GRATITUDE: The World’s Most Powerful Drug

 


PART THREEGIVE

NINEGRATITUDE

The World’s Most Powerful Drug

Appreciate everything, even the ordinary. Especially the ordinary.

—Pema Chödrön

Once we have trained the mind to look inward, we are ready to look outward at how we interact with others in the world. Today it is common to talk about amplifying gratitude in our lives (we are all #blessed), but attaching a hashtag to a moment is different from digging to the root of all we’ve been given and bringing true, intentional gratitude to our lives every day.

Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast defines gratitude as the feeling of appreciation that comes when “you recognize that something is valuable to you, which has nothing to do with its monetary worth.”


Words from a friend, a kind gesture, an opportunity, a lesson, a new pillow, a loved one’s return to health, the memory of a blissful moment, a box of vegan chocolates (hint, hint). When you start your day with gratitude, you’ll be open to opportunities, not obstacles. You’ll be drawn to creativity, not complaint. You will find fresh ways to grow, rather than succumbing to negative thoughts that only shrink your options.


In this chapter we’re going to expand our awareness of gratitude and why it’s good for you. Then we’ll practice finding reasons to be grateful every day; we’ll learn when and how to express gratitude for both small gifts and those that have mattered most.

GRATITUDE IS GOOD FOR YOU

It’s hard to believe that thankfulness could actually have measurable benefits, but the science is there. Gratitude has been linked to better mental health, self-awareness, better relationships, and a sense of fulfillment.


One way scientists have measured the benefits of gratitude was to ask two groups of people to keep journals during the day. The first group was asked to record things for which they felt grateful, and the second was asked to record times they’d felt hassled or irritated. The gratitude group reported lower stress levels at the end of the day. In another study, college students who complained that their minds were filled with racing thoughts and worries were told to spend fifteen minutes before bed listing things for which they were grateful. Gratitude journaling reduced intrusive thoughts and helped participants sleep better.

TRY THIS: KEEP A GRATITUDE JOURNAL

Every night, spend five minutes writing down things you are grateful for.

If you want to conduct your own experiment, spend the week before you start writing down how much sleep you get. The following week, keep a gratitude journal and in the morning write down how much sleep you got. Any improvement?

GRATITUDE AND THE MIND

When the monkey mind, which amplifies negativity, tries to convince us that we’re useless and worthless, the more reasonable monk mind counters by pointing out that others have given us their time, energy, and love. They have made efforts on our behalf. Gratitude for their kindness is entwined with self-esteem, because if we are worthless, then that would make their generosity toward us worthless too.


Gratitude also helps us overcome the bitterness and pain that we all carry with us. Try feeling jealous and grateful simultaneously. Hard to imagine, right? When you’re present in gratitude, you can’t be anywhere else. According to UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, we truly can’t focus on positive and negative feelings at the same time. When we feel grateful, our brains release dopamine (the reward chemical), which makes us want to feel that way again, and we begin to make gratitude a habit. Says Korb, “Once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for.” It’s a “virtuous cycle.”


For years, researchers have shown that gratitude plays a major role in overcoming real trauma. A study published in 2006 found that Vietnam War veterans with high levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you’ve been through a breakup, if you’ve lost a loved one—if anything has hit you hard emotionally—gratitude is the answer.


Gratitude has benefits not just for the mind but for the physical body. The toxic emotions that gratitude blocks contribute to widespread inflammation, which is a precursor to loads of chronic illnesses, including heart disease.


Studies show that grateful people not only feel healthier, they’re also more likely to take part in healthy activities and seek care when they’re ill.


The health benefits of gratitude are so extensive that Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the Division of Biologic Psychology at Duke University Medical Center, told ABC News, “If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.”

EVERYDAY GRATITUDE

If gratitude is good for you, then more gratitude must be better for you. So let’s talk about how to increase the gratitude in our daily lives. Monks try to be grateful for everything, all the time. As the Sutta Pitaka, part of the Buddhist canon, advises, “Monks. You should train yourselves thus: ‘We will be grateful and thankful and we will not overlook even the least favor done to us.’ ”


One of my most memorable lessons in gratitude came days after I arrived at the ashram.


A senior monk asks us new arrivals to write about an experience that we believe we didn’t deserve. There is silence as we scribble in our notebooks. I pick an episode from my teenage years when one of my best friends betrayed me.

