Try This Instead of Making a Gratitude List

Yesterday, our teacher training group was discussing contentment. What do you do to be more content? The question caught us all a little off guard, as we realized an active contentment practice is something we should have but mostly don’t.

One student asked, “Does being grateful help? How about thinking about people less fortunate than you are?”

I put it to the group, “What do you guys think? Does that make you more content?”

Silence. A few head shakes confirming what I thought. No, thinking of the 80,000 people homeless after fleeing war torn Syria does not make me feel more content. Thinking of the 12 percent of Americans living with daily food insecurity does not make me feel more content. It does make me feel lucky, but not in a way that floods me with positivity. Instead, I feel lucky in a way that makes me at best compassionate and at worst quite depressed.

Gratitude lists or gratitude journals are the favorite daughters of the positive thinking movement. “List 3 things you’re grateful for every day!” People say. So we do. And it may help some. But it doesn’t bring about the deep sense of contentment we seek. In sanskrit, it is known as santosha, and it is one of the 5 personal codes we are asked to live by on the yogic path.

One of our students speaks English as a second language and wasn’t sure he totally understood the meaning of the word contentment. We tried to define it. Here is what we said:

  • Contentment is waking up in the morning with a general sense that things are okay and nothing needs immediately changed
  • Contentment is a lack of anxiety about the current state of our lives
  • Contentment is okay being alone, being bored, or having nothing to do for entertainment

And then we all agreed that we are only sometimes content, and it is typically only in some areas of our lives. So we workshopped it. What could we do to actively seek contentment? What would a contentment practice look like?

One thing that we all agreed on is swapping out gratitude for appreciation. Gratitude is a thought or mindset. Appreciation is an activity. It is sensory and experiential, much like the yoga practice. Here are ways we thought of to practice appreciation:

  • We can truly experience pleasure in the moment it is occurring. For example, we can eat food and experience the rich sensations that accompany this simple, daily ritual.
  • We can marvel at the small enjoyments of every day life. For example, we can pause to take in beauty when we see it. We can let it wash over us completely, dominating all of our sense.
  • We can find moments throughout the day to take stock of all that has occurred to bring us a specific blessing. For example, we can walk through our home and remember a time when we wanted to live in a house just like this, or do a job just like this, or have a relationship just like this. Or, we can appreciate all the hands that helped deliver this good fortune to us, from the carpenters to the plumbers to the utility workers that make our life possible.

Try it. Swap out a sensory appreciation practice in place of a gratitude list. And when you feel a rush of contentment, lean into it. Be with it as long as you can. It is often fleeting, but fleeting contentment is a pretty damn good thing.