Thanksgiving is coming up. But after the past year (or two, or three), it may be hard to muster up any gratitude. Between the ravages of COVID-19, fears of economic recession, and various types of strife, unrest, and discord, life can feel more like a trial than a gift. But there is a way to tap into thankfulness.
Think (and live) like a shark.
People associate sharks with ruthlessness, but they actually have a lot to teach us about living with purpose and gratitude. They have a deep appreciation for their environment. They’re highly adaptable. They move forward with intent. And many cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with other fish.
There are lessons here for those who want to leave bitterness behind and move toward a life of purpose, opportunity, and fulfillment — all of which nurture gratitude. But be aware: Just as paying lip service to gratitude at Thanksgiving dinner won’t change your outlook, neither will dabbling your toes in the waters of the shark mindset. You have to immerse yourself and swim.
Here are eight ways a shark-like mindset helps you tap into gratitude, even when it’s tough to feel thankful:
1. First, choose to change.
Sharks are physically flexible and highly adaptable. Humans aren’t so great at change. If you aren’t feeling thankful, your own set-in-stone thoughts and attitudes might be partially to blame.
People cling to feelings of anger, resentment, and outrage, but why? What’s the benefit of fuming about your selfish coworker during your evening commute? Why not at least try to think about something good that happened instead, say, the appreciative email you got from a client? What do you have to lose from choosing to change your focus… other than feelings of negativity?
2. Connect back to instinct.
In nature, survival is dependent on instinct. If something doesn’t “feel” right to a shark, it swims away. Humans are much more disconnected from our feelings, gut or otherwise. We often engage in activities that cause us to marinate in negativity, outrage, and anxiety — all of which are gratitude-killers.
Is Facebook making your blood pressure rise? Close the app. Are break room complaints stoking feelings of resentment? Go back to your desk. On the flip side, when something makes you feel good — whether that’s cooking a great meal, playing with your kids, reading a book, or exercising — try to engage in it more often.
3. Let nature nurture you.
Spending time in nature boosts our moods, improves our cognitive function, reduces our stress, and is associated with an increased sense of meaning and purpose. All of these things form the foundation for a life of gratitude.
While we may not live our entire lives in the wild like sharks, connecting with the natural world is a relatively easy, free activity we can all engage in. Just leave your smartphone in your pocket while you eat your lunch outside or walk around your neighborhood. It’s hard for Mother Nature to compete with a screen.
4. Seek out the meal, not the snack.
Instead of attacking indiscriminately, sharks often observe and study their prey to make sure it’s something they actually want to eat. Similarly, humans need to look beyond “easy-fix” coping mechanisms like comfort food, alcohol, or binge-watching a show. These things are temporary distractions; they don’t do anything to help us develop and improve.
To start feeling more grateful, you need to connect back to things that nurture growth, fulfillment, positivity, and passion. Maybe it’s mentoring someone, engaging in a hobby, spending time with loved ones, or even making tangible progress on a project at work.
5. Thank your suckerfish and your sharks…
Remoras, a.k.a. “suckerfish,” attach to sharks and eat the parasites that would otherwise sicken and kill their hosts. In return, sharks offer suckerfish protection and transportation. If these creatures could talk, they’d probably thank each other for the symbiotic life-sustaining service.
Similarly, it’s important for us to identify and thank the people who bring value to our lives. Expressing genuine appreciation makes you and them feel good. And in the long-term, it nurtures the kind of relationship that boosts both happiness and success.
6. … And do something to help your suckerfish get where they want to go.
For humans, our “suckerfish” are people who need direction, coaching, and guidance to get to the next level: our team members, students, and mentees.
Doing something to help other people is a proven way to increase your sense of positivity, meaning, and purpose in life — all of which help gratitude to take root. Plus, when you help other people, you will be reminded of your own ‘sharks’: the people, circumstances, and blessings that enabled you to get where you are today.
7. Keep growing and learning.
Sharks grow up to a foot a year and are always learning more about their environment. What are you doing to grow toward positivity and gratitude? You can’t expect your outlook to change if you don’t work toward personal and professional development.
Every day, strive to swim a tiny bit closer to your growth goal. That might look like reading a chapter in a book about empathetic leadership, signing up for an information session to learn more about an advanced degree, having a meaningful conversation with your partner, attending therapy, or setting aside 15 minutes for a guided meditation before work.
8. Let yourself off the hook.
Sharks keep their eyes on the water ahead of and above them, ready to react when prey appears. They don’t waste their time or energy focusing on what’s beneath and behind them.
If you’re consumed by past mistakes and regrets, you can’t focus on the present or the future. Your mind will be anchored to negativity instead of open to gratitude. It may help to embrace the concept of ‘failing forward,’ or using mistakes as lessons and stepping stones.
Just as forward movement literally gives sharks life, the progress you make will infuse you with renewed motivation, passion, and thankfulness.
There’s a lot we humans can’t control: the past, other people, and outside events among them. And put together, all of those things have the power to make us feel mightily depressed, cynical, and ungrateful. But the one thing you can always control is your choices — and by extension, your attitude and outlook. If you choose to adopt a shark-like mindset, it will pay positive dividends this Thanksgiving — and well beyond.
Walter Bond is author of “Swim!: How a Shark, a Suckerfish, and a Parasite Teach You Leadership, Mentoring, & Next Level Success“. Walter is a renowned business coach, motivational speaker, and former NBA player. His time in the NBA taught him the fundamentals every team needs to be successful, and today he shares his knowledge with entrepreneurs, business leaders, sales teams, and employees to get them to the next level.