George Simon

Comment: The following is the transcript to one video from George Simon's Character Matters series where he tackles what he terms, the biggest issue of our time, character disturbance, i.e. pathology and that what is sorely missing in our modern era is the development of true character.


Hello, I'm Dr. George Simon and welcome to another edition of the new, Character Matters. This is the program where we talk about all things pertaining to character and character disturbances. And over the past couple of programs, we've been talking about, what I term, in the upcoming book on the subject, the second commandment of character which has to do with overcoming any sense of entitlement and developing a profound sense of gratitude and the resulting obligations that come with feeling inherently indebted for the many gifts that we have, that are in fact, unearned.

Now, today I would like to focus a little bit more on some of the impediments that there are - especially in our day and time - to feeling grateful. And the reason I would like to spend some time on it is because the research on gratitude, conducted by several researchers at the University of California at Berkeley - and others in conjunction with the lead investigator Robert Emmons, who has written several books on the topic. The research is very clear. Gratitude, it turns out, is really good for and in many different ways.

Obstacles to Gratitude

These days, in our culture of entitlement, it's very hard to develop any feelings of gratitude. But the research is very clear, gratitude is good for you. And as the rhyming phrase suggests, gratitude is purely a matter of attitude. You don't have to make a laundry list in your mind of all the things that we enjoy and that you can feel grateful about, gratitude is more a pervasive attitude of how to approach life and the totally unearned gift that it is.

And in my upcoming book, as the second commandment as it were reads, the fact is, we are entitled to nothing. This very existence of ours is a totally unearned gift. Now, there are a lot of impediments to feeling grateful for it, not the least of which is the fact that we human beings come into this world and exist through much of our lives, solidly aligned with what Freud called the Pleasure Principle. And that is simply this, from the minute we start breathing, we bring with us a certain fear of existence. This is a cold, hostile, potentially cruel place. And until we get our first taste of some relief, comfort, pleasure, we are scared of the whole experience.

This is every human being's experience from our earliest hours of birth. We come from a safe place - generally speaking - some of us were not so fortunate. Some of us may have been in utero, subjected to various types of trauma because of what our carriers experienced or did to themselves. But we come, generally speaking, from a comfortable place and are thrust into a world that is cold, cruel, potentially dangerous and we don't like it. In fact, most of us start crying the minute we get here if we are not slapped a little bit to get us going and to help clear out our lungs.

And we don't really calm down until we are comforted. Until we get our first taste of pleasure. And so long as life is, on balance, generally pleasurable, we want to live. When life gets too painful or becomes devoid of joy, when we have lost the ability to experience pleasure - in psychology speak we call that Anhedonia - most of us, actually, would rather not be here. We are solidly, as human beings, aligned with the pleasure principle for most of our lives.

Now, hopefully at some point in our character, emotional and psychological development, and especially in our spiritual development, we come to appreciate and have reverence for this marvelous gift and embrace it for what it is - pain and all. But, for most of us, especially in these character-disturbed times of ours, in these times of massive entitlement, where almost everything once regarded as a privilege or something to be earned, is regarded these days as a right simply because we are breathing.

It's hard to find any sense of gratitude. It's hard to feel grateful, and in our alignment with the pleasure principle, we will basically abandon our zest for life unless we get enough of the things that we consider will make us happy, or that we believe will make us happy or please us or bring us some comfort.

Mature characters have transcended the pleasure principle, but mature characters are rare in our days of more widespread character disturbance. And our culture of entitlement has a lot to do with it. That's one of the factors that makes it hard for folks to find room in their hearts for gratitude. But there's another, and that's the perception of being cheated or denied some things. Whether that perception has any objective validity or not. Some individuals - through no fault of their own - are born into circumstances that are truly depraved and they are deprived as a result of many of the things that most of come to expect in terms of creature and material comforts.

And it's very understandable that folks raised in those kinds of environments who have experienced deprivation, abuse, neglect, unsafe environments, trauma would necessarily have a fairly negative view towards life itself and therefore be so determined to secure whatever pleasures they can, even if they are only momentary, and even if they are ultimately self-destructive, because they just simply don't know that life can be any better. They've come to expect unfair treatment from the world, from their caretakers. They've come to expect hardship and become jaded in their outlook. I just said a moment ago that gratitude is a matter of attitude. It's hard to cultivate such an attitude when you're steeped in an atmosphere of danger, abuse, neglect, deprivation, etc.


The other major impediment to feeling grateful and cultivating a proper attitude to the many gifts that we have, is over-indulgence. We can come to expect too much. We can be given too much merely for breathing. We can be spoiled. We live in an age of plenty and also sometimes come into an atmosphere of indulgence and appeasement. We can come to expect so much that we get too easily down in the dumps, too unhappy and too displeased with life when we don't get more. We have such high expectations that the slightest disappointment or slightest bit of denial throws us into a tizzy. So, it's just not deprivation that can cause us to have difficulty feelings grateful, it's over-indulgence too. And this is the age, after all, of both entitlement and indulgence. And it takes its toll.

So that's another factor, that in our day and time, contributes to the fact that some people have a really hard time moving past this unhealthy, strict adherence to the Pleasure Principle. It's also at the root of so many of our addictive diseases. So many folks try to fill the holes within them - the deep emotional voids that they experience - the deep loss of appreciation for life itself - so many folks try to fill that void with short term, hedonistic pursuits.

The Pleasure Principle

Sometimes that may be a sexual addiction, a porn addiction, an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Anything to fill the emotional hole that's there, as people stay allied with the pleasure principle. It takes a lot of maturity of character to move beyond living life strictly on the pleasure principle. It takes a lot of character maturity to find room in your heart for gratitude, even among the slings and arrows of life that are inevitable. It takes a lot to find room for gratitude, even when you're dealing with pain and hardship.

But the research is clear, no addictive behaviour, no matter how pleasurable it seems in the moment, no matter how much it seems to bring comfort in the moment for a while - none of those things are lasting and they all result in a death worse than physical death. They result in spiritual death. For life just is barely existence when one is chasing after the next high and miserable in-between. That's not really living. And the research is clear, life doesn't have to be a picnic for us to feel grateful.

We've actually looked at this very methodically. One would think that a comfortable life, or a life that has many joyous opportunities in it, would naturally lead people to find it easier to have gratitude in their hearts. That we would more easily be grateful. But the research indicates the opposite, because sometimes folks just never have enough. And when they get used to - in this age of entitlement - having a lot, they always want more. That emotional void, that hole inside is still there, looking to be filled. And that's not existing.

Rather, the research suggests - and my experience has taught me this too in working with so many people over the years - when we make space to feel grateful for even the few little things that we do have, and when we find space in the heart to feel grateful for this magnificent gift of existence, even though it carries with it, inevitable times of pain and hardship, when we make room for that in our hearts, life get's better. It gets richer. And the more grateful we are, the more space opens up in the heart.

So, gratitude requires practice like any other positive behaviour, and we know the link between our ways of thinking, our feeling states, our attitudes - we know the link between those things and our behaviour. When we have the proper attitudes, when we have the proper feeling states and proper thinking patterns, our behaviour falls into line. So when those feeling states, attitudes and thinking patterns are positive, positive behaviours result. But it works the other way too. When we exercise positive behaviours - even when it's tough, even when we don't want to, even when our hearts are not really in it because we have been undergoing a rough patch - when we exercise and practice gratitude, our attitudes, thinking patterns and feelings actually change.

And as I have said many times in many workshops, repeating a famous axiom that I did not invent but is worth repeating over and over again - it is a lot more powerful, effective and easier to act your way into a new way of thinking then it is to think your way into a new way of acting. And this is probably the biggest mistake that most therapists make when working with individuals experiencing all kinds of problems. Most therapists spend a whole lot of time and energy trying to get people to look at things differently, trying to get folks to think differently, hoping that in looking at, thinking and regarding things differently, behaviour will change. But it really works better the opposite way.

It behooves any therapist wanting to provide any meaningful help to encourage people and to reinforce doing things differently. Because if you do the same old things, you are going to get the same old results. And if you begin to act more gratefully and reverently towards this miraculous gift, even in the midst of pain and hardship, you would be surprised what changes in your heart.

I know some people might tend to trivialize what I am saying, but those who know me and know my work, and have done their own assessment of my character, know that I am not just speaking from a wealth of experience, but from what I know to be true in the deepest recesses of my soul. So, I hope you take this commandment that I have been talking about seriously. And I hope that you appreciate that even though sages throughout the ages have carried this message, the empirical research is solidly supporting it too.

It is good for you not just to count your blessings. That's good for you too. Even in the midst of pain and hardship. But it's also good for you to act gratefully and to tackle each day like it represents another opportunity to grow and experience real life. And we cannot do that when we stay aligned with the pleasure principle, that every time we face pain and hardship, we get down in the dumps, morose and bitter. Next time I want to talk more specifically about bitterness because I know so many folks who have succumbed to a syndrome whereby they hand onto their bitterness.

So, I want to talk more about bitterness, how it develops and how people can sometimes revel and hold onto their bitterness. We will explain why that happens, but I think that our hedonistic, pleasure-oriented and entitled culture has a lot to do with how many bitter people I have met. Anyone can make a case that their life has not been the bed of roses that they hoped it would be, but we are not promised a bed of roses. Life is just that - life. And it comes, necessarily with slings and arrows. This world, as we well know, is not heaven. Not by any stretch.

But it is an incredible opportunity to grow emotionally, psychologically, and especially spiritually. And to find meaning and not just be pleased but find genuine joy, peace of heart, real contentment and fulfillment. But to do that, we have to grow past living purely on the pleasure principle. Sadly, in our times, that is a very difficult task for too many people and it happens in one of two ways primarily. Like I mentioned before, it can happen because an individual is born into or experienced too much deprivation, or at least perceived deprivation, or maybe neglect, abuse or other kinds of trauma. So they come into this life starving and hungry, and because they lack the skills to procure more sophisticated forms of comfort, they turn to all kinds of behaviours that give them momentary comfort pleasure that eventually become addictions, but that can never fill the hole.

The other major way is over-indulgence. Coming to expect too much or expect that we don't have to face difficulties, that we should be spared the trials of life, that everything should be handed to us, we shouldn't have to work too hard, that it shouldn't be such a struggle, getting too easily disappointed when we have to put ourselves out or sacrifice, and it's hard to feel grateful when we think we actually have to suffer a little bit. Some suffering is actually good for us, but when we indulge too much and we grow up in too much of a culture of entitlement, we have a hard time appreciating that.

No amount of temporary pleasure things in our lives can bring us what our heart craves more than anything else. We are always going to end up hungry. And that's the reason I've spent so much time in the re-write of this book that was first tentatively titled the Ten Commandments of Character - I didn't want it to be a handbook for all those behaviours you have to do to be a decent person, a person of good character, rather I wanted it to be real food for the soul. Not chicken soup, but real time-tested behavioural axioms for putting the real joy in life. For having a life that truly feels worth living that has purpose, direction, and brings inner peace.

There are some time-tested principles that can help us move beyond living a life merely on the pleasure principle where we are always looking for something to appease us and fill the hole.