Practices of Gratitude – Overriding the Default Settings

Last week was full of disruptions for me. Not the catastrophic sort – just the inconveniences that come when you get a new phone and have to learn how to manage your life all over again. Does anyone else find it disturbing how disruptive any interruption to our normal smartphone use is to our lives?

photo-1466973252363-34d67b6bc28dBut perhaps most irksome for me, is getting all the default settings adjusted. My new Blackberry is a clever contraption, although it has an Android operating system that came set up assuming I would want things a certain way. But who wants their phone to vibrate each time to touch a letter on the keyboard? So I find myself scouting through endless menus to change all these defaults with the aim of making it function the way that works best for me.

Humans have default settings as well. Our brains have developed over millions of years so we have species-specific defaults that have been shaped by our goals of survival and reproduction.

When it comes to gratitude, I would suggest that our default position is shaped by the brain’s tendency to take things for granted because it is heavily biased towards novelty.

Even when good changes happen in our life, we are often thankful for a short while, but then quickly become accustomed to the new normal. I’m writing this sitting in my backyard among flowers on a beautiful summer day. Not so long ago I was complaining and writing about the oppression of grey and cold. But it was only a matter of weeks before warmth and beauty became my new status quo and neglected so far as my attention is concerned. Only a few years ago I was thrilled to have my own backyard to sit in. Now this pretty little stretch of land I call home has become commonplace in my life and rarely noticed, let alone appreciated.

We are creatures of adaptation. It’s what makes us so successful as a species. We adapt quickly to almost any environment. A crucial part of that adaption is an energy saving feature in our brains that causes us to focus mostly on novelty and threats. We give little attention to the ordinary everyday things of our lives because we have limited cognitive and emotional resources in the potentially overstimulating world we inhabit. Perhaps this tendency is accelerating with even more mental stimulation in our pockets in the form of electronic devices. As I tried to shut off most of the alerts on my new phone I was surprised by how often it was beckoning me to pay attention to it and neglect everything else around me.

So while you may have been feeling some guilt or shame about not being grateful in your life as you’ve been reading these blogs, I want to absolve you by telling you that your lack of gratitude is to some degree a product of your brain’s tendency to scrimp and save resources for other things. Chances are, your default is ingratitude and taking things for granted. Not because you’re a bad person or your mother did a lousy job raising you; but because your biology predisposes you to ignore a lot of things you could be grateful for. Yes, there is a role for culture and upbringing (thanks mom) in forming how thankful we are. But what I hope we can agree upon, is that this gratitude thing is bit of an uphill climb, and for some very good and understandable reasons.

Which of course raises the question – if ingratitude is our default or more natural position, isn’t it unnatural or even unwise to try and work against or around this?

Not necessarily. You may be a marvellously adaptive creature, but not all of your adaptations are in your best interest, or the best interest of the other living things in world for that matter. In fact, what makes us even more spectacular as humans is our consciousness – our ability to be aware of adaptations, evaluate them, and make changes. A group of drunk teenagers just staggered down my block making quite a ruckus. So let’s use them as our example of unhealthy adaptations.

If these adolescents drink a lot of alcohol on a regular basis, their liver and other parts of their bodies will start to adapt to that intake. Most of us know this as “tolerance”, the tendency of a body to need more alcohol to get drunk if their lifestyle involves drinking in large quantities over an extended period.  But most of us would agree that tolerance is not necessarily a fully good adaptation. On one hand it’s your body’s defence against ethanol poisoning – which is good – but at the same time that adaptation creates other problems both in terms of your health, and your behaviour if you’re getting intoxicated regularly.

This adaptation of our attention to an overstimulating world; this tendency to ignore the commonplace and fail to recognize the value and meaning of what surrounds us, is not altogether good, and needs to be tweaked a little bit. It’s good to save mental resources and be efficient. But if in the process of doing so we overlook the fact that we are surrounded by gifts, we may be threatening our survival in other ways. Consider this: if I fail to appreciate all that my wife means to me and neglect to express this to her on consistent basis, I might be putting my own survival at greater peril by overlooking something “normal”. Don’t get me wrong – she’s not going to harm me for ingratitude. But our relationship is a crucial part of my survival (and yes passing on my genes) from an economic, emotional, and physical health perspective.

So, we need to balance out this adaptation with another adaptation – some kind of patch that alters our default just enough that we function more optimally.

My writing software saves every 5 minutes – by default. I know there’s probably a setting somewhere that would allow me to save more frequently and protect my work against a dreaded crash. But instead of changing the default, I’ve developed a work around – I pay attention to the passage of time and save it manually every two minutes. This may seem silly (and inefficient) but the principle is crucial: working around defaults starts with bringing conscious awareness to how those defaults are operating in our lives.

We need to bring our consciousness in “unnatural” ways to the mundane, everyday life things around us if we want to be more thankful people. We need to be aware that we’re overlooking ordinary gifts, and develop practices of paying attention that work around our default settings of focusing on novelty to the exclusion of mundane blessings.

So it begins with attention. Start with whatever it is in front of you. Your mind might not notice much at first because the default setting is still operating. If there isn’t anything that seems different or novel, you might sense that there’s “nothing” there. But look again. Listen more closely. Feel, taste, smell, and take note of your environment. There’s an abundance of things – things that are gifts – all around you. Your internal operating system is set up to overlook it, but you can override this, it just requires practice. You don’t have to do it all the time, nor probably should you stay always focused on the ordinary in the present moment. But this “patch”, so to speak, is one which allows you to function a little differently from time to time and override your default of ingratitude.

In a nutshell: Just stop and be still. Uncheck that box in your mental program that says “ignore everything except novelty”, and allow yourself to pay attention to what’s in front of you right now. Recognize the gift that it is there.

My phone is buzzing again. I look at it for the hundred time today and decide to put it down and see instead what’s behind it. In seeing what I actually see, I notice a pink hibiscus flower. My kids decided they wanted a flower garden of their own this year. We planted that hibiscus, and then promptly forgot about it. But it’s done surprising well. Such delicate beauty can stir our souls when we pay attention to it. I’m tempted to take a picture and use it instead of the default wallpaper on my phone. But that’s not the default I need to change is it? It’s always tempting to reach for technology to be our solution, but the path towards a life steeped in gratitude begins with our willingness to practice paying attention to ordinary miracles like flowers and the children who planted them.

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