Gratitude: The Antidote To Desire

November is by far and away my favorite holiday month for a simple reason - Thanksgiving. The American Thanksgiving is one of the few non-desirous holiday the western world has got - a holiday dedicated to the proposition that people should take out some time to be grateful for the riches they already possess. As the pace of life continues to quicken, our human relationships become more and more fragmented, and our attention is scattered to the wind it is nice to have the institution of Thanksgiving to look forward to at the end of this month - a Zen-like call towards being here now and appreciating what we have.

Many of us have a lot to be grateful for: a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, clothing to keep us warm, family and friends to share life with, etc. But - how many of you know someone - perhaps many someone's - perhaps yourself - who might have some or all of the above things and still have difficulty appreciating them? Or find that these things are okay but to harbor just a little bit of shame that you are stuck with these things and not the upgraded better model. . .

My point is this - a persons ability to be grateful is quite independent of that persons possession of things to be grateful about. Having things doesnt mean youll be grateful for them. Ill go further and venture to say that the ability to feel gratefulness is a key part of mental health. To the extent that a person cannot experience gratitude they are suffering.

What is it that prevents a person from being able to experience gratitude? The causes are many. However, one important cause has to do with our willingness to desire ideas over reality.

Sometimes people get stuck on an idea. It could be the idea that they are too poor, or that a truly perfect mate exists out there somewhere. The idea might take many forms but the underlying message of the idea is that things are not good as they are - that there is an ideal state out there and that happiness is only possible if this ideal state (becoming rich, finding that perfect spouse) is achieved.

It is easy to develop this fixation in western society. In fact - if you havent developed this fixation youre somewhat of a cultural misfit. We are constantly being marketed to by people who want to sell us stuff. Knowing that we have little incentive to buy things that we dont think we need, marketers take the tact of creating or awakening needs within us that help us to want to buy things. The tact that is often taken by marketers is to suggest that life as it is is not actually as good as it should be - and that this condition could be fixed with the purchase of what they are selling. In essence marketers focus our attention on what we lack (rather than what we possess) and in so doing awaken in us a painful recognition of inadequacy. Because marketers want to sell us stuff - the idealized solution to this inadequacy feeling they offer is presented in terms of a material paradise - a shiny new car (with leather interior), a bigger home, better clothing, a DVD player or a faster computer, the right dress or suit, a straighter nose or larger breasts.

We cant blame the marketers for taking this tactic. After all - they didnt invent this sort of thinking - they just expanded upon a set of ideas that are as old as western civilization itself.

To trace the origin of this sort of idealism we would need to go back at least as far as ancient Greece and check out the philosopher Plato (c. 429-347 BCE) who taught that reality was not to be found in what actually existed but rather in what ideally existed somewhere in the hypothetical realm of forms - a sort of spiritual warehouse of the gods wherein the essential form of all that exists was stored. According to this doctrine - a chair that you would sit in was but an imperfect approximation of the ideal chair form - the perfect chair found only in the realm of forms. A core message of Platos idealism was that reality and perfection are impossible for humans to possess directly. Embedded in this idea is a rejection of the world as it exists in favor of the world as it ought to exist. Imagine that - 2500 years ago and already were being set up for misery.

A similar twist on idealism takes place during the European middle ages with the development/invention of romantic love. Originally a sort of spiritual and chaste devotion of a knight towards a married lady (and vice-versa), the idea subsequently morphed into the expectation that unending bliss and ecstasy could be found within marriage (e.g., and they lived happily ever after). Of course (for many of us anyway) this is just not true (at least the part about unending). Like any relationship, marriage and romantic relationships in general need to be continually and effortfully worked on or they tend to go stale. However, the reality of the situation doesnt stop us from wanting the dream of unending bliss for no effort - and the state of wanting this bliss can be painful and can lead to even more painful outcomes such as adultery, loneliness and divorce. For instance, I have known persons who, after years of marriage have sought out affairs in the belief that the new partner will bring back the lost sense of bliss. I have also known single persons who have habitually (and unconsciously) rejected potential dating partners because none could stack up to an imagined (or in some cases remembered) idealized partner. In both cases chasing after an idealized vision of how things could be is also a rejection of the possibilities that are available right now.

I could go on but the essence of what I have to say is this -

With some important exceptions (notably abusive relationships and extreme poverty) persons desiring idealized visions (of material goods, of love relationships) will not become happier people when they pursue these visions for the simple reasons that desire tends to be insatiable and that happiness and desire tend to be incompatible. Desire takes you away from what you currently have. And what you have now (assuming you are not being abused) is often worthy of your attention and delight - and can become a growing source of bliss - if only you would look at it lovingly. In this season of Thanksgiving my hope for readers of this column is that you explore the barriers to gratitude you experience in your lives and find it within your hearts to appreciate and attend to the riches you already possess.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Director,

Reference:
Dombeck, M.J. (Nov 1999). Gratitude the Antidote to Desire. [Online].