After about fifteen minutes, we share what we’ve written. One novice describes the painful premature death of his sister, others have written about accidents or injuries, some discuss lost loves. When we’re done, our teacher tells us that the experiences we have picked are all valid, but he points out the fact that all of us have selected negative scenarios. Not one of us has written about a wonderful thing that came to us by good fortune or kindness rather than through our own efforts. A wonderful thing that we didn’t deserve.

We’re in the habit of thinking that we don’t deserve misfortune, but that we do deserve whatever blessings have come our way. Now the class takes the time to consider our good fortune: the luck of being born into a family with the resources to care for us; people who have invested more in us than we have invested in ourselves; opportunities that have made a difference in our lives. We so easily miss the chance to recognize what has been given to us, to feel and express gratitude.


This exercise transported me to the first time I felt grateful for the life I had till then taken for granted.


I first visited India with my parents when I was around nine years old. In a taxi on our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a red light. Out the window, I saw the legs of a girl, probably the same age as me. The rest of her was bent over deep into a trash can. It looked like she was trying to find something, most likely food. When she stood up, I realized with shock that she didn’t have hands. I really wanted to help her somehow, but I looked on helplessly as our car pulled away. She noticed my gaze and smiled, so I smiled back—that was all I could do.


Back at the hotel I was feeling pretty low about the girl I’d seen. I wished I’d taken action. I thought back to my community in London. So many of us had Christmas lists and birthday parties and hobbies, while there were kids out there just trying to survive. It was an awakening of sorts.


My family went to the hotel restaurant for lunch, and I overheard another child complaining that there was nothing he liked on the menu. I was appalled. Here we were with our choice of meals, and the girl I had seen had only a trash can for a menu.


I probably couldn’t have articulated it then, but that day I gleaned how much had been given to me. The biggest difference between me and that girl was where and to whom we had been born. My father, in fact, had worked his way out of the slums in Pune, not far from Mumbai. I was the product of immense hard work and sacrifice.


In the ashram, I began my gratitude practice by returning to the awareness I’d started to feel at nine years old, and feeling grateful for what was already mine: my life and health, my ease and safety and the confidence that I would continue to be fed and sheltered and loved. All of it was a gift.


In order to take that appreciation for the gifts of the universe and turn it into a habit, monks begin every day by giving thanks. Literally. When we wake up on our mats, we flip over to our fronts and pay respect to the earth, taking a moment to give thanks for what it gives us, for the light to see, the ground to walk on, the air to breathe.

TRY THIS: EVERYDAY GRATITUDE PRACTICES

Morning gratitude. Let me guess. The first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is check your phone. Maybe it seems like an easy, low-impact way to get your brain moving, but as we’ve discussed, it doesn’t start the day on the right note. Try this—it will only take a minute. (If you’re so tired that you’re in danger of falling back asleep, then make sure you’ve set a snooze alarm.) Take a moment right there in bed, flip over onto your belly, put your hands in prayer, and bow your head. Take this moment to think of whatever is good in your life: the air and light that uplift you, the people who love you, the coffee that awaits you.

Meal gratitude. One in every nine people on earth do not have enough food to eat every day. That’s nearly 800 million people. Choose one meal of the day and commit to taking a moment before you dig in to give thanks for the food. Take inspiration from Native American prayers or make up your own. If you have a family, take turns offering thanks.

Ancient, timeless gratitude practices have arisen all around the world. Among Native Americans, traditions of thanksgiving abound. In one ritual observance, described by Buddhist scholar and environmental activist Joanna Macy, Onondaga children gather for a daily morning assembly to start their school day with an offering of gratitude. A teacher begins, “Let us gather our minds as one and give thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun, who rises each day to bring light so we can see each other’s faces and warmth for the seeds to grow.” Similarly, the Mohawk people say a prayer, which offers gratitude for People, Earth Mother, the Waters, the Fish, the Plants, the Food Plants, the Medicine Herbs, the Animals, the Trees, the Birds, the Four Winds, Grandfather Thunder, Eldest Brother the Sun, Grandmother Moon, the Stars, the Enlightened Teachers, and the Creator. Imagine what the world might be like if we all started our day giving thanks for the most basic and essential gifts of life all around us.

THE PRACTICE OF GRATITUDE

Making gratitude part of your daily routine is the easy part, but here’s my ask, and it’s not small: I want you to be grateful in all times and circumstances. Even if your life isn’t perfect, build your gratitude like a muscle. If you train it now, it will only strengthen over time.

