How to be grateful

How to be grateful
A “2 penny hangover” meant sleeping over a rope in Victorian doss houses

Based on many measures this is the best time in human history to be alive. We have better healthcare, increased life expectancy, and significantly less famine and violence compared to prior generations. Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and Hans Rosling (Factfulness) both wrote books packed with statistics to illustrate this point. The author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari summarised how fortunate we are when he said: “For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.”

It’s not just the reduction in starvation, disease, and violence we should be grateful for, it’s also the technology that makes our life absurdly easy.

Do you remember driving without satnav? Or spending half of your Saturday queuing in the bank or post office to pay your bills? And how about travel? In the last 50 years, getting on a plane has become as common as getting on a train (in the US it’s more so). I can leave my UK home in the morning where it’s often cold and cloudy, and before lunchtime arrive in sunny Portugal for less than a train fare.

Arguably one of the greatest inventions of all time is anaesthetic. Imagine for a moment how unbearable it was to have surgery while fully conscious. According to The Lancet: before anaesthesia, patients experienced surgery in full consciousness, often as active participants in the operation. They had to hold their body in certain positions or perform particular movements.

When we reflect it’s hard not to feel fortunate for what we have compared to prior generations. We know we should be grateful so why don’t we feel that way? It’s quite simple. In parallel with improved standards of living, healthcare, and longevity, there has been an explosion in media consumption.

I’ve previously used the chart below to represent how differently we live our lives compared to the previous generations. While I can’t attest to the accuracy or how it was calculated, it’s safe to say the trend is to be believed. We have become media-obsessed junkies.

how to be grateful

The massive amount of media we consume isn’t the cause of ungratefulness — it’s the type of media. Unfortunately, much of what we consume makes us feel unfortunate, angry, and fearful — the polar opposite of gratitude.

The benefits of being grateful

There are plenty of ingredients that make up happiness: having good friends and family, enjoying good food, having good health, and enjoying experiences, however, if you’re not grateful for what you’ve got then you’re not happy. Let’s say I have twice the money, twice the friends, and better health than you, but you’re twice as grateful — clearly, you’re the winner.

“Because gratitude is the key to happiness, anything that undermines gratitude must undermine happiness. And nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. There is an inverse relationship between expectations and gratitude: The more expectations you have, the less gratitude you will have.”

Dennis Prager
Media that makes you ungrateful

Just as there’s good and bad food you can put in your stomach, there’s good and bad information you can put in your mind. Bad information affects your personality in a few ways:

  1. It makes you ungrateful: imagery of people (whether you know them or not) living a better life than you makes you feel inferior and discontent with what you have.
  2. It makes you fearful: war, terrorism, murder, rape, and child abductions; are examples of information that make you fearful.
  3. It makes you angry: the media does an incredible job at making you annoyed; culture wars, politicians, immigration. How would you know what to be angry about if it wasn’t for our media overlords?

The problem with consuming bad information is that it severely warps your sense of reality, and while your conscious self may disagree and think it doesn’t — you have no control over your subconscious (which ultimately controls “you”). When you bombard yourself with hours of imagery of overachievers, perfect bodies, smiley happy friends and family, it makes you feel like you’re missing out. Now pile on top of that, the news media with its doom and gloom, and you’re left believing the world is significantly worse and more dangerous than it actually is where everyone is doing better than you. You certainly don’t feel grateful.

I appreciate there are some useful aspects to social media — I’ve recently created a Facebook account (using a pseudo name and email) so I can use the marketplace and join interest groups without the negative side effects of social media. However, on the whole, I see social media as being the equivalent of highly processed food. If you wouldn’t eat at Mcdonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then consuming garbage information on a daily basis should be frowned upon too.

To become more grateful — cutting down or eliminating poor information is the obvious improvement to be made. Outside of removing Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, there are other less obvious changes too. YouTube is my media of choice because of its informative content, however, some of this material can subtly have an impact on gratefulness levels. I watch a lot of interviews, and where I used to go along with the belief that listening to super-achievers was inspirational and motivational. I now don’t. We’re made to believe that their success is achievable if we just work harder. But it’s not. Quite often these people are a one in a million or a one in a hundred million outlier. And most of it comes down to luck — no different to winning the lottery. And these are the people we make unhealthy subconscious comparisons to. It’s a surefire way to feel ungrateful.

How to feel small

If you ever want to feel short then visit the Netherlands where the average height for a man is 183 cm and for a woman 167 cm. Imagine for a moment what it’s like being the shortest person most of the time. It doesn’t matter if you’re the average (or above average) height of your home country — you’re going to feel short. And it’s not just height; surround yourself with people much younger than you if you want to feel older, or imagine visiting a country where everyone is a cover-magazine-beautiful if you want to feel less attractive.

If we think about living in these imaginary environments of taller, younger and more beautiful people — it’s easy to grasp why this wouldn’t be good for our ego. Yet for some reason, we think the digital content we consume doesn’t have this same effect — and we’re wrong.


An evolutionary explanation for why we feel worse for consuming media of people doing better than us is status. The author Will Storr in his book The Status Game argues that it’s our craving for status that ultimately defines who we are. “From the era of the hunter-gatherer to today, when we exist as workers in the globalised economy and citizens of online worlds, the need for status has always been wired into us. A wealth of research shows that how much of it we possess dramatically affects not only our happiness and wellbeing but also our physical health”. Having lower status would have meant fewer resources, less food and less sex. With so much media imagery being that of people doing better than us — it’s going to negatively impact where we sit in our imaginary social pecking order.

