The promotion you just got? A beautiful sunset with your family? That’s amateur stuff to be grateful for. The waiter just refilled your coffee? Oh, how considerate. You thank him. Now you feel warm and thoughtful.
Step up people. Try being grateful for losing a big contract, or your U12 soccer team getting crushed on Sunday. Good. Now go deeper. Your girlfriend just dumped you because the relationship was truly toxic. You write her a heartfelt letter of appreciation and gratitude. We’re getting there. See these events as precious gifts.
This is where the hard learning happens. This is where growth and development and renewal happens. My coaching friend Kirsten argues the greatest team bonding, life learning and development happens after the throes of humiliating defeat.
Did you know that both paraplegics and lottery winners – interviewed one year after their accident or winning the lottery, will both testify to the same personal level of happiness?
Robert Emmons, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Expanding Gratitude project writes, “It’s easy to feel grateful for the good things. No one ‘feels’ grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement portfolio.”
If we can summon the strength to reframe a negative experience into a positive one, we can grow in our own self-development. If the relationship really was toxic and we have the strength to see through the emotional pain to be grateful that she was willing to confront it and end the relationship, then we can grow and move on.
The beggar on the street can show us how privileged we are. The cancer that infected our body can show us how grateful we are to be healthy. When we summon gratitude in the face of adversity, we turn meaningless cruelty into growth and strength.
If the path to appreciating adversity is too great to surmount, or if the searing pain of defeat and rejection is just too powerful to be reflective and generous of spirit, let humor guide you.
Here’s what I mean. When you’re lost in the woods, have run out of water, and nightfall is approaching, tell a joke. Because humor heals. Humor combats fear.
Humor has the power to disengage our fears, and relaxes us. Behind a nervous chuckle is the sentiment, “We’re gonna get through this!” Humor also reduces stress and boosts the immune system.
I’m suggesting that often an easier path to finding gratitude in the face of adversity, strain and setback, is to start by finding humor. Even dark humor might be just the right antidote.
Try what Erik Weihenmayer calls Positive Pessimisms. It goes like this:
“We’ll be sitting out in a raging storm. We’ve gone a month without showers. The wind is driving snow directly into our faces, and I’m wondering what insanity led me to this nightmare in the first place. That’s when Chris will look up with a big cheesy smile on his face and say, “Sure is cold out here…but at least it’s windy.” Another time, we had been moving through the cold for ten hours, and we were all wasted. Chris turned to our team and said, “Boys, we sure have been climbing a long way…but at least we’re lost.” In the Khumbu Icefall, as Chris was halfway across his first ladder over a giant crevasse, he came out with the classic, “This ladder may be rickety…but at least it’s swingin’ in the breeze.”
“When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. And swing!” – Leo Buscaglia
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Shawn Hunter is the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive awesome results.