“Dead people receive more flowers than the living ones because regret is stronger than gratitude.” Anne Frank
I live in the borough of Queens in New York City. For nearly two months, it was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are only six apartments in my building but, with social distancing and all, I hadn’t seen Annie, one of my downstairs neighbors, for more than three months!
When we did cross paths recently, we chatted in our masks at a safe distance and caught up. Once we had let out a few gripes and clarified that we have both stayed healthy so far, Annie reminded me, “It’s scary and it feels hard to be limited like this, but we really gotta be grateful.”
As I walked back upstairs, I pondered the Anne Frank quote at the top of this article.
Regrets, I’ve Had a Few
Time and time again, elderly patients in hospice or palliative care are asked if they have any regrets. Time and time again, that list displays universal themes that do not include an inventory of sex partners, salaries, or “adventure” experiences. Rather, it always comes down to some variation of these five regrets:
- I worked too hard/too many hours.
- I worried too much about others’ expectations to really be myself.
- I was afraid to fully express my emotions.
- I lost touch with old friends.
- I let old habits and patterns prevent me from being happier.
More moments of authentic gratitude could’ve worked wonders to stymy all five of these themes.
What’s Certain About Uncertainty
In 2020, we seem to be living in an environment of heightened uncertainty. In reality, of course, what is actually heightened is our awareness of something that is ever-present: uncertainty. None of us ever know what lurks around the next corner. Each moment is both fraught and gifted with possibilities. For that reason, we may view it as a logical path to avoid doing anything that may result in remorse. Counterintuitively, that is the fast lane to regret. Only by accepting and navigating the 24/7 presence of uncertainty can we more often choose to feel grateful.
Some Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude
When we practice and express gratitude, we are affirming the gifts we have received. We are also celebrating the role others play in providing and nurturing those gifts. The outcomes of this practice are many — including fewer regrets. Here are some other gratitude benefits discovered through decades of research and study:
- Increase in empathy
- Decrease in aggression
- Enhanced physical and psychological health
- Higher self-esteem
- Better sleep patterns
- Stress reduction and more resilience against trauma
- It makes you better prepared to manage and accept change
- Gratitude is shown to be a gateway to more and deeper relationships
6 Ways to Choose Gratitude
Put down those devices more often. To borrow from the poet, Mary Oliver, “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
Keep a Gratitude Journal
As often as possible, do this in real-time. Whenever anything happens to provoke gratitude, make note of it. Honor it. Bask in it. Refer back to it.
Size Doesn’t Matter
The other morning, upon waking, I looked out the window and spied an adolescent raccoon ambling across a nearby roof. This moment was the first entry in my gratitude journal for that day! You see, gratitude practice is not about reserving appreciation only for “big” things or socially-approved experiences. When you pay attention (see #1), you will discover an endless array of reasons to feel and share joy.
It can be much, much harder to feel grateful when you’re stuck in the past and/or anticipating the future. Mindfulness guides us to stay in the present moment. Pro tip: That’s precisely where gratitude resides.
Express Your Gratitude
Gratitude is most rewarding when it’s shared. This means telling people when they’ve touched you or helped you or inspired you. It also means sharing the entire experience with others who weren’t involved. Imagine how wonderful social media could be if it were home to less trolling and more gratitude.
Some clichés exist because they are true. This goes double for every meme extolling the virtues of altruism. When you help others — especially those not in a position to “re-pay” you — you create a space where gratitude can thrive and spread. Some of my favorite journal entries just may be the moments when I’ve had gratitude aimed back at me.
Help Your Gratitude Grow
Perhaps, as Anne Frank posited, regret can be stronger than gratitude. It is certainly easier to express. Gratitude requires awareness and a willingness to be vulnerable in a culture that values power. But if you regularly exercise your gratitude muscles, they can push their way to the front of the line. By flipping the gratitude-to-regret ratio, you will reap incredible rewards… and thus have many, many more entries for your journal.