Live from TEDGlobal 2013

Want to be happy? Be grateful: Brother David Steindl-Rast at TEDGlobal 2013

Posted by: Helen Walters
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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

David Steindl-Rast is a monk, and a composed, serene figure to wrap up the last session of TEDGlobal 2013. His theme, gratefulness, is also appropriate for the end of a long and intense week. After all, he points out, we all share the same essential goal: to be happy. And gratitude provides the key. “We all know people who have lots of misfortunes that we ourselves would not want to have, and they are deeply happy, they radiate happiness,” he says. Why are they like this? “Because they are grateful. It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”

So how exactly do we live gratefully? “By becoming aware that every moment is a ‘given moment,’ as we say,” Steindl-Rast explains. “It’s a gift. You haven’t earned it or brought it about. And you have no way of assuring there will be another moment given to you.” As such, we should consider each moment as precious and a great opportunity. “If you didn’t have this present moment you wouldn’t have any opportunity to do or experience anything.”

So what about that saying, “opportunity knocks only once.” Not true, says the good brother. “Think again. Every moment is a new gift.” Miss the opportunity of one moment and another one will be right along. “The master key to our happiness is in our own hands. Moment by moment we can be grateful for this gift.” It’s a beautifully simple but powerful thought.

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

So does this mean we should be grateful for everything, even bad stuff? Certainly not. “We cannot be grateful for violence, for war, for oppression, for exploitation,” says Steindl-Rast. “On a personal level we cannot be grateful for the loss of a friend, for unfaithfulness, for bereavement.” But he has a way to think about such bleak moments, too. “Even when we are confronted by something terribly difficult, we can rise to the occasion and respond to the opportunity given to us.” Sometimes the lesson of a painful experience is a chance to learn. We certainly tend to admire those who take something positive from a negative experience. And for those who don’t quite manage it this time, another opportunity will be along in a minute. “Phew,” says someone in the audience.

Steindl-Rast even has practical advice for living gratefully, moment by moment. It’s based on the advice children are given when learning to cross the road:

STOP: “We rush through life; we don’t stop, and we miss opportunities because we don’t stop,” he says. He tells us the story of returning home after spending time in a remote part of Africa, where there was no electricity, no water. At home, he was overwhelmed with gratitude every time he turned on a faucet or clicked on a light. Even after he re-assimilated into home life, he left stickers on the tap and switch to remind himself to be grateful for the resources.

LOOK: We must use all our senses to soak in the wonderful richness that life has given to us. “That is what life is about, to enjoy what is given to us,” he says. “When we open our hearts to opportunities, opportunities invite us to do something.”

GO: We should do whatever life offers to us in that present moment. Sometimes that might be difficult, but we should go with it and do our best to enjoy every moment.

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

It sounds simple, but Steindl-Rast thinks it might just spark a revolution. “Gratefulness can change our world in immensely important ways,” he says. “If you’re grateful, you’re not fearful. If you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. The grateful act out of a sense of enough, not scarcity, so they are willing to share.” Being grateful does no less than change the power balance of life. “It’s a nonviolent revolution that even revolutionizes the concept of revolution,” he says happily, to laughs from the crowd. “Grateful people are joyful people; the more joyful people are, the more we’ll have a joyful world.”

Brother David Steindl-Rast’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com »