It’s why we loathe hearing someone bragging about their wealth or how “amazing” their life is (our status is being lowered). And conversely, it’s why we love self-deprecating characters (our status being increased).

Social and advertising media make us compare ourselves to those enjoying life more, those who are more attractive, those achieving more, and those with more money than us. So while abstinence from poor information choices will undoubtedly help, in parallel, consuming healthy information can turbocharge our levels of gratefulness. What I recommend is an about-turn on the information we feed ourselves.

It’s as simple as consuming information that makes us feel fortunate instead of unfortunate. Or put another way (according to Will Storr’s book), we consume information that increases our status vs decreasing it.

Healthy media

The Stoics teach voluntary discomfort to give you an appreciation of what you have and to quieten the mind for desiring more. An example would be living as if you were homeless for a day, sleeping on the floor or going a day without food. What I’m advocating has the same aim while being more accessible. Instead of brainwashing yourself with media that makes you feel unfortunate. Brainwash yourself with media that makes you realise how fortunate you are.

Here are some examples of things I’ve watched recently that aren’t considered “feel-good” but give you a deep sense of gratitude and are therefore healthy for your mind and mood. I have an unproven theory that much of the content that’s classified as “feel good” has the opposite effect as it often involves people that are living a better existence than us. My view is that we should consume more media that’s reality-based (not the news media) that makes us appreciate how fortunate we really are.

Greatest events of WW2 in colour

Greatest Events of WW2 in Colour
Watching the footage, listening to firsthand accounts, and imagining the bravery is incredibly grounding. How can you not feel grateful for what you have when you think about what so many people went through; the fighter pilots caught in dogfights, the persecution of the Jews, and civilians being bombed in their homes.

Edge of Life – Louis Theroux
Louis Theroux meets young patients battling for their lives against serious illnesses. Listening to terminally ill patients although saddening can’t help but make you feel fortunate — in one example one of the patients still manages to make light-hearted jokes about his situation — it puts anything you might be worrying about into perspective.

WWII in Colour: Road to Victory
A fantastic series about World War Two that can’t help but make you feel grateful for those that fought, and how lucky we are today in comparison. Listening to survivors of the Dunkirk evacuations, and watching footage from the Battle of the Atlantic is incredible.

The Life-Changing Journey Of Being Selected As A Gurkha
After watching the documentary 14 Peaks, and the incredible story of former Gurkha Nimsdai Purja, I was intrigued to learn more about this branch of the UK military and I came across a 20-minute video on Youtube. It’s fascinating how young Nepalese men dream of joining the Gurkhas, whereas here in the UK the overwhelming majority of the population would see it as a punishment to join the armed forces. Your life is put into perspective when you see how ecstatic the successfully selected candidates are — for them, it’s like winning the lottery.

The Victorian Slum
This series recreates how the poor lived in the Victorian era which in relative terms wasn’t that long ago. It’s shocking to see the conditions so many people lived in and how fortunate we are today. Trying to stay alive was a daily challenge back then. It’s evident from the contestants in the show that they are putting themselves through the challenge of living as the poor Victorians did to become more grateful for what they have today. Several of the show’s contestants become tearful at the conditions that so many Victorians lived through from experiencing it firsthand themselves.

Regularly consuming media that makes you reflect on how fortunate you are, it will undoubtedly improve your well-being. An alternative is to eliminate all media from your life — something only the extreme minority can do. It’s a thought experiment worth pondering though: what would the world be like if everything was identical as it is today other than there being no media? So no internet, no TV, no radio, and certainly no newspapers. I struggle to believe that the world’s population wouldn’t be happier. We’d certainly all get on a lot better.

Having too much money

One easy way to be ungrateful is by having too much money. And by “too much” I don’t mean mega wealth, I just mean more money than you reasonably need. I’m finally leaving my job after many years of being paid an above-average salary — as soon as I realised that my employment was coming to an end, my consumption habits changed immediately. Whereas before I would mindlessly shop in Waitrose and not think about cost, now I appreciate shopping frugally, finding bargains, consuming fewer “luxuries” and appreciating them more when I do.

“You wanna see pain? Swing by First Methodist Tuesday nights. See the guys with testicular cancer. That’s pain.”

Annoyed by his whining, the Narrator’s doctor in the film Fight Club tells him to gain a greater perspective on life by going to a testicular cancer therapy group to see real problems worth stressing about. After attending, the Narrator becomes hooked and starts attending more therapy groups including those for sickle cell and brain parasites.

Before meeting his doctor, the audience gets to experience the Narrator’s dull office life and consumer-obsessed existence. In one scene the Narrator is browsing a shopping catalogue and asks himself “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”.

This is a great representation of where many of us are today: stressing about nothing-problems, and ungrateful for what we have until we see what real problems are. We’re cocooned in a media and consumption-obsessed bubble which causes misery and misplaced values.

We continue to consume more media which makes us worry more and want more. We feel like there’s something missing, there’s always “more” of something to be had; more security, more friends, more money, more house ..more everything. It’s the key to being ungrateful and unhappy.

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”


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4 thoughts on “How to be grateful

  1. Congratulations, I hope leaving employment leads to some great adventures and fulfilment.
    Im going to embrace the stoics and experiment with a sabbatical on all media consumption.
    Thanks for the insight.

  2. Congrats and good luck with the retirement.

    I embraced some stoicism during the pandemic – rather than moan about not being able to ‘do stuff’ during lockdown, I contemplated on how lucky I was to have a roof over my head, to have a job, and to have running water and power. Avoiding watching the news also helped!

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