Having a positive outlook on life is vital if you’re going to stir up change in the world around you.

I Didn’t Start Out Thankful

When I arrived in South Africa for the first time, I discovered I had some unrealistic expectations of what a change of location could do. I thought that moving would accelerate my growth process and turn me into the kind of person I dreamed of becoming: someone selfless, generous, open hearted and full of peace.

I’m a recovering millennial. It’s well documented that we don’t take naturally to discipline, focus or self-control. We’ve never had to suffer or work hard to shape our society. Our lives have been full of quick fixes to temporary lows as we sedate the inner disquiet.

After years of reading about people like Mother Theresa and Heidi Baker, I was under the impression that a change of location would bring about big change. I’d be overwhelmed with compassion when I walked around the townships, playing with children and showing love to people with AIDS. My heart’s natural tendency to love would come alive and I’d be a living example of Jesus for all to see.

So you’ll understand that I had a wake up call when I arrived and it was difficult. I was homesick, a long way away from my (then) girlfriend (now wife), and surrounded by people I didn’t know.

Instead of feeling the urge to self sacrifice, I was drawn inward, toward self preservation. I spent hours alone, focussed on home, ignoring my heart. I was always thinking about what’s next and how to get there with the least possible effort.

After a lot of wasted time moping and feeling misunderstood, I began to realise that I could do something about my feelings. My mind had been consistently drawn back to something that I envied Paul, from the Bible, for being able to write:

“I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.”

This guy had been in and out of prison, beaten and almost drowned. How could he be so content when I was so unsettled?

An Experiment

Fast forward a couple of years and my wife is reading One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp, in which the author describes undertaking an experiment in gratitude.

Each day she would make a list of things that she was thankful for. Over time she found that she was more content and appreciative of what she had, rather than being discontent with what she didn’t.

I was so inspired by this simple wisdom that I decided to spend the following year making daily lists of things I was thankful for. Each day I would add 5 things to my list.

As the year went on, I realised that I was feeling more content. My circumstances weren’t more stable, we didn’t have more money or a better quality of life (at least not materially), but my heart was thankful and that made a world of difference.

It had such a positive impact on my thinking that, after the year was over, I decided to continue with my daily list making indefinitely.

Have you tried a similar to experiment to this? How did it go for you?