If gratitude is so good for us, why doesn’t it always work? Why don’t we always feel better when we try to be thankful?

Commuting home after an exhausting day at work, stuck in rush-hour traffic, hopelessly late to dinner, cursing the situation and generally hating life, we could experiment with gratitude.

If we have a loving spouse, a decent car, a stable job, a comfortable home to return to, we’re fortunate, right? We could appreciate that fortune now. We could even aim for the big prize, the holy grail of gratitude: we could try to feel awe at the miracle of our existence.

For us to be able to sit here in traffic right now, the earth had to form several billion years ago, life had to arise, sea creatures had to move to land, dinosaurs had to live and go extinct, humans had to evolve, civilizations had to form and collapse, our parents had to meet and have sex, we had to be born, raised, released into the world to forge our way; we had to recover from that bicycle accident when we were 13 and then not get hit by that drunk driver when we were 21 and then not skip that cooking class so we’d meet the love of our life at 34, who is the reason we moved to this part of the country where we’re encountering traffic; not to mention, the country had to be founded centuries before, complex technologies had to develop, cars had to be manufactured, highways had to be paved, the global economy had to sustain itself, all as an inescapable prerequisite to our being stuck in this traffic right now. In a bunch of years, we’ll be gone forever. When we put things in perspective, the traffic is insignificant: what truly matters is that we’re alive and breathing and able to perceive this situation at all. Surely this moment of conscious awareness is rare and precious — a miracle.

But as we’re fidgeting in the carseat, clenching our teeth, muttering profanities, ready to pound the horn, detesting every second of this never-ending delay, there’s a chance that our attempted line of grateful thinking might not help. All those millions of years of evolution that allowed us to exist in this present moment? That’s all done. The fact that we’re alive? Well, we already know that — old news. Now, the problem is traffic. Now, the problem is we’re late for dinner and we won’t have a minute to relax this evening before it’ll be time for bed and then another busy morning with another arduous commute. Although we’re sitting in traffic with nothing else we can do, we might still say we don’t “have time” to be awestruck at the mystery of creation. There are too many immediate stressors on our mind right now, and our blessings feel remote and removed. We’d need a better context for gratitude. We’d need to be guided slowly into a state of awe. We can’t feel awe now while the situation is so awfully irritating.

The mind can even take our observation about the preciousness of time and twist it around so it hurts us. If life is so short and each moment is so precious, then isn’t it a shame that we’re wasting time right now, stuck in traffic? Isn’t it a shame that some of our precious few moments of existence as a sentient being on planet Earth are being squandered in this miserable situation, where we’re trapped in a stuffy little car that’s guzzling gas and sending fumes into the atmosphere, on an ugly highway surrounded by thousands of other frustrated souls, when we could be relaxing at home, or taking a long walk on the beach, or even doing some chores, getting something done?

This scenario illustrates a major challenge of cultivating gratitude, which is that the mind hosts a chorus of opposing thoughts, but these thoughts are not equally loud — some thoughts drown the others out. Our negative, anxious, frustrated, stressful thoughts tend to be louder, screechier, and more prominent than the grateful, appreciative ones which we might try to cultivate with effort and intention. Yes, we can give credence to the thought that life is a miracle and that each moment — including the current one — is to be savored. But a louder, screechier observation might overtake it: we’re wasting our precious time, squandering a limited resource, and that’s a disaster! We might try to ignore the traffic and turn inward to find a place of peace, but the traffic makes itself known, the cars are lined up everywhere we look, the sound of honking intrudes on any inner quiet we try to cultivate.

What if gratitude and ingratitude were competitors in a boxing match? Imagine that the thought “Every moment is a miracle!” is fighting against “This moment is being wasted right now, what a shame!” Which fighter will score the knockout? Odds are, the second one — the loud, obnoxious, stressful thought: the one that’s being supported by all the honking, all the vibrating mufflers, all the delay. It’s not a fair competition. The best solution is to stop the match. We could try to amplify and reinforce the grateful thought, but it would be better if we could release its competitor from the ring, letting it run off and fade into the distance. It would be better if we could unbind our attention from the anxious, stressful thought, so that the grateful thought, which might be more quiet or subdued, could then be heard. But how?

If we were able to relinquish our commitment to the idea that we are wasting time in the traffic, then perhaps we could relax and enjoy the idle time a bit more, really treating the moment as the miracle that it is. Perhaps it’s the conclusion that we’re losing something valuable that’s making us feel so stressed. Perhaps it’s the idea that we’re being robbed that’s blocking our appreciation of the moment, which makes the passing time seem like a waste indeed. Perhaps the conclusion that our time is being wasted is self-fulfilling.

