struggles with some level of self-pity now and then. Life is hard! Suffering strikes every human being on earth. When life's distresses become overwhelming, remember that you're not alone: there are some who struggle with the same issues, and others who suffer even greater pain.

This isn't an exercise to make you feel guilty when you're sad--that just perpetuates more self-pity, taking you down the road to deep depression. Making yourself consciously aware that others suffer helps take your focus off of yourself and place it on others.

Don't lose patience. It's a scientifically proven fact that the conscious generation of compassion takes time. This was tested using MRIs that measured activity in compassion centers of the brain. Researchers found that Buddhist monks, who meditate regularly and focus on feelings of compassion for others, have highly active areas of the brain where compassion functions compared to others who were not seasoned meditators.

Cut the Worry Habit

If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?" --Shantideva

Worrying about what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future sucks all of the joy out of the present. When you worry, it feels as if the thoughts that go on in your mind are reality. This is another illusion that keeps us from truly understanding how to be thankful in life.

Mark Twain said it best: "I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened". How many times do we worry over future events that never even occur?

When you feel the worry cloud growing over your head, stop and concentrate on your breath. Bring yourself into the present moment and think: "How is worry going to solve my problem?"

Change Your Mind and Be Thankful

It's tempting to believe that thankfulness should come naturally, but it actually requires some self-discipline and effort. Everyone suffers in one way or another, and daily struggles can distract you from the positive aspects of life. But consciously switching your focus from difficulties to advantages helps to develop greater joy and appreciation for the little things, and that is something to be thankful for!

© Liz Davis 2012 How to be Thankful

Many thanks for your thoughts!

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    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 5 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Thank you, DDE! I appreciate your comment.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Such a well-advised hub on How To Be Thankful Through Life's Ups and Downs, you have mentioned excellent points here and is fairly understood.

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 5 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Thanks, shiningirisheyes! The TV sure is a downer. It's no wonder there are so many ads for antidepressants!

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      With so many grumbling about the campaign, it is refreshing to be reminded that we, as free citizens have so much to be thankful for. Excellent advice you've included, especially turning off the TV more often. There is enough negativity in the world and some days the tv seems to overload us with it.

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 5 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Awww, thanks fpherj48! And thank you for your thoughtful comment . . . it's a simple concept that many of us have lost sight of.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Radcliff...Bravo! for some of the BEST advice that can be offered. No matter what trials come our way.....there is always much to be grateful for and remain positive. I favor the piece of wise advise to never compare yourself to others. It's rather strange that people would need to be reminded of this....if they really think about it.....We are, each and every one of us, individual, unique and quite special...with not another soul, sharing our DNA (except for identical twins...who have no reason to compare themselves!).....Be happy and GRATEFUL for who you are....what you do and how your life is so unique!....UP++

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 5 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Thanks, Billy! We all have our bad days. It's exactly as you said--we have to remind ourselves that we are not our emotions, and just because we feel bad that doesn't mean life *is* bad. Have fun :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Awesome message, Liz! Anybody who knows me knows how grateful I am, and still, there are days, when I have to remind myself of all the gifts I have been given. I love your suggestions!

      Have a great weekend!