One of the first practices my therapist gave me to manage my anxiety was called “3-2-1.” It’s a daily practice that involves articulating 3 things you’re grateful for, 2 affirmations, and 1 productive thing to do for the day.

I’ve been maintaining this practice pretty consistently for almost 2 years now. I have found the focus on gratitude, in particular, to be very meaningful.

In my contemplations on the subject of gratitude, and all the teachings I’ve absorbed in a syncretic manner, I find two major lessons on gratitude.

Firstly, gratitude is in opposition to expectations. Every day, we must consciously and mindfully make the choice to focus on gratitude. The reason for this is we’re hardwired for expectations, not gratitude.

The second lesson is that gratitude is the key to living your best life. Gratitude is the gateway to presence. With gratitude, we can arrive at acceptance. And with acceptance, we can let go of expectations and be present. And only when we are present are we living our best life.

I’ve ridden the South Platte River Trail so many times, it’s easy to see it as something I have to get through to get where I want to be. What we see most often can be the most challenging to greet with gratitude and presence. Thus, our loved ones, our work, our home are all challenging to see with gratitude.

Gratitude vs. Expectations

Let’s start with a contemplation of how gratitude is in opposition to expectations, and the effect that the respective mindsets can have on our experience of life.

It is perhaps easiest to start with a discussion on expectations, as they constitute our more natural state of being. If you’ve ever heard of the Negativity Bias, then you are familiar with how we are essentially hard-wired to look for what could go wrong in life.

The Negativity Bias is a psychological phenomenon that describes how our minds naturally respond more readily to things that go wrong, perceived dangers, and all the generally bad things in life. At one point in evolution, it was a matter of self-preservation.

This psychological phenomenon explains why bad first impressions can be so difficult to overcome and why past traumas can have such long lingering effects. In almost any interaction, we are more likely to notice negative things and later remember them more vividly.

“Negative Bias,” verywellmind

This Negativity Bias leads us into expectations. The natural source of expectations is as predictions about potential negative outcomes in the future. This would be beneficial for survival in a world filled with dangers.

The Negativity Bias and expectations come from the same evolutionary place. Expectations could be said to be the materiel of the Negativity Bias.

The Value of Gratitude

I often think about how releasing my expectations can be key to finding presence even when life is hectic and I have little time to enjoy the moment. I found this to be true when I was living out of my car during an emotional breakdown.

Many evenings gave me opportunities to savor the sunset at Standley Lake in Denver.

I was very busy working overtime to afford dog-sitting, which allowed me to work, as I am required by my job to work on site. Taking care of my dog, however, provided one of my few moment during the day to be present as I enjoyed an evening walk with my dog.

With the season turning from Summer to early Fall, the shortening days gave me a window to take in sunsets. I would think about releasing any expectations I had about previous days’ sunsets and how they made me feel in that moment.

Every day was different. Every sunset was different.

Sunset at Staunton State Park, where I went on a hiking adventure with my roommates last year.

How could my experience be enhanced by comparing a sunset on a wonderful evening walk after a busy day to another sunset on another day?

I focused on releasing my mind so I could savor that moment of presence. This isn’t trivial. Living out of your car is very difficult emotionally. It’s isolating. I needed that moment of presence to get myself through each day emotionally.

When I wouldn’t get that moment, it was hard. There were times when scheduling conflicts kept me from picking up my dog before sunset .Eventually the season advanced and the sun would set by the time I picked up my dog.

During those times, I would console myself by buying pastries and then sit in the artificial light of a parking lot of a supermarket in the dark of night and try to put myself in a food coma. Not really emotionally healthy.

Expectations can be like a fence that keeps us from seeing the beauty that is present in the moment.

By using practices to manage my expectations, I was able to enjoy what time I had and care for my own mental health in the midst of long work hours and a stressful life event.

One of the practices that was huge in keeping that space for presence was doing the daily 3-2-1 exercise. Gratitude was an important emotion to keep in my life.

Gratitude helped me let go of distracting worries, as well as expectations based on past experiences, so I could savor that little time that I got to live my best life while life had me running non-stop.

Being out in the air at sunset is magical. You feel the air on your skin. You hear the sounds of life happening. You watch enraptured at whatever the day brings to the sky.

Everything is colored by your emotional context as the world is brought to life in a special time of day when everything just seems to have more quiddity.

Of course, sunsets are just one opportunity to be present. There are many places in life where operating with presence is greatly rewarding.