Of course there are many kinds of anxious thoughts that can drown out the grateful ones, but the thought of “wasting time” is such a potent stress-inducer and gratitude-inhibitor that it’s worth addressing as our single point of focus here. What if we took the idea of “wasting time” out of the picture, not just in this traffic story, but in life overall? What if we never again said we were “wasting time” or that our time was “being wasted” ever in our lives? How different would we feel from then on, never having to fear or lament time-wastage, no matter what other unpleasantries we might confront?

Resistance to this prospect is likely to emerge. The idea of “wasting time” might seem indispensable. Often, our time does get wasted and we can’t pretend otherwise. Sitting in traffic is objectively a waste, isn’t it? But let’s take a closer look at why we call it a waste, indeed why we ever call any time a waste. “Wasting time” is a corollary of the idea that our time has value. When we’re not availing the “value” of our time, we naturally think we’re wasting it. So what kind of “value” can we get out of time that makes us feel we’re using it well and not wasting it?

There are two distinct types of value we might associate with passing time. One is progress towards a specific goal or objective — getting work done, moving further along in a trip, crossing an item off our task list, achieving something we desire. Two is experiential satisfaction — having a good time, feeling positive emotions, enjoying ourselves, appreciating the moment. We might say we “spent our time well” because we achieved something with it — that’s Type 1 value — or we might say we “spent our time well” because we felt good as it was passing — that’s Type 2 value.

Of course we can attain one kind of value with out the other. Doing our taxes isn’t fun, but when we work on it, we aren’t “wasting time,” because it needs to get done, and we’re making progress — we’re attaining Type 1 value. Taking a long walk on the beach or meditating might not achieve any specific goal, but it’s not a “waste of time” either. That’s because we enjoy it or we find peace and satisfaction in it — we’re gaining an experiential reward, we’re attaining Type 2 value.

The distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 value is not hard and fast. Sometimes we might set a Type 1 goal to achieve a Type 2 experiential reward. For example, we might set a goal to relax and unwind for the sake of our health. Then, when we take a long walk on the beach, we’re fulfilling an objective that we had set in advance. But the point about experiential satisfaction is that it doesn’t have to be planned and doesn’t have to achieve any predefined goal for us to consider it valuable. Even if the long walk is impromptu and unconnected to any goal that had been set in advance, we would still think it was a good way of spending time because we enjoyed it so much.

Unfortunately, life is full of circumstances where we don’t feel we’re getting either kind of value out of passing time: we’re not moving toward a goal, and we’re not feeling any sense of enjoyment or appreciation. These unproductive and unfun periods might occupy the bulk of our existence. Are we consigned to feel that all such time is wasted, and that indeed we pass most of our lives in state of loss? And what should we do about it — should we ignore the waste or call it out?

The conclusion that we’re wasting time never makes us feel good, but it may seem like a necessary and worthwhile conclusion to make, because the first step to avoiding waste is to identify it. Once we’ve called out the fact that we’re wasting time, we might be able to stop the waste, or avoid similar waste in the future. As for traffic, the idea that we’re “wasting time” might be the thing that pushes us to plan a different route to avoid this traffic tomorrow. A fear of wasting time is a natural consequence of valuing time and wanting to protect it. We have good reasons to be on guard.

But the risk of labeling time as “wasted” is that as soon as we assign this label, we foreclose any experiential satisfaction we might have attained from that time. In fact, we become ungrateful for the time we’re wasting and we wish that we could fast-forward through it, just like we can do in our minds. Sitting in traffic, we wish we could skip over the ordeal and get straight to the destination, just like our imagination permits us to do. But when we realize that obviously, there’s no fast-forward button for reality that matches the time-travel capacity of our imagination, we feel even more frustrated.

Yes, we want to have a long life, and yes, the current traffic-filled hours are part of that life, but we’d gladly sacrifice these few hours — and have them removed from our total allotment — if we could just wake up where we’re going, landing at home without having to endure the tedious journey, right? If the answer is yes, we should stop to ask another question: what’s the point of longevity if we’re always wishing we could fast-forward through the boring or unpleasant moments? Why would we want more time in our life if in fact, we’re going to spend much of it wishing that time itself would pass more quickly?

