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The Tools: How to Cultivate Gratitude

This month, the authors of The Tools are answering your questions about how to improve your life using their innovative method for personal growth. This reader’s question is about their Grateful Flow exercise, in which you focus on gratefulness in order to combat obsessive, negative thinking. 

Question: I’ve been practicing “The Tools” for the last few weeks but I have some doubts regarding the Gratitude exercise. I’ve run out of the things to be grateful for pretty quickly and [when I] practice being grateful for bad things not happening to me … it devolves into saying: “Thank you, Higher Power, you could have really screwed me over but you didn’t.” I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Barry Michels responds: I love this question because it so closely parallels what I felt when Phil first taught me the Grateful Flow. I had a very hard time coming up with anything I was grateful for. And even when I was successful, there was a powerfully cynical voice in my head that effectively disparaged whatever I came up with. If I thought, “I’m grateful my home hasn’t been broken into,” the voice would sneer, “Really? That’s the best you’ve got?” It felt pathetic. Needless to say, I quickly got discouraged and gave up.

Years later, when Phil and I began to write the Grateful Flow chapter, I decided to try again. (After all, if I was going to write about gratitude, I’d better learn how to feel it.) This time, I approached it a little differently. I told myself, “Just as an experiment, I’m going to pretend that there really are things out there to feel grateful for but that I have a blind spot; I need to train myself to see them.”

This idea of “training” myself to feel grateful took the pressure off. I looked at it this way: If my eyes had never learned to differentiate between objects and colors, I would need to train them slowly, patiently, over time. What if there were some kind of organ inside of me that was responsible for perceiving what I was being given, but it was severely underdeveloped. I was going to have to train it with the same forbearance.

I started with a small exercise. Every night when I turned the lights out, I tried to recall two or three things that had actually given me pleasure in the past. Here are some of the first things I came up with:

  • When I come home at the end of the day, my dog is so happy to see me he wags his tail and licks my face.
  • My psychotherapy practice is good: I make money and I like the people I treat.
  • Sometimes I see the sun sparkling like diamonds across the surface of the ocean and my heart feels full.

Most of the time, as I recited these things, I felt nothing; it was a mechanical exercise. But sometimes it would cause me to feel a softening or an expansion in my heart. I tried to come up with at least one new item each night, but I didn’t always succeed. And some nights I came up completely empty – I just couldn’t think of anything. The only thing I insisted on was that I hold myself to the experiment for a few months to see if anything happened over time.

Gradually, it became easier to come up with new things each night: I could appreciate the pleasure of a warm shower, the wide variety of foods I could buy at the supermarket, the valor of the one plant in my office that refused to die despite my neglect. These things had always been present, but I’d never valued them before.

I kept doing the exercise and that’s when something much bigger started to happen. I began to see the whole world differently. It seemed filled with a kind of simple beauty I’d never even noticed. Here’s a small sample:

  • I’m walking by a homeless guy on the sidewalk and our eyes meet for an instant; his eye twinkles with recognition – we’ve seen each other practically every day. But this time, we smile. It’s a split second in which we are just two human beings connecting with each other.
  • I’m in my car, listening to a song I’ve heard a thousand times, but this time a particular chord progression pierces my heart with unexpected eloquence. It’s so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes.
  • I’m watching a beach volleyball game and there’s this overweight kid who’s given up – on the game, on athletics, on himself. The ball is hit off to his right side. To my surprise, he suddenly propels his whole body into the air and gets his fist underneath the ball, saving it for his teammates. It was a small thing but I’ll never forget it, because I saw him change his identity in that moment – from the kid who gives up to the kid who gives his all.

These things happened spontaneously. I wasn’t working to see them. It was like they were always there – but someone had lifted a veil that had prevented me from seeing them. And more surprisingly, I continue to see them every day.

I don’t mean to make this process sound easy or magical. That cynical voice never went away completely, but it no longer has power over me – mostly because I’ve lost interest in debating or proving anything. My own experience of the world has changed – radically. And because of that, I contribute much more of myself to the world – I feel more connected to it.

Having had this experience myself, and having guided so many patients through it as well, I can assure you that if you practice as patiently as I did, you’ll start to experience life in a whole new way.

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4 responses to “The Tools: How to Cultivate Gratitude”

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The Tools
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