September 2, 2017
By Lisa Linardatos, PhD, Psychologist
Last summer I visited Greece, the country from which my parents emigrated. On one sun-soaked day, I was sitting with my uncle and my partner, enjoying some freshly picked figs from my maternal grandparent’s olive farm. We were sitting beside the ruins of my mom’s childhood home – An old, stone, two-room house, where she and her 10 brothers and sisters grew up. As we’re sitting there, my uncle describes that one his most vivid memories of my grandmother is her hunched over the small creek that runs through their property, washing clothes for hours on end. My heart sank. The thought of my grandma spending her days hunched over a muddy creek washing clothes elicited a mixed bag of reactions in me – shame at my ungratefulness for the relatively luxurious life I lead, sadness for my grandma (was she happy?), as well as an acute awareness of how lucky I am and all the opportunities I’ve had that my grandma could not have dreamed of. The mental image of her washing clothes in the creek still takes my breath away, and makes me feel at the same time like a privileged jerk and a deep sense of gratitude.
Back in Montreal, a few months ago, my washing machine broke and for various reasons couldn’t be fixed for a few weeks, so my partner and I were left carting our laundry to the local Laundromat, which I haven’t done since my university days. I was not happy. That image of my grandma easily slipped back to the forefront of my consciousness, and so my laundry “crisis” got me thinking more and more about how difficult it is for us, in our day-to-day lives, to let go of the small stuff and connect with what really matters in life. It seems easier to hold onto this grateful mindset when major life events happen, like when a loved one falls seriously ill, when we lay eyes on a newborn baby, when we get sick and aren’t able to do the things we normally do. But who wakes up every day, or even most days, thinking wow life is so precious, and feeling deeply grateful? Not me. I think most of us wake up sleep-deprived, pressed for time, ruminating about a conversation we had the day before, feeling fat and like we haven’t been working out enough.
So how do people like me, those lucky enough to be well-educated, able-bodied, and living in the first world, keep things in perspective and remain grateful in our day-to-day lives? Here are a few tips that I’ve found personally helpful.
I hesitated to write about mindfulness, because it seems mindfulness these days is presented as a cure-all, and you might be tired of hearing about it. But, I wanted to be honest about what helps me, and I do find mindfulness (and specifically when I practice it through meditation) a great tool for helping me keep things in perspective. One characteristic of mindfulness includes noticing the “stories” (vs. the facts) we tell ourselves about a situation. For example, when I’m getting caught up in the small stressors of life, I might be telling myself things like, “Things have to be a certain way for me to be okay. I need this to be a certain way. This is a huge inconvenience.” If I’m remembering to be mindful, I can take a step back from these stories, and with compassion and curiosity, ask myself what are the facts of the situation? Am I catastrophizing? Am I excessively focusing on the negative? Is this a huge hassle or a minor bump in the road?
It is so easy and normal to get caught up in our own lives. Most of us likely spend the majority of our time with our family, close friends, and co-workers, and those people are often very similar to us in terms of cultural background, social status, etc. To top it off, our social media feeds make it seem like everyone else’s life is sunshine and rainbows (and babies and kittens), making it even more difficult to maintain a sense of how lucky we truly are. For keeping things in perspective, I find it helpful to get outside my bubble. I love, for example, reading about other cultures in National Geographic, and of course travelling is an excellent way if you have the time and financial means. Reading the news is another great way to keep things in perspective. Here are some tips on how to stay informed in a balanced, healthy way: How To Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed By Your Newsfeed.
I don’t know about you, but my brain is really great at focusing on the negative. It loves to hang onto all the things that went wrong during the day. I find gratitude, simply taking the time to notice the positives, like a breath of fresh air in all this chatter. If you want to up your gratitude game, check out this podcast, Why is My Life So Hard?, where social psychologists explain that we often fail to notice the invisible advantages that help us along, like a free society, our ability to walk, talk and dance, etc (1). The authors suggest, when practicing gratitude, ask yourself, “What are the ways I’m boosted along? What are the invisible things that are helping me?”
Of course we have first world problems; we’re living in the first world. We will feel annoyed when our washing machine breaks down, because in the context of our lives this is an inconvenience and a hassle. However, beating ourselves up over “first world problems” is not an effective way to foster gratefulness. Instead, notice without judgment when you’re feeling bad over something relatively small, and try out one of the techniques above, or something else that helps you put things in perspective. When you notice yourself getting frustrated or anxious over “first world problems” you might even take it as an opportunity to pause and list a few things you’re grateful for.
A quick shout out to the emotion of anger before signing off – Feeling grateful and cultivating humility does not mean being okay with the bad stuff. Racism, sexism, etc. still exist in the first world. Anger and frustration are important emotions too – they let us know when we are possibly being disrespected, and they are activating and empowering. You can be angry at injustices AND grateful at the same time 🙂
Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2016). The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: An availability bias in assessments of barriers and blessings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(6), 835.
For more on mindfulness, check out Mindfulness: An Introductory Guide.
For more on gratitude, check out What’s the Big Deal about Gratitude?