“Wasting time” is the verdict we issue upon ourselves, whenever we’re seeking progress toward a goal and not achieving it, or whenever we’re seeking pleasure and not attaining it. But once this verdict is issued, everything becomes harder for us. To be “time waster” fills us with guilt. To have our time wasted by someone or something else, to be a “victim of time theft,” fills us with anger. Filled with anger, or filled with guilt, we’ll have trouble concentrating on whatever goal we’re pursuing, or opening ourselves to the experience of whatever pleasure might have been available. There is always, perhaps, some room to appreciate the miracle of being alive, the blessing of having this precious moment to exist as a sentient being on planet Earth, but we can’t do that when we’re so consumed with the loud, noisy idea that our time is going to waste. That loud, noisy idea can arise from a failure to achieve a small, immediate, local goal, but the impact of that loud, noisy idea then extends beyond the scope of that little goal and steals too from our big goal of having a fulfilling life and appreciating the moments we’ve been given. In always wanting to spend our time in the best possible way, we’re actually rehearsing a thought process of devaluing our time when it doesn’t live up to our standards, which makes it harder, not easier, to appreciate the time we’ll get later on.

But if we take the idea of “wasting time” out of our vocabulary, or if we allow ourselves to affirm, at any moment, that whatever we’re doing, we’re not wasting time, then we open up the possibility of having some experiential satisfaction — feeling some gratitude for the present moment — even when things aren’t going well, even when we’re not being as productive as we wanted to be nor having as much fun as we wanted to have, indeed even when we feel we’re moving backwards or suffering from bad luck or disadvantage. This moment is still a moment that we have. It’s still some of the time of our life, some of the time that we get — and no matter what’s happening in the time — we can appreciate having the time.

Of course, there is some suffering so intense that there’s no way to alleviate it with a shift in mindset. The idea of feeling “grateful” for time spent in acute pain may seem implausible, inauthentic, or it may simply be a non-starter. But there are many moments where our suffering is caused primarily by our mindset, by our assumptions, by the way we are conceiving of the situation. We tend to assume gratitude comes from having something to be grateful for, and when we can’t find such things in a situation, we assume we can’t feel grateful. But there’s another way to pursue gratitude, which is to identify the ideas that get in the way of it, and strip those ideas away. What ideas and assumptions are making us feel ungrateful for our time and can we relinquish those, allowing our natural but much quieter grateful thoughts to come to the fore?

The other day I had the perfect setup to cause me to regret how I was spending my time and to wish I could fast-forward through it. This was a traffic situation, but I wasn’t sitting in an automobile on a highway; rather, I was changing between three subway trains to get from one end of town to another so I could meet my partner for dinner. I had been working at home at 5pm when he asked me to come out and meet him for a meal before a class he’d be attending at 7pm. I said, “It’s going to take me an hour to get to where you are and we’re going to be rushed. Let’s skip it tonight. See you at home later.” He said, “It won’t take you an hour to get here. Don’t give up so easily.”

So I ventured out into the bowels of the Boston public transit system at rush hour, against my better judgement, hoping that by some miracle, the trains would be running on time. The opposite turned out to be true. Each of my three trains was badly delayed. The platforms were crowded. The announcements were muffled and unintelligible. People were pushing and shoving. I barely had space to stand.

When I had already been stuck in the system for an hour and fifteen minutes, with no end to the journey in sight, I thought, “I told you so! What a waste! I’m never doing this again!” Why had I had inserted myself into a hellish mess just to arrive late and then schlep back home?

Another time, I would have been in bad mood when I finally arrived, annoyed about the hassle and the waste of time, wanting to vent about the dysfunction of the public transit system, and hoping to receive an apology for being dragged into this situation when I had known I’d be delayed. I probably wouldn’t get that apology and instead we’d get into a quarrel. That would put me in a bad mood for the rest of the evening, and possibly into the next day. My conclusion that my time had been wasted would have been an expensive conclusion. It would have translated into many more hours of waste and distress.

But this time, when I was riding the third train, I remembered I had been home all day wanting to go out. For all the delay and dysfunction of the subway, this excursion was giving me a change of pace, a chance to take in some different sights and sounds. After being in a chair all day, staring at a screen for eight hours straight, this trip was actually revitalizing my senses. The only reason it was so upsetting to me is because I had concluded it should be: I had concluded it was all a waste. I was only upset because I felt I could have used the time in a better way. But if I took the idea of waste out of the picture, my experience of the situation changed fundamentally. Then I could stop wishing to fast-forward or rewind and redo. And then I could see I was happier to be out and about — even if that meant being stuck in rush hour traffic — than I would have been to remain at home, alone and idle in my chair.

