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  • Writer's pictureAaron Hendon

The Gratitude Paradox: How to Live a Grateful Life in a F*cked Up World.

Updated: Apr 9

Part Three: The Paradox of Being Present

It's not a bug, it's a feature.

A joke got started in computer programming circles back in 1975, that a bug in the code could be turned into a feature by including it in the documentation – the theory being nobody could complain about it if it’s in the manual.

I mention this because there is a well-documented bug in our system that restricts our ability to experience gratitude – our inability to live in the moment – to be “present”.

It’s not that we are not designed to be present in the moment, it’s that we are specifically designed to NOT be present.  Read that again if you have to. 

What Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls our two selves has a lot of importance here. He suggests we can look at our existence as two selves, an experiencing self, and a remembering self. The experiencing self is the self that lives in the present moment – the self that shows up when the doctor approaches and asks, “Does it hurt when I touch here?”. That is the present self.

The remembering self is the one that controls our memories, the stories we make up from the collection of experiences, the self that is present when the doctor asks, “How have you been feeling lately”.

This self, the remembering self, the one that is constantly recording and storing narratives, tends to have all the say about our decisions and about how we feel about the overall quality of our lives. Kahneman refers to the phenomenon as the “tyranny of the remembering self”.

This has a lot of implications, obvious and not so obvious on our experience of happiness, but for now, I just want to focus on the fact that our lives are not governed by our experience, but on how we remember our experiences – the stories we tell about the experiences (what we call memories).

We are designed to live life, by default, driven by our stories about our experiences and not by the experiences themselves. There is no “tyranny of the present’ governing our lives.

Psychology Today talks about some reasons it’s so difficult for us to live in the present, all of which are related to what Kahneman might say are expressions of our leaning on the remembering self to tell us how we should feel in the moment.  These include:

  • Impatience: We often expect instant results, but the benefits of gratitude may take a few weeks to manifest.

  • High expectations: Unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment.

  • Fast-Paced Lives: We’re accustomed to constant activity, productivity, and planning. Slowing down feels unfamiliar.

  • Magnifying Small Issues: We allow minor concerns to occupy more mental energy than they deserve.

  • Anticipating the End: We often anticipate the end of a pleasant moment before it even includes, diminishing our appreciation for the present.

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to see how any, or all of these, interrupt our ability to experience gratitude in this moment.

We are simply not going to have the experience of gratitude now if we find ourselves in any of these most common cognitive traps.

Maybe this is why every mystic, every guru, every bit of transformational work through the ages, is based on our being present to the moment.

Our ability to step outside our design, to see the bug as a bug, not a feature, is integral to our ability to experience gratitude.

The Power of Now

This is the title of Eckhart Tolle’s seminal work and one of the most powerful books on the opportunity and challenge of being present.

His sentiments on this conversation couldn’t be more on point:

When you are open to the present moment, what comes in, is a gratitude for "what is". When you are aligned with the present moment, there is a peace that comes, so it is like you are experiencing life for the first time when you become present. When you are in a state of gratitude for what is… that is really what being wealthy means."

There’s a reason everyone since the Buddha has espoused the power of being present. It’s because when we are present, we are at peace. Suffering is always a function of the mind saying something upsetting about what’s happening. The studies Kahneman cites in “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory” fit right into this idea.

In other words, it’s not the circumstances, whatever they are, that has us upset. It’s the commentary we’re making. The thing is, we are ALWAYS commenting.

The Way Out is Through

This is where mindfulness practices come in. The absolute, complete, effectiveness of cultivating a mindful approach to life cannot be overstated. Without it, a life of gratitude will never happen.

While it’s a trendy thing to talk about it needs to be fully distinguished as it is far too simple for us to fully grok.

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment, paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment.

It is a state of active, open attention to the present. It involves observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment. Rather than dwelling in the “tyranny of the remembering self”, we slow down and allow the “experiencing self” room to grow.

It is without a doubt a skill that can be developed and more to the point, if we don’t do the work to develop it we won’t have it – remember – we are designed to NOT have it. We must train ourselves to go against our nature, but we absolutely can.

Don’t worry though. I know it sounds impossible – going against the way we’re designed sounds hard. But you’ve already trained yourself to do that, and if you’re a parent you’ve already trained someone else to do it.

I’m sure you don’t recall but there was a time when you used to pee and poop whenever the call came. It was as natural for you as anything could be. It didn’t matter if mom or dad had just changed your diaper, or if they had brought you on their travels. If the call of nature came, you responded.

But as you got older you learned to hold it. You were potty trained at some point and you haven’t wet the bed since. I don’t care how cold it gets, how tired you are, or how drunk you get (within reason), you simply do not wet the bed. In fact, if you’re like me, the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning some days is that I need to pee.

You literally trained yourself to not do what your body is designed to do – pee and poop at will – and you now act in a way that produces far more desirable results.

Well, if you trained your bladder, you can train your brain.

Will it take practice? Yep! Will you make mistakes? Of course. But over time, with concerted effort, you can train yourself to not pee yourself with negative commentary and be in the moment.

The practice is simple, fast, and easy. It’s just that you need to do it, and you need to do it regularly.

The bad news? Unlike potty training it doesn’t last your whole life – you don’t get present once and have it handled. You will need to continually develop the practice.

The good news? It gets easier and more enjoyable the longer you do it. After a while, it will feel so good that practicing will be something you look forward to. I promise.

The science of neuroplasticity shows amazing results regarding how mindfulness works as well.

A study in 2005 found that mindfulness meditation increased the thickness of the cortical regions related to sensory, auditory, and visual perception, as well as internal sensations, such as heartbeat. They also found that meditation reduced the age-related thinning of the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in attention, planning, and decision-making.

Another study in 2011 revealed that mindfulness meditation reduced the activity and connectivity of the default mode network (DMN), which is a network of brain regions that are active when the mind wanders or ruminates. They also found that meditation increased the activity and connectivity of brain regions that are involved in self-monitoring and cognitive control.

Dozens and dozens of medical studies show that even short periods of mindful meditation when practiced over time, change the brain in a way that has you more present well after the meditation is over.

Mindfulness can have profound and lasting effects on an individual's ability to access and experience gratitude. Mindfulness, the practice of being fully present and engaged with the current moment without judgment, enhances one's awareness and appreciation of life's experiences, leading to an enriched sense of gratitude.

These benefits also include:

  • Increased Awareness: Mindfulness heightens awareness of the present moment, including the small joys and pleasures that are often overlooked. This heightened awareness allows individuals to appreciate the value of each moment and experience gratitude more readily.

  • Reduction of Negative Thought Patterns: Regular mindfulness practice helps in reducing the tendency to ruminate on negative thoughts, thus creating a mental space where gratitude can flourish. It helps individuals to focus on the positive aspects of their lives, fostering a mindset of abundance rather than lack.

  • Enhanced Emotional Regulation: Mindfulness aids in regulating emotions, which can lead to a more balanced and positive outlook on life. This emotional balance is conducive to feeling and expressing gratitude.

  • Improved Relationships: Mindfulness enhances empathy and compassion, which can improve relationships. Grateful individuals tend to be more empathetic, appreciative, and kind, which not only benefits their interactions but also contributes to their overall sense of well-being.

It should be clear by now that an aspect of gratitude is being present in the moment and while we’ve only talked about the access to mindfulness through meditation there are a variety of ways to cultivate this skill.

The important thing to be left here is mindfulness, and the access it provides to being present is one of the most important, powerful, and impactful tools in being effective, healthy, happy, and a direct shot to gratitude.


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