The big three: Compassion, Reframing and Gratitude

I recently read The Book of Joy, a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. It’s a fine book, where the personality of these two humanity fighters shines through, and where it’s easy to see how easily they take on life, even though they both have significant amounts of trials and tribulations in their stories. There is laughter, nonsense, and lots of love. The simplicity is something I think many of us have benefited learning from and incorporating into our lives to a greater extent.

Among the elements that lead to joy, there are three that are absolutely essential, according to the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu: Compassion, Reframing and Gratitude. The Big Three.

I am not as wise as the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, but I do focus on the same three elements in my book ‘Rise from Darkness’.


Reframing is the ability to look at something that has happened to you with a new perspective. For example, I can look at my decade of depression as something that was absolutely horrible, but also as something that has given me the opportunity to help others in the same situation. In other words, reframing is not a desperate “think positive” philosophy. Horrible things are horrible things, no matter how positive one tries to think about it. If you have experienced a dramatic trauma, you shouldn’t force yourself to look for something positive in it.

You can instead deal with the painful things in life on several levels. You can acknowledge and accept the bad that happened to you, and then try and see if there is anything positive about what happened (despite the pain).

Reframing is easier to apply to less serious and less important life events. I would recommend you start applying these techniques to frustrating and annoying events in life, and then to move on to the more serious issues.

Did you miss the bus? Perhaps you can enjoy the moment, seek to be present in the here and now while waiting for the next one.


Compassion, to care for others, and doing honorable deeds, can be a way of quickly improving your mood. I can’t think of any other thing that is more powerful to quickly improve my own mood than doing something for others. That’s exactly the main reason why I spend so much time blogging and writing books, because I know there’s someone out there who can benefit from it.

Read this post about helping others.


One of the reasons why gratitude is so important is that it is a way of gradually changing the habits of how one thinks. Those who are depressed tend to hang on to the pain and the wrong they perceive in themselves, in their surroundings, and in the world. With gratitude, one can to a greater extent notice and focus on what is good, after all.

Both gratitude and reframing are habits one can learn. After having focused on them for decades, these habits are now encoded into my subconscious; I automatically recognize and thank for something good that happens to me, big and small. This habit does not come out of the blue; one must learn it by practicing gratitude daily, over time. The gratitude journal is the best tool you can get for this.

Compassion is more about an activity pattern. It means gradually spending more of your own time helping others. And once you start doing this you just want to continue doing it because of the positive effect you notice.

You can use the Big Three in this way. Whenever something frustrating happens, or the pain of depression announces itself, think the following:

Reframing: Can I look at what just happened to me in a different way? Is there anything positive about what happened? (It’s okay if you don’t come up with something positive, it’s not always the case).

Compassion: Even though I hurt right now, can I turn my attention to others? Can I visit the lonely lady in the neighboring block? Can I take my neighbor’s dog for a walk?

Gratitude: Although there is a lot of pain in my life now, what are the things I can be grateful for, despite the pain?

An important principle when trying to change habits in the direction of these three is that it is most difficult in the beginning. In the beginning it may seem impossible. But if you do not expect to succeed every time, you can be satisfied only if you get it halfway every ten times. The reason it is difficult at first is that you in a way work against yourself, you work against the habits you have today. And it’s largely those current habits that make you depressed.

But habits can be reversed, it only takes time.

Today, it may be enough for you to simply reflect a little on this: Do you agree with me that your life would be better if you had a greater focus on other people, if you were able to reframe what is happening to you, and if you focused more on what you have in life that is good after all and expressed gratitude for this?

If you (partially) agree, that’s enough for today. The change may come later. You have plenty of time.

And gradually, you can phase in measures and techniques in everyday to change your habits in the direction of the Big Three.