If I had been looking to “justify” this use of my time as furthering a goal, I could have said it was giving me the change of pace that I had wanted. But I wondered if I could go even further and give up the need to justify this time as achieving any goal at all. What if I stopped questioning what the trip was for, what it was giving me or taking from me, whether it had been a good idea or a bad idea, and so on? With all those noisy, devaluing questions subdued, I could begin to notice some quieter, milder thoughts of gratitude that had been drowned out before: “My shoes are comfortable. My jacket is keeping me warm. I’ll soon be getting dinner and I can afford it. I have a home and I’ll be returning there later tonight. I’m headed to see my love. I’ve got work tomorrow and I can handle it.” In a few moments, a situation that seemed almost unbearably irritating and wasteful gave way to a feeling of levity, a sense of being carefree, not because I was I trying so hard to be grateful but because I had found a way to quiet the thoughts that were obscuring my natural gratitude. A mild, almost boring thought like “My shoes are comfortable,” would typically stand no chance against “I’m wasting time.” So the trick was to declare, “I am not wasting time.” To the extent that I could accept that I wasn’t wasting time, then my quiet, boring, grateful observations could gain salience.

When I finally met up with my partner, we decided to postpone dinner and take a brisk walk. I found the walk refreshing, so I kept walking all while he was in class, and when he got out, we had a late dinner which turned out to be delightful. But if we’d gotten into a fight because I had been pissed off about “wasting time” getting there, none of those pleasant things would have happened.

So this was a “mindfulness win,” and as I write about it, I’m struck by one thing: I’d probably never tell this story in any other context besides an essay on mindfulness. It’s an anticlimax, right? Wouldn’t the story be more fun if it had been a continuous complaint resulting in some kind of dramatic disaster?

Complaining is more cathartic, and better for social bonding, than recounting how a stress response was de-escalated. Most people who have experienced rush hour traffic are ready and willing to commiserate about the agony of it. As a Boston resident, I know there’s a lot of social currency in dissing our subway system here, “The T.” If you talk about how your T ride was miserable, people instantly relate to the story. They chirp up with their own stories of disaster. When we complain, we become both animated and vulnerable: other people can connect with us because they’ve felt the pain too, and through this mutual complaining, we all feel closer. But when we describe how we found a perspective that helped us not despair in a situation that others would find intolerable, the catharsis and bonding potential of the narrative isn’t quite as strong.

Our discourse is skewed in favor of complaining because it’s so relieving and socially valuable to complain. So we all go around telling each other how we’ve gotten stressed out and why we’re miserable. We don’t spend the same amount of energy telling each other about how we’ve de-escalated our stress, because those stories aren’t as fun or rewarding to tell. So we don’t hear about mindfulness wins as often as we could. They might be happening all the time, but they’re not “on the news.” We don’t model de-escalation for each other. We’re always hearing from each other why we should be more stressed out, not less.

Still, one can write an essay about “less.” The point here is that whenever we conclude we’re wasting time, this conclusion is probably not going to help us be more productive or happier. This conclusion is likely to cause more waste than it saves. A great way of de-escalating stress is to abandon the idea “wasting time.” The best way to appreciate the time we’ve been given is to not think of any of that time as a wasted or even wasteable.

To really abandon the idea that we’re “wasting time,” it’s helpful to see this idea as a form of comparison. It’s a comparison between what we’re doing and what we could be doing. Want to feel bad? Just invent something better than what you’re doing now, and make a comparison between those two things. You’ll feel like what you’re doing now is a waste. You’re reading this essay now, but you could be making money, or making love, or reading a different essay, right? The point is that there’s always something your imagination can invent that seems better than the present reality, so there’s always a perspective in which you appear to be wasting time. You can’t fight against the existence of these devaluing perspectives, filled with shiny alternatives. What you can do is to stop comparing.

How is a person able to meditate — essentially doing nothing — and not feel like they’re wasting time? In meditation, we stop making comparisons between one thought and another. We stop juxtaposing the thought of what we’re doing with the thought of what we could be doing. So the fear of waste never emerges. If we keep meditating, we can develop an intense appreciation for the current moment, not by trying to appreciate it, but by removing the comparisons and other mental chatter that would prevent us from appreciating it.