Comments
  • Sally Hicks

    I like, nay, love the topic of gratitude. Of course I could tell you the many, many, many, many things i am grateful for, but I will only say this: I am grateful that I live in a country that allows me the freedom to sit at my computer and share my thoghts with like-minded and sometimes not like-mined people. I who had nothing have the world. I who deserved nothing, was given life. I who lost hope found it within my heart. Life is good. Keep up the good work, Doc

  • sally

    I'm sitting here this morning thinking of the gratitude I have for the recovery program AA. When I first came to AA I was drinking a quart, sometimes more, of rum a day. I had long stopped hanging out at the bars because I always got in fights, or went to jail, or almost never could remember how i got home, and would spend all my money, or lose it, who knows what really happened to it. On a really bad night or morning I would wake up in some strange place with some strange man, no money, no car, no self respect. I would slink out of the area wondering how I could do this once again. So, the last few years of my drinking were alone in my house. I liked it that way, I could drink a lot more and not have the worries associated with my bar experinces. I never intended to come to AA. My nephew ( who I negatively influenced) was sent to a treatment center, he was 16. I went because my sister guilted me into going and because I loved him. In that week I didn't drink and I heard something...I think it was the truth. I went to my first AA meeting at the end of the week and i found exceptance and love like I never knew exsisted. That was 21 years ago. A lot has happened in that time. I stayed stuck in a time warp for 13 years and relapsed on Oxycontin after having 17 years of sobriety. I never left AA. It wasn't AA that let me down. I now have three years of the best sobriety I have ever had. I made one huge discovery this last year. In my quest for the truth about my relapse and spiritual journey I realized I was practising another addition. I believe it is my primary addition and Iv'e had it since I was very young. So not being totally recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body I was sure to relapse at some point. I am now going to OA also. (Overeaters Anonymous). Very different from AA but they still adhere to the 12 steps and 12 traditions, and the spiritual solution to addiction. I have lost 83 lbs this last year, not that that is what it's all about but I am sure grateful for the physical recovery. I now have a new understanding of my recovery process. I am so grateful for God, the people in AA and now OA, my husband for loving me through the good times and bad, for all the great jobs I've had, for the people who disagree with me because they help me grow and look at myself in a different way. I am grateful to be a women living in this day and age in this country, in this city. I am grateful to have in-laws that love me, a job that values me and a church and God that feeds me in a way food never could. I am grateful to have a computer on which I can touch all sorts of people and they can touch me. Wow...I could go on and on. I hope more people post to this site because I believe that gratitude is one of the biggest helps toward recovery rather that recovery is from trauma, addiction or some other type of injury. I have checked out some of your other topics and share in one of those. Very interesting. Thanks for letting me gush.

  • Lisa

    This is wonderful. Thank you for writing it.

  • Anon

    I will be sure to be grateful for a loving relationship if that ever happens to me. since it's not happening, I'll just beat myself up for not feeling 'grateful'.

  • Duffy Pearce

    I always laugh when I hear AA newcomers scoffing at the idea they should be grateful to be alcoholic. For me the question isn't whether or not you're grateful to be an alcoholic but whether you're grateful or ungrateful in your outlook.

    A grateful alcoholic isn't drinking anymore and is grateful for that. A grateful alcholic truly appreciates life on life's terms (at least most of the time) and struggles to rediscover gratitude when fear and resentment start to take hold.

    I was an ungrateful alcoholic while I was still drinking. I couldn't see anything in my life that would make stopping drinking worthwhile.

    I'm thankful for everyday I can be a grateful alcoholic. I despair on the days I can't find or or am blind to the amazing gifts I've been given.

  • Ricky

    First let me thank the author for this beautiful article and second to others who added comments.

    I'm also a recovering alcoholic, learning to "choose" to feel grateful for so many things I have in my life and for all love available to me at this moment in time. I suppose only alcoholics really understand what a miracle it is for me having just celebrated my fourth year in sobriety. I am also learing to enjoy life as it is and working towards a more fulfilling and miningful life with the help of Alcoholics Anoymous 12 steps program. At this moment in my recovery, after having learned lots about myself I can see why I needed a constant anesthetic throughout my life and this article seems spot on on some of the issues I feel I need to work right now.

    I currently have 3 children from my broken marriage and a loving girlfriend apart from a beautiful life only I cannot appreciate (although it is getting better). For a long time I have a desire (dream) of finding the perfect and beautiful 30 years old woman who wants a baby from me. In the process I've broken up and back with my 50 years old loving girlfriend about 5 times since we started 2 years ago. She loves my kids, they love her and we seem to be very compatible indeed. Nevertheless once in a while I decide to exhert my powers and exclude her from my reality with the excuse that I can reduce her pain of seeing me going with my "dreamed" princess.

    Somehow this week I'm realising that one of my problems is lack of gratitude for all I already have. I know as a fact that a beautiful baby from a gorgeous young woman would only provide me a temporary distraction to the real issues I have to address in my life.

    I like to thank the author of this article because it helps me thinking on reality as it is and I already have lot's of it and if I can just find the way to feel grateful for what I have and stop thinking so much about myself and give a bit more to others, I will be able to help my 3 children and loving girlfriend to be happy themselves and live a more meaningful and happier life.

    Can anyone suggest an antidote to lack of gratitude?

    Thanks all.