zen habits : breathe

Three Truths to Help You Create a Life of Gratitude

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Chris Guillebeau of The Art of Nonconformity.

On a recent trip to Ohrid, Macedonia, I arrived in the middle of the night after a six-hour bus ride through Albania. It was my first time in Macedonia, so I didn’t know my way around very well. I carried my bags through the small town, finally locating my guesthouse after a half-hour trek.

By that point, it was 3:30 a.m. and I hadn’t slept at all. Since my reservation was for the next day, the guesthouse let me store my bags, but I couldn’t check in until much later that morning. Exhausted and disoriented, I stumbled back outside and walked around some more.

That’s when I discovered the most curious thing. Just a few blocks from my guesthouse, a huge street party was underway. About 75 Macedonians were hanging out, dancing and chatting on the street as if it were 9:00 p.m. In the midst of my exhaustion, I smiled… and felt a deep sense of joy. I was still tired, but at the same time, I felt tremendously grateful for the chance to travel so far from my home.

“I’m in Macedonia,” I said out loud to no one in particular. “It’s four o’clock in the morning, and I’ve arrived at the coolest street party ever.”

As crazy as it was, I was enthralled with the experience of participating in the unexpected nightlife of Ohrid, Macedonia. And even if you haven’t had the experience to travel much, I suspect that you may recognize the feeling I had that night, because many Zen Habits readers share the same commitment to self-improvement and purposeful living.

I believe that a key part of that lifestyle is gratitude, the habit of practicing gratefulness.

Breaking the word down a bit further thanks to the ever-convenient Dictionary.com, gratitude means:

I like all three of these definitions for different reasons. I think gratitude also relates to a full life spent in awareness of all the good things that surround us.

You see, fellow Zen Habits readers, we are all incredibly rich. If you have access to a computer and are able to read this essay, you’re already doing pretty well compared to half of the world. And by making a commitment to improve our lives, us productivity freaks are also more focused on “getting the right things done” than most of our peers.

More than anything else, I want to avoid ambling through life without a sense of awareness and purpose. To make that happen, I’ve decided that I want gratefulness to be one of my core values. In other words, I want to create a life of gratitude… but what does that mean?

Characteristics of a Grateful Life

A life of gratitude is composed of three parts that combine to make a whole.

1. A sense of purpose in our lives

2. An appreciation for the lives of those around us

3. A willingness to take action to show the gratitude we feel

I don’t claim that this list is complete, but it’s a good starting point. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments section at the end of this essay.

Gratitude is expressed through big and small things.

Living a balanced life of gratitude requires that our “big rocks” be well established. Most importantly, our family and other close relationships need to be in order. And if we don’t love all aspects of our work, we have to enjoy at least most of them and feel like we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.

Big rocks like these are indeed quite important, but I believe the small things also matter. The way we speak to family members, the habit of picking up after ourselves throughout the day, the choice to recycle instead of throwing everything in the trash can, the willingness to allow other drivers to “cut” into our lane–over time, these small decisions matter a great deal.

Some people say that if we get the big things taken care of, the small things will fall into place. I’m not entirely convinced of that, because I believe gratitude is deeply tied to both the big and the small.

Gratitude is not all about money, but it does include money.

The way we handle our money reflects how we feel about other people and our lives in general. Therefore, an important part of living gratefully usually includes a commitment to regularly help others with our financial resources. If you don’t have a strategy for giving to charity, I recommend you create one by reviewing your finances and a few organizations worthy of greater support. Then, set up automatic donations to those organizations so that you won’t forget about sending in the money.

The process of outwardly showing more gratitude (by investing your money in others’ lives) will create an inward feeling of gratefulness. It’s a win-win relationship.

Gratitude must be regularly cultivated, even when times are hard.

It was cool to hang out in Macedonia in the middle of the night, but the six-hour bus ride to get there wasn’t that great. Gratitude is a balanced response to a life filled with highs and lows. Without the long bus ride, there would be no Macedonia, and that would be sad.

If you spend time every day expressing gratitude in a way that is meaningful to you (more on that in a minute), it will quickly become an integral part of your life. Like any habit, the more we practice it, the more natural it becomes. We must purposefully create a life of gratitude if we want to be fully alive.

We can cultivate gratitude through prayer, meditation, writing, and other expressions of art. We can also cultivate gratitude in the way we interact with others, which is why I am happy to bring you…

The Zen Habits Gratefulness Challenge

Fellow readers of Zen Habits, I’d like to leave you with a challenge today. This is not a theoretical challenge–it’s designed to be quite practical.

Over the next 30 days, I would like to challenge you to create your own life of gratitude in a way that is meaningful to you, and to begin practicing acts of gratefulness more than you have ever done before.

I’ll be doing it along with you, and so will a lot of other readers. It’s always good to be specific, so here are some ideas… but don’t let these limit you.

Lastly, every good challenge has a part two. Are you ready for the part two of this challenge? Here it is:

The second part of the Zen Habits Gratefulness Challenge is for you to pass on the challenge to others.

You don’t need to do this in an organized way–make it your way. Just make it real, because the world will be better for it. Bloggers, you have a loyal audience that pays attention to what you have to say. Tell them what you’re grateful for, and then challenge them as well.

In your work and school environments, you can be an influence for positive change, and one way to start is by spreading the habit of gratitude.

If you’ve enjoyed this guest essay, or even if you haven’t, I’d like to hear from you. Do you accept the gratefulness challenge? What are some other ways to create a life of gratitude? Please post your feedback in the comments below.

Chris Guillebeau is a social entrepreneur who writes at The Art of Nonconformity. From 2002-2006 he worked as an aid worker in West Africa, and over the next five years he will be traveling to every country in the world.



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