TRY THIS: GRATITUDE MEDITATIONS

To access gratitude anytime, at will, I recommend the following meditations.

OM NAMO BHAGAVATE VASUDEVAYA

In the ashram we chanted this mantra, discussed on page 273, before reading spiritual texts as a reminder to feel grateful for those who helped those scriptures exist. We can use this chant in a similar way to feel grateful for the teachers and sages who have brought us insight and guidance.

I AM GRATEFUL FOR…

After sitting, relaxing, and doing breathwork, repeat “I am grateful for… ,” completing the phrase with as many things as you can. This exercise immediately refocuses you. If possible, try to reframe negativities that spring to mind by finding elements of them for which you are grateful. You can also do this in a journal or as a voice note to keep as a reminder if these negative thoughts return.

JOY VISUALIZATION

During meditation, take yourself to a time and place where you experienced joy. Allow that feeling of joy to re-enter you. You will carry it with you when you finish the meditation.

Gratitude is how we transform what Zen master Roshi Joan Halifax calls “the mind of poverty.” She explains that this mindset “has nothing to do with material poverty. When we are caught in the mind of poverty, we focus on what we are lacking; we feel we don’t deserve love; and we ignore all that we have been given. The conscious practice of gratitude is the way out of the poverty mentality that erodes our gratitude and with it, our integrity.”


Brian Acton exemplifies this conscious practice of gratitude. He had worked at Yahoo for eleven years when he applied for a job at Twitter, but even though he was quite good at what he did, he was rejected. When he received the news, he tweeted, “Got denied by Twitter HQ. That’s ok. Would have been a long commute.” He next applied for a job at Facebook. Soon after he tweeted, “Facebook turned me down. It was a great opportunity to connect with some fantastic people. Looking forward to life’s next adventure.” He didn’t hesitate to post his failures on social media, and never expressed anything but gratitude for the opportunities. After these setbacks, he ended up working on an app in his personal time. Five years later Facebook bought WhatsApp, the app Brian Acton cofounded, for $19 billion.


The jobs at the companies that rejected Acton would have paid far less than he made off WhatsApp. Instead of fixating on the rejections and adopting a poverty mentality, he just waited gratefully to see what might be in store for him.


Don’t judge the moment. As soon as you label something as bad, your mind starts to believe it. Instead, be grateful for setbacks. Allow the journey of life to progress at its own pace and in its own roundabout way. The universe may have other plans in store for you.


There’s a story about a monk who carried water from a well in two buckets, one of which had holes in it. He did this every day, without repairing the bucket. One day, a passer-by asked him why he continued to carry the leaky bucket. The monk pointed out that the side of the path where he carried the full bucket was barren, but on the other side of the path, where the bucket had leaked, beautiful wildflowers had flourished. “My imperfection has brought beauty to those around me,” he said.


Helen Keller, who became deaf and blind as a toddler after an unidentified illness, wrote, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”


When something doesn’t go your way, say to yourself, “There’s more for me out there.” That’s all. You don’t have to think, I’m so grateful I lost my job! When you say, “This is what I wanted. This was the only answer,” all the energy goes to “this.” When you say, “This didn’t work out, but there’s more out there,” the energy shifts to a future full of possibility.


The more open you are to possible outcomes, the more you can make gratitude a go-to response. Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “People usually think that gratitude is saying thank you, as if this were the most important aspect of it. The most important aspect of the practice of grateful living is trust in life.… To live that way is what I call ‘grateful living’ because then you receive every moment as a gift.… This is when you stop long enough to ask yourself, ‘What’s the opportunity in this moment?’ You look for it and then take advantage of that opportunity. It’s as simple as that.”

TRY THIS: GRATITUDE IN HINDSIGHT

Think of one thing that you weren’t grateful for when it first happened. Your education? Someone who taught you? A friendship? Is there a project that stressed you out? A responsibility for a family member that you resented? Or choose a negative outcome that is no longer painful: a breakup, a layoff, unwanted news.

Now take a moment to consider in what way this experience is worthy of your gratitude. Did it benefit you in an unexpected way? Did the project help you develop new skills or earn a colleague’s respect? Was your relationship with the family member forever improved by your generosity?

Think of something unpleasant that is going on right now, or that you anticipate. Experiment with anticipating gratitude for an unlikely recipient.

If your boss gives you feedback that you don’t agree with, pause before reacting. Take a moment to think, What can I learn from this moment? Then look for gratitude: Maybe you can be grateful that your boss is trying to help you improve—or grateful that your boss has given you another reason to leave this job. If you run to catch a bus and you succeed, you would ordinarily feel momentary relief, then go back to your day. Instead, stop. Take a moment to remember what it felt like when you thought you were going to miss it. Use this memory to appreciate your good fortune. And if you miss the bus, you will have a moment to reflect, so use it to put the situation in perspective. Another bus is coming. You weren’t hit by a car. It could have been a lot worse. After celebrating the wins and mourning the losses, we deliberately look at either situation with perspective, accept it gratefully and humbly, and move forward.

EXPRESSING GRATITUDE

Now that we’ve broadened the gratitude we feel internally, let’s turn that gratitude outward and express it to others.


A lot of the time, we feel deeply grateful, but we have no idea how to pass it on. There are many ways and depths of giving thanks and giving back.


The most basic way to show gratitude is to say thank you. But who wants to be basic? Make your thanks as specific as possible. Think about the thank-you notes you might receive after hosting a gathering. At least one will likely say, “Thanks for last night. It was awesome!” Another might say, “Thanks for last night—the food was wonderful, and I loved the funny, sweet toast you made to your friend.” It’s far better to express your gratitude in specific terms. The minute we are given even incrementally more detailed gratitude, the better we feel.


This is the key: Your friend felt joy at being part of the gathering that you put together, and the effort they took to compose that thank-you note brought joy back to you. For each of you, gratitude comes from realizing that someone else is invested in you. It’s a feedback loop of love.

KINDNESS AND GRATITUDE ARE SYMBIOTIC

The feedback loop of love jibes with the Buddha teaching that kindness and gratitude must be developed together, working in harmony.


Kindness is as easy—and as hard—as this: genuinely wanting something good for someone else, thinking about what would benefit them, and putting effort into giving them that benefit.


If you have ever made a sacrifice for someone else’s benefit, you can easily recognize the effort and energy someone else gives to you. That is to say, your own acts of kindness teach you what it takes to be kind, so your own kindness enables you to feel truly grateful. Kindness teaches gratitude. This is what is happening in the microcosm of the thoughtful thank-you note: The kindness of your dinner party inspired your friend’s gratitude. That gratitude inspired her kindness to you.


Kindness—and the gratitude that follows—has a ripple effect. Pema Chödrön advises, “Be kinder to yourself. And then let your kindness flood the world.” In our daily encounters, we want other people to be kind, compassionate, and giving toward us—who wouldn’t?—but the best way to attract these qualities into our lives is to develop them ourselves. Studies have long shown that attitudes, behavior, and even health are contagious within our social networks, but what hadn’t been clear was whether this is true simply because we tend to be friends with people who are like us. So two researchers from Harvard and the University of California, San Diego, set out to find out whether kindness is contagious among people who don’t know each other. They set up a game where they arranged strangers into groups of four and gave each person twenty credits. Each player was instructed to decide, in private, how many credits to keep for themselves and how many to contribute to a common pot that at the end of the round would be divided evenly among the players. At the end of each round, the players were shuffled, so they never knew from game to game who was generous, but they knew how generous others had been to the group. As the game went on, players who had been the recipients of generosity from teammates tended to give more of their own credits in future rounds. Kindness begets kindness.


When you are part of a kindness-gratitude exchange, you will inevitably find yourself on the receiving end of gratitude. When we receive thanks, we must be mindful of our egos. It’s easy to get lost in the fantasy of our own greatness. When monks are praised, we detach, remembering that whatever we were able to give was never ours to begin with. To receive gratitude with humility, start by thanking the person for noticing. Appreciate their attention and their intention. Look for a good quality in the other person and return the compliment.


Then take the gratitude you are given as an opportunity to be grateful to your teachers.

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

Monks put our gratitude practice into action through all the small interactions of the day. I hopped into an Uber once, in a hurry and distracted. The car idled for an unusually long time, and when I finally noticed and asked the driver if everything was okay, he said, “Yes, I’m just waiting for you to say hi back to me.” It was a wake-up call, and you can bet I’m more careful about acknowledging people now.


