This year has been full of unexpected surprises, the first of which being the crazy decision to move to the Middle East. Previously, I had been living in Atlanta working at a dead end job, and hardly spent any time creating (aside from weekly collaging sessions with my best friend). It wasn't a bad life, I love Atlanta and my community there, but I have an undeniable craving for adventure. My parents and two younger brothers had moved to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in 2015, so you could say the craving runs in the family.
In January of this year, my parents offered me the opportunity to stay with them for a few months, explore a little, and work on some personal projects. I said no at first, but over time the idea grew on me. Traveling and experiencing the world and it's ever evolving cultures is a great passion of mine. I couldn't resist the opportunity to explore one of the most misunderstood (and misrepresented) regions of the world. So naturally, I packed up my bags, and jumped on a plane. It's been an incredible adventure, and I have created some of my favorite work here. But the lifestyle is definitely different, as my American friends prepare for Thanksgiving, we begin preparing for National Day (December 2). As I jealously liked heaping plates of turkey and mashed potatoes on Instagram, I begin to dwell on the concept of gratitude.
I often find myself envying my friends back home, during my time in the UAE, I've lost touch with most of them, but I see the events they attend and that I regrettably miss. Over the past few months some projects I had been working on did not work out in my favor, and ultimately did not come to fruition. These dashed expectations caused me to experience feelings of bitterness towards my situation, and resentment towards myself for not working harder. Those feelings in combination with the envy and loneliness I was experiencing began to snowball into annoyance, frustration and depression. I was comparing the life that I was experiencing, to what I thought I should be experiencing. In the mornings before I start my day, and before bed at night, I like to listen to different podcasts and reflect on my day. This week I listened to an excellent podcast by Noah Rasheta over at Secular Buddhism, and it reminded me of the importance of practicing gratitude daily.
“The root of joy is gratefulness...It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”
― David Steindl-Rast
Noah began to explain that we often live our lives in the pursuit of happiness, and I am definitely guilty of that. We lose ourselves trying to achieve happiness, and do not see how we can create it for ourselves. That experience of dualistic thinking, life as it is vs. life as I think it should be, is often our downfall. When we practice gratitude we remove those expectations of what we want our life to be, and find the beauty in what it is. Our attachment to that "ideal life" is what causes us so much suffering, and makes it so difficult to be thankful every day. We often think that once we have that "ideal life", we will be grateful; but once we are grateful for how our life is, we begin to experience happiness as a direct side effect.
In his podcast, Noah Rasheta then gave us 5 key steps to developing a habit of gratitude:
1. Awareness: What am I not noticing? Why?
Often times we find ourselves blaming events and circumstances in our lives as the root of our unhappiness. "If I had just gotten that promotion, I would be happy...If I moved to a new city, I would be happy" But what we often fail to realize is that had a specific circumstance surrounding those events been changed, we would be grateful for that very same event.
1. In this first scenario we find ourselves faced with the opportunity to move to a new city and pursue the career of our dreams, but we ultimately don't get the job and find ourselves blaming our unhappiness on staying where we are.
2. In the second scenario, we find ourselves with the same opportunity, and again, we find ourselves not getting the job. Soon after the interview, the city you would have moved to experiences a terrible natural disaster. We find ourselves being thankful that we didn't get the job, and stayed where we are.
As you can see, it is not the event of not getting the job that causes the unhappiness, it is our idea of what should have happened in our ideal situation. As you go through your day, take the time to develop and awareness, and ask yourself "Why aren't I grateful?" and take notice of the small things that you can be grateful for in this moment.
2. Write it Down: Keep a Gratitude Log
I'm a pen & paper kinda girl, I have dozens of notebooks (I got my favorite one from Muji!) and I find it easier to remember things if I write them down. Over the past few months, I started a Bullet Journal to help me stay organized and keep better track of my habits, thoughts and memories. One of the things I saw many people doing in their Bullet Journal each month was starting a Gratitude Log. I started one in October and November (I admit, I didn't do it every day!) but the days I took the time to start my morning with a few moments of mindfulness and gratitude, my attitude changed. I found myself complaining less, being more patient and I found myself finding more things to be thankful for throughout the day. If you aren't a huge fan of writing things down, here's a few apps that will send you a reminder every day and help you stay accountable.
If you don't feel like downloading an app, you can always just write them down in the Notes on your phone! Just taking the time to list one thing every day that you are thankful for is an important step towards creating a habit.