Gratitude in Relationships

I took this picture on the Cherry Creek Trail in Denver. The lady in the picture stopped to talk with me about the birds that visit the area. She seemed happy to have someone to talk to at the moment. So even though I was trying to finish a 50-mile ride before dark, I made the space to enjoy the interaction. Gratitude allowed me to release my expectation to just ride, and enjoy the moment.

What happens when we are present in our relationships? Then we become more caring and connected. We are social animals. It’s hard to live your best life if you don’t have healthy relationships with others in your life.

Our need for relationships, both as a core need and to help us navigate the complex social environment, are at once the reason why we have our capacity to create expectations and a rationale for the presence that comes from gratitude.

Anthropology is a fantastic field of study for giving us insights on why we have an expectation-generating machine in our brain, as well as the value of relationships.

In one study of chimpanzees, a male leader, Foudouko, ended up going into exile after his ally, Mamadou became injured. With his alliances weakened, Foudouko lost power. The former leader followed the group, forced to stay at a distance, for five years.

“It really struck us that Foudouko lived on the outskirts for so long,” Pruetz said in a statement from Iowa State University. “Chimps are very social, so this type of isolation would be a huge stress, and it seemed Foudouko wanted to get back into the social group.”

“When You’re an Alpha Chimp, Life Isn’t a Barrel of Monkeys.”, LiveScience

Even though he was attacked by young male chimps every time he came near the group, Foudouko continually tried to rejoin the group.

Finally, after five years of trying to rejoin the group, Foudouko was slain in a last attempt to rejoin the group.

This is the power of the desire to belong. We have it, too.

Into this framework of social cooperation, we can add an understanding of how expectations help us manage a social landscape.

In “Strategy: a History,” Lawrence Freedman details how our brains are structured to form expectations about the behavior of other members of our social group in order to navigate our social environment.

Deception also turned out to be a vital strategic quality. It involved deliberately sending untrue signals with a view to changing another’s behavior. Apes tricked other members of their group out of food or sneaked off for some furtive courtship when alpha males were not paying attention. Again, this required a degree of empathy with other apes. It was necessary to understand the normal behavior of others if only to appreciate how they might be misled.

“Strategy: a History,” Lawrence Freedman, pg. 5

A deeper reading of “Strategy” provides a contemplation of how strategies of deceit can be shortsighted. People talk to each other, and if one gains a reputation for being deceptive then one can develop trouble forming allies.

Rather, connecting with others with presence and intimacy allows us to develop deeper and more meaningful connections. There is no shortcut to relationships. People recognize counterfeit emotional currency.

One of the joys of my journey this past year has been creating experiences with my friends. This ride to downtown Denver with my friends Taylor and Jasper was my first bike trip. I’m so grateful to them for sharing that experience with me!

Manage Expectations, Find Gratitude

In the course of life, we are bound to experience these very wearying interactions.

I joined the US Navy after I graduated high school, and before I was 19 I was tired of people trying to “borrow” money from me a few days after pay day. These are the things that can close us off, cause us to build a wall of expectations.

These interactions and their resultant expectations can then be fueled by negativity bias and lead us become blocked to presence, possibly even becoming isolated, not unlike Foudouko.

Thus the importance of practices as a part of mindfulness, as it allows us to find a space of gratitude so we can be present in our relationships. When we are present in our relationships, we are offering genuine emotional currency.

I am grateful to be able to connect with my roommates on nights when we get together and paint. I’m the least talented painter, so gratitude helps me face vulnerability of an imperfect result and set aside comparing myself so I can enjoy the experience as a part of our social fabric.

We are listening. We are empathetic. We actively offer compassion and emotional support.

This is the value of gratitude. We need gratitude in order to create a space outside of expectations so that we can genuinely connect and love each other. This is the value of being present in our relationships.

Without relationships in which we find presence, life is a flimsy set, a parade of facades that always feels like it’s one breath away from collapsing.

Gratitude, a space we create through practices that help us manage and move past our expectations, allows us to find presence. Presence can make us more creative. Presence can make us more loving. Presence can give us a lifeline to joy when we are going through hardships.

Are you following any practices to help you find gratitude? How can you see the value of gratitude in your life? Can you think of what you are grateful for, now?

I invite you to contemplate the meanings of the interrelated qualities of gratitude, expectations, and presence in your life.

Published by Miles of Mindfulness

My name is Mike Bragg. I'm a Denver-based cycling enthusiast and a big advocate of mindfulness. I enjoy the outdoors, and I use mindfulness practices to help myself be more present with my adventures. I like to read challenging material, and I have a keen interest in ancient history and natural sciences.

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