Our greatest ability as humans is not to change the world; but to change ourselves.
- Mahatma Gandhi
For most of my life, I can remember this tendency: looking for the problem in everything.
It’s likely inherited — people in my family have a prevalence for starting sentences with “well, the problem with that is… “
Before I recognised it a family trait, I thought it was an advantage to think like this. That it was a competitive edge, my “legal brain”, my sharp problem solving skills and survival instinct — it seemed logical to have a keen awareness of all and any problems at any given moment, presumably so that one could be prepared for them.
It meant that I was constantly on the lookout for problems.
Here’s what that got me:
- Always encountering problems,
- Launching straight to the worst possible case scenario,
- Seeing the worst in people, and
- Seeing the worst in myself.
Not the most fun way to go through life.
And did it make me happy?
I guess I wasn’t counting happiness — I was too busy keeping a watchful eye out for problems. Trying to survive. And in the words of my mother — that would make me a realist.
But I call bullshit on that. I think that seeking out problems first is straight up fatalism. Not even pessimism. It’s fatalism.
When you go through life, constantly looking for problems, guess what happens?
You find them.
And then you think that you have more problems than anyone else, that you are disproportionately suffering problems, that you are unlucky, accident prone, or make terrible decisions.
But the bare naked truth is that actually none of these are true — that you just created that reality for yourself.
Like I did for me.
The mind is insanely powerful.
I need to triple underline that. (Or just put it in a heading font.)
The mind can literally create terrible scenarios for you to experience, not to back up your thinking, but BECAUSE of it.
Let that sink in.
But before we all go jump off a cliff — fortunately — because these days I operate as an optimist — there is a silver lining to this cloud.
In fact, I can put it this way. There is no cloud.
There is no lining.
There is simply whatever you think there is. You might see a thundercloud, or you might see a silver lining. Your perspective dictates it.
As Shakespeare says,
“….there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Did the good news in this make it through?
You can train your brain to find good experiences. You can overcome pessimism (or fatalism, or realism — whatever you want to call it). You can learn to be optimistic.
You can learn to view life as the fucking incredible gift that it is, the whole world as a giant playground full of opportunity and success, people as good, nature as wonderful. Whatever you like.
You can change how you look at and experience the world — and that can change your whole life.
For me this started with a simple gratitude practice.
Now — a quick word on gratitude just to give some context to this transformation:
When I really began to get into yoga, it was because a teacher would close each class by asking us to think of 3 things that we were grateful for.
I was so deep in my dark and dim view of the world that I couldn’t think of a single thing.
One. Single. Thing.
I’m not even embarrassed to write that. Well I probably should be — but I say it not to shame myself (or other currently-ungrateful people) — I say it to illustrate that this mindset isn’t permanent. There is hope — change is possible. Even radical change.
A few classes later, I was able to call one thing to mind.
I was so grateful for it that it would bring me to tears — tiny fluffy cats.
And after that, it was like the gratitude river began to flow.
I began to see that the world around me is truly full of incredible things, and that when I trained myself to notice them, it wasn’t a denial of all the crap in the world — it was just a choice about what I focused on.
If you’re still dubious — consider this.
- It’s hugely energising and uplifting to see all the good.
- It’s incredibly draining to see all the bad.
Now you choose which stance you’d prefer to take.
And I repeat — this is not a case of ignoring of all the suffering. It’s about consciously not living in your own suffering —it’s about taking one more suffering out of the world and replacing it with joy.
How great is that?
If you ask me, it’s our single most important life purpose, our goddam duty to do that.
So I took to writing this practice down.
In a journal.
Every day, writing down 3 things I was grateful for that day.
Every single morning, bringing 3 things to mind to help me be mindful about what I was doing. Guarding my thoughts — priming myself for positive experiences.
And, occasionally, I’d also go back and make a note of 3 things that had happened that day that I was grateful for.
More and more started to make it on to my list.
The gratitude tide came, it washed away my despair and hopelessness, and replaced it with a deep down delight and pleasure at the world around me. Nothing had actually changed — just how I viewed the world.
But as it went on, I noticed all these good things that were happening even to me, and the more I saw them, the more they kept appearing.
Some people call this Law of Attraction, or manifesting.
To me it’s science — neuroscience. Train your brain to look out for positive things in your life, and it will do it. It’s really obedient like that.
This isn’t a one-off though.
To be effective, it needs to be a habit. Making it a daily habit through journalling is a simple and enjoyable way to really change your life. It’s also really cathartic.
The reason it needs to be a habit is so that your brain can relearn this new, preferred shortcut. So that you don’t keep defaulting to negativity, seeking out problems, and general miserablism, for which us Brits are quite famous.
Habits take anything from 30 days to 90 days to build (See: UCL, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg)
Habits aren’t easy to change — Per Stealing Fire: “People would “rather die than change.”
And changing the habit of how you think is one of the hardest habits to change. But I argue it’s the most powerful place to make a change.
Once I got this gratitude piece down — my life started to change in subtle, and not-so-subtle, ways:
- I started a pottery class
- I completed my yoga teacher training course
- I built on my good habits and built up a daily practice of yoga & meditation
- I started my own business teaching yoga and a coaching business helping people integrate yoga into their lifestyles
- I quit my job, we sold our house and went to live abroad for a year
- I started a side hustle and started to make residual income outside of my active income
- I created time freedom, and now have more time to do more of the things that I LOVE: baking, road trips, travelling, being outdoors, connecting with people, and, writing.
The thing that you can’t really tell from the outside (but maybe you picked up already) is that the final piece on gratitude came when I cultivated a gratitude for myself — my abilities, my accomplishments, my strengths, my weaknesses and my failures.
It was the self acceptance that I really needed to find a kind of peace and happiness that all the money in the world cannot buy.
Heck knows where I’d be if I hadn’t started a daily gratitude practice 3 years ago, probably still walking around counting every piece of dog crap I encountered, hating my job, cursing the world, and living for Fridays instead of living full out every day.
So if you find you are trapped in a place where things don’t make sense, you feel miserable, disappointed, hard done by, broken or just stuck in a rut —
My highest recommendation is to take a notebook, or start a new journal, and list out 3 things that you are grateful for.
If you genuinely can’t think of anything to be grateful for, how about you start with tiny fluffy kittens & their miniature paws — we should ALL be grateful for that. You can have that one for free.
And just go from there.