We tend to spend our lives seeking to feel good in the future, but this is stressful and tiring in the present. With Gratitude, you feel good already. This creates positive emotions that have many important benefits such as strengthening the immune system, helping us recover from loss and trauma, and widening the perceptual field to help us see opportunities. My new book Resilient focuses on growing 12 essential inner-strengths for lasting well-being in a changing world, and Gratitude is one of them. In the excerpt below, you’ll explore how to develop gratitude and other positive emotions by feeling successful.
There is an architecture of aims inside us that ranges from microscopic regulatory processes within individual cells all the way up to our loftiest aspirations. Living is inherently goal-directed. Experiences of meeting your goals feel good, lower stress, and build positive motivation. They reassure you that you’re making progress, which helps you stay in the Responsive mode – in the green zone – as you go through your day. There are outcome goals such as getting out of bed in the morning, coming to a good understanding with someone at work, and washing the dishes after dinner. And there are process goals – ongoing values and aims – such as being honest, learning and growing, and taking care of your health.
If you think about it, you can see that you are accomplishing many outcome and process goals every hour.
For example, as you walk across a room, each step is a goal. This may sound trivial, but for a toddler learning to walk, each step is a victory. In a conversation, each word understood and facial expression deciphered is a goal attained. At work, every email read, text sent, and point made in a meeting is an accomplishment.
Since each day is full of goals, large and small, it is full of opportunities to take in experiences of successful goal attainment. Doing this builds up an internal sense of being successful, which helps us weather criticism and be less dependent upon the approval of others.
Much self-importance and acting superior is a compensation for underlying feelings of failure and inadequacy. Consequently, feeling like a success deep down can help people lighten up and take themselves less seriously. A durable sense of being successful comes from internalizing many experiences of small successes, not from seeing a big trophy outside such as a fancy car parked in the driveway.
Feelings of Failure
We all accomplish countless outcome and process goals each day. Yet many people do not feel very successful. One reason is the negativity bias. Internal alarms go off when we don’t meet goals, and dopamine activity drops in the brain, which feels bad and heightens anxiety, tension, and drivenness. But when we do meet our goals, we often don’t recognize it. People can be inattentive or numb as they do one task after another, or so focused on whatever is around the bend that they zoom through the finish line as they rush on to the next race.
When you notice an accomplishment, how often do you feel the success, if just for a moment? It’s common to block feelings of success due to fears of being ridiculed or punished for standing out or thinking you’re somebody special. And when you do have a sense of success, do you slow down to take it in and hardwire it into your nervous system?
The number of actual failures in any person’s life is tiny compared to the vast number of goals that have been successfully attained. But the failures are highlighted by the brain, associated with painful feelings, and stored deeply in memory. This crowds out a legitimate and well-earned sense of being an accomplished and successful person.
The fear of failure is worsened if you grew up with with a lot of criticism, even if there was also a lot of love. It’s also worsened if you are part of a company – or more broadly, an economy – that’s incentivized to keep people on the proverbial hamster wheel, with real success always slightly out of reach. Make your first dollar? It’s on to the first thousand. Make your $1000?` Well, so-and-so made $10,000. Get promoted? Stay hungry. Win a championship? Better repeat next year. Work harder, stay later, give 110 percent . . . but it’s never quite enough. The goalposts keep getting pushed back.
Feeling afraid of being a loser can be motivating, whether for a child or for a CEO. But over the long haul, those negative feelings wear people down and lower performance. Feeling reasonably successful already helps people aim high, recover from setbacks, and achieve their best.
Since you actually are moving from success to success hundreds of times each day, it’s simple justice to feel successful.
This is an excerpt from Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness.