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  • Writer's pictureAaron Hendon

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

Part Five: The Paradox of Choice

Exiting a plane on the tarmac feels cool in a 1950s retro kinda way. Up high on this movable staircase, I feel like I should wave at the crowd or something. Maybe get a lei around my neck, and a Mai Tai in my hand as I descend.

That’s how I felt when I got off the plane for my honeymoon. My wife and I landed in Loreto MX, having chosen the best warm-weather destination on the water we could afford. I remember the heat hitting me first, the sun, second. We didn’t even have a reservation for a hotel – man, we were adventurous in those days. 

It was my honeymoon, and it was spectacular. Even the day we rented kayaks and decided we could paddle along the coast and get picked up later that day. After a rather grueling day of paddling, we pulled in only to discover we had only made it halfway.

We slept on the beach that night and I don’t have a clear memory of how we got the kayaks and ourselves home. I am sure it wasn’t paddling because haven’t gotten into one of those things since.

But even through that, I had plenty of gratitude.

Because it’s easy to feel grateful when you’re on your honeymoon.

Sometimes, the circumstances hit just right, and they feed into the kinds of interpretations that have the brain spit out an experience we call gratitude.

Witnessing the birth of your child, with everyone healthy, it’s difficult to have gratitude not be the automatic response.

More mundane instances of gratitude descending upon us might be when our team makes a last-second field goal, or we get accepted into our school or job of choice.

These moments come and they go. They are delightful, and I don’t think it’s too much to say we’re grateful for these moments of gratitude descending upon us.

But the point of this series is how to live a grateful life in a world that, except for these rare and stunning moments, mostly feeds us the mundane, the difficult, and sometimes the horrific.

How can we get to gratitude when we don’t have the honeymoon, the new baby, or the game-winner?

While the other ingredients we’ve gone through are all critical, and they are each present in the spontaneous forms of gratitude to one degree or another, it’s not until you explore choice that you can begin to call forth gratitude at will.

So, here’s the paradox…We pretend to want freedom of choice, that we want options, but the reality is we do not. We like to think we like choice, but in practice, we don’t act like it.

Studies show when consumers are given too many choices they won’t buy.  Choice overload has been studied since the 70s and shows unambiguously that people, when faced with too many options prefer to not choose at all.

Any time a waiter puts a menu in my wife’s hands – watching my wife sort through the fear of choosing the wrong meal is like watching Vizzini choose which cup to drink from. The calculations whirrrr and, frankly, if I don’t force the issue we might never eat.

Day to day, choosing what to cook for dinner, where to go out to eat, what to wear, which toothpaste to buy, what beer to choose, what car to drive, on and on, these are demonstrable drains on our attention, energy, and ability to perform.

This is why Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and many others have adopted a style of dress where they always wear the same thing, specifically to avoid decision fatigue.

While we think we want to be free to choose anything we want, the reality is too many choices make our brains hurt and we enjoy the things we choose less.

We want to feel like we have a choice, but too many choices, or if the choices impact others, or when the stakes are high, or when it means there’d be no one else to blame if it was the wrong choice, or if it makes me someone else angry, or it makes me look bad, or it could make me look stupid, or, or or…Well, that’s not what we want.

We love the idea of choice. The act of choosing? Not so much.

But it is the act of choosing what we focus on that gives us access to gratitude in any situation.

While we can’t control what thoughts pop into our heads, we can always choose what we pay attention to, and what we focus on.

This is one of the biggest benefits of a consistent mediation practice. Developing the muscle of directing our awareness is a critical skill if one is going to live a grateful life (beyond the occasions when it all lines up).

Be clear, choosing what you focus on does not mean pretending what you’re not focusing on isn’t there.

Toxic gratitude, like toxic positivity, is the antithesis of what I am speaking to.

Choosing to focus on what you are grateful for in a shitty situation will always start with acknowledging whatever is happening in that situation that makes it a shitty situation for you.

This is not about pushing down, stuffing, or wishing anything away. This is not about pretending things that didn’t happen did happen, or things that did happen, didn’t.

Again, a mindfulness meditation practice, where one has developed a facility to bring non-judgmental awareness to the present moment, will develop the neuronal pathways that allow us to hold those things that are frustrating, disappointing, or hurting to us while allowing us to also see things that we are grateful for.

Back in the day, when I was getting my BFA in photography, we used to have to focus cameras manually. Now with our phones, almost everything in the frame is in focus. It takes a special filter or setting for you to be able to adjust the phone back to the old-school way of focusing.

But when you do focus a camera on a specific subject, and you let the rest of the picture get blurry, you are not pretending those things are gone. They have just been allowed to recede enough to get blurry. They are no longer clearly defined and the item in focus gets the bulk of the attention.

The same practice is possible with our awareness. After acknowledging the whole landscape of our experience, we’re able to move our attention to something we’re grateful for.

The degree of difficulty here is correlated with the degree to which the issues are both urgent and impactful, both of which are context-driven conditions (not circumstantial).

Because these are context-driven, and context is a choice, we all know of people who chose to focus on something other than the horrific. As discussed in prior posts, Viktor Frankle, Nelson Mandela, Admiral John Stockdale, and a multitude of others, all made the turn from ridiculously difficult circumstances to gratitude.

Our ability to choose where we focus, to acknowledge that we even have a choice, and to master the skill of gently, with non-judgmental awareness, building the muscle of intentionally focusing our attention, open the door to living a grateful life in this fucked up world.

Without that, we're left waiting for life to deliver us our next "honeymoon" experience.

Ultimately, the choice is ours.

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