Readers regularly write in with dilemmas they face, and the purpose of this column is to bring a broader perspective to how situations are evaluated in order to achieve the best possible solution. Yet there is another broadly useful tool that can help in any situation: gratitude.
Start with the assumption that, in any situation, there is something that you can be grateful for. I recognize that this can sometimes be a hard premise to accept, and certainly it can be very difficult to find that kernel. However, achieving this perspective provides serenity and a launching place for positive direction.
The inner game
Experiencing a sense of gratitude may come naturally to you, or may be a skill you need to learn; however, it can be accomplished by anyone. Start easy, thinking of the positive aspects of your life, and outlining exactly what you're grateful for. For example, you may have a family member who has always been supportive of you. Instead of just thinking, "I'm grateful for Susie," try, "I'm grateful for the way that Susie can make me laugh when I'm upset, will house-sit my cats, and stuck up for me when I was a kid."
Then take your thoughts to a more challenging situation, say, a co-worker who is hard to get along with. Depending on how poor your relationship is, there may be little to draw on. Howard Cutler, in "The Art of Happiness" (co-written with His Holiness the Dalai Lama), describes a situation in which he is in a middle seat in a crowded airplane. As his annoyance with the passenger next to him grows, he chooses to focus on finding aspects that do not annoy him -- at last arriving at her thumbnail. It's only a step to gratitude for the opportunity to learn a lesson on patience and tolerance.
Finally, there are the big hitters, such as job loss and serious illness. No one would reasonably say that one should be grateful for these. However, in talking with a friend who is a cancer survivor, she noted that her experience with cancer gave her perspective, and she is grateful for that perspective. It allows her greater equanimity in dealing with workplace pressures and other non-life-or-death situations.
The outer game
Feeling appreciation internally is wonderful, and expressing it outward is a gift to others. How often do you do that?
Start at home, and find opportunities every day to show gratitude to people in your family. Thank people who help you, including store clerks, your doctor, or the folks at the post office.
Take opportunities that could be annoying, such as being caught in traffic, and use them as free time to think or listen to a favorite song.
Notice small things of beauty, and let yourself feel gratitude for their existence. Notice challenges, and appreciate the pressure they put on you to grow.
Simple though these steps are, they will build a habit that moves you into a consistently positive point of view.
The last word
Practice experiencing gratitude and then expressing it to others. Many problems will dissolve, and you'll achieve new insights into resolving others.