Gratitude vs. Mindfulness

Cultivating Gratitude vs Practicing Mindfulness. How do you stay happy (and sane)? |

Way back when I was at the University of Arizona, I heard Craig Kielburger speak about his journey to start Free the Children. An incredible organization, Free the Children mobilizes kids to help other kids around the world build schools and fight extreme poverty. From the this first speech, I have been a huge fan of Craig, and his brother, Marc Kielburger, who likewise founded Leaders Today. So when a friend recommended a book co-authored by both Craig and Marc, I was excited to check it out and read along with her.

Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World contains lots of big ideas, thoughtful stories and meaningful reflections. Definitely worth the read. However, one chapter on Gratitude stuck out and rubbed me the wrong way. The chapter begins with a story about Craig’s experience in New York on 9/11, and the groundswell of gratitude felt by many survivors that echoed across the country. There has been a similar response after Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters. The chapter went on to say how great it would be if we could all feel gratitude without having to experience tragedy first. Craig and Marc then argued that it is possible, and gave examples of how to cultivate and practice gratitude daily.

It’s a nice concept. Works for lots of people. Hasn’t really worked for me.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about cultivating gratitude (surprise surprise). Yet it’s the first time I’ve thought about gratitude since I facilitated a discussion about friendships and envy for a group of 8th grade girls. One discussion point for dealing with envy was to refocus ourselves towards three things that we love about our lives for which we are grateful. One girl disagreed and argued that gratitude isn’t sustainable. She argued that people can tell you to feel grateful for your food, clothing, shelter, and other physical possessions and democratic freedoms, especially when there are starving children in Africa who would love to have what you have. Yes, people are suffering everywhere, but thinking about that fact doesn’t flip a magical switch to make us relish the privilege we experience day in and day out. We still have our own struggles that are very real in their own right.

She made a good point. I didn’t realize just how much her point stuck with me until reading this chapter months later. This way of practicing gratitude is relative. Gratitude often is based on the memory of when times weren’t so good or on some real or imaginary person who isn’t so well off. The bliss it cultivates is fleeting, or worse, it leads to guilt instead of bliss. Granted, the guilt may spur some to pursue social justice. Pursuing social justice is very, very important and something I deeply believe in. However, I don’t think repairing the world is one’s original intention when trying to cultivate gratitude.

Therefore, I offer an alternative: mindfulness. Focusing on being in the present. Paying attention to the people right in front of us.

On a regular basis I get annoyed with my husband for checking Twitter or playing a game on his phone, often during dinner or when he’s with the baby. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. I’ve used my iPhone to check Instagram or Twitter or the weather or my email or anything to help pass time while Baby is playing on the floor for the sixth time on any given day. I love my baby. He’s the center of my world. But day after day without some adult interaction can make me a little desperate to connect with someone who can talk back (I know I’ll regret those words someday). Yet when I check the clock, time until his next nap tends to go slower when I’m lost in iPhoneland then when I actually get down on the floor and play.

We all need to zone out sometimes. Social media, texting, games and other entertainment have their place. I don’t know how I would keep in touch with many dear family and friends without it. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably also seen me use social media to share this very blog. All the same, when I reflect on my favorite memories, none of them are that time I saw a picture on Facebook or some meme that made me laugh (except for the T-Rex I love you THIS MUCH cartoon, but only because I share the memory with my husband and we act it out in real life on a regular basis).

One thing I love about yoga or an intense dance class is that they make me forget everything else. Focusing so hard on the movement and working my body, any other stress or anxiety drifts away (at least until the end of the class… longer if I’m lucky). That’s mindfulness.

Sometimes being mindful just happens. Sometimes it takes work. For me, I tend to lose it most in winter when it’s been cold and gloomy for days. But when I make the effort to zone in, I’m often rewarded with the sweet sweet sound of baby giggles. Baby giggles (and snuggles and kisses) are my true happy place. So is making a real connection with my husband or spending time actually talking with a close friend instead of reading their news feed.

This is what works for me, day in and day out. Cultivating mindfulness has had a much bigger influence on me than times I’ve tried to practice gratitude. Like everything else, it’s a balancing act. I try to keep the scales tilted towards being present with my loved ones and everyone I interact with. Some days are better than others. That’s life.

Does practicing gratitude or mindfulness work for you? What helps you focus on staying present and feeling happy in the moment?

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