3. Identify the Negative: Counter it with Positivity
I often find that I am more likely to comment on the negative things I am experiencing vs. the positive. If I walk into a room and it's cold, or the seat I'm in is uncomfortable, I will most likely mention it. Why is that? I rarely find myself complimenting the things that benefit me, but make sure to let everyone know when I'm inconvenienced. Why do we focus so much on what bothers us instead of what makes us comfortable? It's due to our lack of awareness. We take so many things in our life for granted, and find it difficult to be excited or grateful for something unless it stands out from the the normality of our comfort zone. A good step in the right direction is first being aware of our negativity. If we catch ourselves complaining about something, and immediately counter it with a positive aspect, we can rewire our thinking.
Example: You find yourself waiting in a really long queue, you become annoyed with how long it is taking. Instead of dwelling on the negative aspect, you are thankful that you have a few moments to appreciate the scenery and read something interesting while you wait.
Once you develop a habit of gratitude, this will come more naturally, and you will find yourself finding less things to complain about on a daily basis.
4. Practicing: Authentically Grateful
"We often go through life experiencing gratitude, but rarely expressing it" - Noah Rasheta
When we experience gratitude, it feels great for us, if we share that feeling with others, it will grow and flourish. We as humans thrive in an environment of love and acceptance, one of our deepest desires is to be loved unconditionally. When we take the time to compliment each other, or remind our mom how thankful we are for all she does, we create that atmosphere of love. If we take the first steps towards creating it, and actively cultivate it, our relationships will grow stronger, we will be happier, and our loved ones will feel it too. Have you ever been around someone who just always has something positive to say? It's so refreshing, you leave their home and you feel warm and loved. It comes more naturally to some, but we all have the potential to be that way. We should aim to be an oasis of peace, natural, light, and refreshing. To spread love and light into the lives of others, we must first see the beauty in life.
Make a short term goal to compliment a stranger, or a loved one every day for a week. The great thing about compliments, is that everyone wants to be validated and appreciated. If you compliment someone on their hair, or notice their new shirt, they will be validated in their decisions and appreciated for their sense of style. With loved ones it can be more personal, just thanking someone for spending time with you can show your appreciation for their friendship and love.
5. Make a Vow: 10 days with No Complaints, Criticisms, or Gossip
So we've established an awareness of our negativity, and we are practicing gratitude by expressing it, now it is time to eliminate the negative. This can be a lot more difficult than it seems, but it can greatly increase your awareness of how negative we can be in our daily life. My family and I are taking the next 10 days to eliminate the negativity in our lives. We want to express gratitude in a greater way, and express compassion. I would love for you to join us, follow me on Facebook and I'll be posting from my gratitude log each day! Feel free to let me know your thoughts and a few things you're thankful for in the comments.
The Power of Compassion & Finding Contentment
Another thing I wanted to touch on was compassion, to me, gratitude and compassion go hand in hand. I am the Editor in Chief of an alternative fashion publication: ALT HAUS Magazine, our theme for our November Issue was COMPASSION. This topic is close to my heart and I expanded on it the Editor's Letter, you can read an excerpt below:
"There is something that I believe in very strongly, and that is the power of compassion. To practice compassion daily is what will ultimately create that deeper connection with others, and the long term happiness that we all crave. It is defined as recognizing our shared suffering, and wishing for it to be alleviated. The best way to live a compassionate life is to start with yourself. To better understand the suffering of others, we must first recognize our own. Do not confuse that with self pity, which creates a downward spiral. Recognize your suffering for what it is, be aware of it, and allow yourself to fully experience it. Don’t suppress the anger, frustration or sadness. Just be.
Then you let go. Let go of those ideals that you hold in your mind, the way you should act, the way you should think or feel. When you let go of the expectations of what you should be, then you can become who you are meant to be. Fully experiencing suffering, and empathizing with those who suffer as we do, creates a connection. Our shared emotions and experiences are what bring us together, and create a feeling of communality. Practicing compassion is also practicing vulnerability; it’s difficult, and it’s scary, but healing."
When we actively practice gratitude each day, and live our lives as compassionate beings, we will be happier, and more selfless.
Through these practices of gratitude and compassion, I am finding contentment. Happiness is an emotion, it can come and go with the wind. Contentment is satisfaction. I am grateful for the opportunities I have, and the relationships with those I love. The life I live is comfortable and can be very exciting at times. There is beauty in the world, and there is beauty in me. I am satisfied with who I am, and with my continual growth as an artist and a person. There are so many things to be grateful for, and there are so many people to be compassionate towards. We mustn't waste our time on the trivial inconveniences. Get rid of the expectations of what life should be, and love it for what it truly is.
What are you grateful for?
Daniela Brown is a wedding and fine art portrait photographer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She continues to explore the world and capture the beauty that is human connection.