The evening when I began composing this essay, I took a break to attend a documentary film screening. The invite had come at the last minute. The film was about climate change and how the most recently developed neighborhood in my city will be flooded beyond salvage in the coming decades — a topic I find important but also highly distressing. The documentary was informative but it started getting slow and repetitive in the middle. I was sitting on an upper level of the theater, where it was hot and stuffy, the woman next to me kept fidgeting, there were young kids running back and forth to convey some urgent messages to their parents who were apparently located on either side of me. My view of the screen was obstructed by some poles and railings and whatnot, and I was hungry, and, as mentioned, I had taken time away from writing this essay to be there. All this was enough to make me think:

ME 1: “OK, I gave it a shot, but this situation is becoming unbearable — I’m wasting time here!”

ME 2: “No, you’re not wasting time!”

ME 1: “Then prove it. Explain why it’s not a waste to be here.”

ME 2: “No explanation is necessary. A person can choose not to entertain the concept that time can be wasted.”

ME 1: “Do you really think such a philosophy is going to work here? My stomach is gurgling. I can feel the sweat on my forehead. I can barely breathe in here.”

ME 2: “All those sensations, they’re part of your experience in this moment. Accept them.”

ME 1: “But they’re unpleasant, irritating sensations. Why should I accept them? I want to be gone from here. I want to leave and get dinner.”

ME 2: “The sensations are so unbearable because they’re occurring in a context that you’ve framed as a waste. If you stop thinking it’s all a waste, the sensations will be more bearable, and everything will feel a little easier. Try it.”

So I tried it. And guess what? I got through the rest of the movie without cursing. Another anticlimax brought about by a mindfulness technique.

My real impetus for writing this essay was a great personal loss I experienced two years ago. My beloved stepfather had been the anchor of my family for thirty years. He represented strength, stability, integrity, and trustworthiness. For me he was also a model of how someone could plan carefully for the future, always making the right, responsible choices. It was going to be a future of growing old alongside my mom: they would take care of each other forever. Last time I saw him was Christmas of 2019. The following year, Covid hit and there were quarantines and no family gatherings; during that time, he suffered a rapid cognitive decline and by the early summer of 2022, he was in hospice. Dementia had taken away his memory, his personality, and also his ability to swallow, and now he was starving. Years earlier, as part of all the planning and preparation that he had always done with such care, he had signed a directive that he did not want to be kept alive if there was no chance of recovery or a reasonable quality of life. Now, his wishes were being followed, but no one had imagined it would happen like this.

When I saw him on his deathbed, I was overcome by grief. I can’t describe that grief but I can speak of a part of it. Part of it was a thought of all those dreams he had with my mom, all those plans he made for retirement and growing old with her, all that promise of what his later years were going to be like. Had all that planning and preparation been a waste if it was all going to turn out like this? In trying to handle my sadness, I had to rethink my concept of waste. No, none of my stepdad’s life had been wasted, not even the time spent making plans that weren’t realized. He had thirty years of love and companionship with my mom and he was the kind of person who found contentment in life’s daily routines. Now as I was saying goodbye to him, I found comfort in remembering the way he had always appreciated the time he’d been given, and there had been a lot of it.

In turn, I told myself, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to die like this: surrounded by people who love me, in a place where I’m comfortable, well cared for, not in too much pain. Before then, life will be what I make of it, and I want to make the most of it — appreciating the time I’ve got, like my stepdad always did.

But how to do that? How to make the most of one’s time? The paradox is that when we’re so concerned with making the most of our time, we start to fear the prospect of wasting it, and that fear causes waste.

After a transformative moment — like wishing a final farewell to a loved one — we can set goals for the rest of our lives, spring into action, and try to achieve our dreams: carpe diem! But we might not live to see our dreams fulfilled. Or we might work ourselves into a state of stress and disappointment when things don’t turn out as we envisioned.

Another approach to enacting “carpe diem” is this: let’s make the most of our time by appreciating it and creating space for gratitude.

We can try to find gratitude by looking for things to be grateful for. But sometimes we’ll struggle to find anything good in a situation, and we won’t be able see the gift of our own existence with any freshness. So there’s another way to pursue gratitude, which is to identify the things that get in the way of it, and strip those out. What ideas and assumptions are making us feel ungrateful, and how can we relinquish those, allowing our natural but much quieter thoughts of gratitude to take the stage? The idea of wasting time is one of those ideas we can profitably relinquish.

We are not wasting our time — how about that? Our time isn’t being wasted — how about that? To embrace this view, we shouldn’t look to explain and justify the value that we’re actually getting out of our time. When gratitude becomes about proving to ourselves why we should be grateful, we’re on a difficult track. There’s an easier track. If the loud, attention-grabbing fear of waste can be subdued, and some quiet can be established in the mind, then the subtle, understated miracle of the moment becomes apparent. ■

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