Being short and direct may be more efficient and professional, but spending our days on autopilot blocks us from sharing the emotions that bind us together and sustain us. A study encouraging some people on the Chicago commuter trains to start conversations with strangers on any subject, for any amount of time, found that those who got up the courage to chat reported a more positive commuting experience. Most of these commuters had anticipated the opposite outcome, and on further investigation, researchers found it wasn’t that people thought strangers would be unpleasant, but they feared the awkwardness of starting a conversation and worried they might be rebuffed. That wasn’t the case, and most of the strangers were happy to engage. When we make the effort to connect with those around us, we create opportunities for gratitude instead of languishing in anonymity.


Think about all the daily activities that involve other people: commuting, a project at work, grocery shopping, dropping kids off at school, small talk with our partner. These are the little events that fill our lives, and how much pleasure they give us is largely up to us. Specifically, it depends on how much kindness we bring to these interactions and how much gratitude we take from them.

TRY THIS: A GRATITUDE VISUALIZATION

Take a moment right now to think of three things others have given you:

  1. A small kindness someone did you
  2. A gift that mattered to you
  3. Something that makes every day a little bit better

Close your eyes. Take yourself back to the place in time of one of these acts, and relive how it felt—the sights, scents, and sounds. Re-experience it with awe, and experience those feelings in a deeper way.

After this visualization, recognize that small things are happening for you. Don’t overlook them or take them for granted. Next, take a moment to feel a sense of being cared for, thought of, loved. This should boost your self-esteem and self-confidence. Last, know that just feeling great is not the end goal. Let this reflection lead to you feeling like you want to reciprocate with love by giving back to those who have given to you, or by passing on the love and care to those who don’t have it.

GRATITUDE THROUGH SERVICE

If we want to go beyond the incidental kindnesses of the day, we can actively inspire and increase our gratitude even more. We think of volunteering and serving others as ways of giving to those less fortunate, but they arguably do as much for the donor as they do for the recipient. Service helps us transform negative emotions like anger, stress, envy, and disappointment into gratitude. It does this by giving us perspective.


“What brings you to me?” asked an old, wise woman of the young man who stood before her.

“I see joy and beauty around me, but from a distance,” the young man said. “My own life is full of pain.”

The wise woman was silent. She slowly poured a cup of water for the sad young man and handed it to him. Then she held out a bowl of salt.

“Put some in the water,” she said.

The young man hesitated, then took a small pinch of salt.

“More. A handful,” the old woman said.

Looking skeptical, the young man put a scoop of salt in his cup. The old woman gestured with her head, instructing the young man to drink. He took a sip of water, made a face, and spat it onto the dirt floor.

“How was it?” the old woman asked.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” said the young man rather glumly.

The old woman smiled knowingly, then handed the young man the bowl of salt and led him to a nearby lake. The water was clear and cold. “Now put a handful of salt in the lake,” she said.

The young man did as he was instructed, and the salt dissolved into the water. “Have a drink,” the old woman said.

The young man knelt at the water’s edge and slurped from his hands.

When he looked up, the old woman again asked, “How was it?”

“Refreshing,” said the young man.

“Could you taste the salt?” asked the wise woman.

The young man smiled sheepishly. “Not at all,” he said.


The old woman knelt next to the man, helped herself to some water, and said, “The salt is the pain of life. It is constant, but if you put it in a small glass, it tastes bitter. If you put it in a lake, you can’t taste it. Expand your senses, expand your world, and the pain will diminish. Don’t be the glass. Become the lake.”


Taking a broader view helps us minimize our pain and appreciate what we have, and we directly access this broader view by giving. Research published in BMC Public Health points out that volunteering can result in lower feelings of depression and increased feelings of overall well-being. When I lived in New York a charity called Capes for Kids went into a school in Queens and helped the students make superhero capes for kids from tough backgrounds. The children who made the capes got to see the impact of their work and gifts, and it helped them realize how much they truly had. When we see the struggles of others in the clear light of day, when we use our talents to improve their world even a little bit, we immediately feel a surge of gratitude.

TRY THIS: EXPERIENCE GRATITUDE THROUGH VOLUNTEER WORK

Service broadens your perspective and alleviates negative emotions. Try volunteering—it can be once a month or once a week—but nothing will better help you develop gratitude more immediately and inspire you to show it.

PROFOUND GRATITUDE

Sometimes it’s hardest to express gratitude to the people who mean the most to us—the family, friends, teachers, and mentors who made or still make a real difference in our lives.

TRY THIS: WRITE A GRATITUDE LETTER

Select one person to whom you feel deeply grateful—someone who makes it easy to feel grateful.

Write out a list of the broader qualities and values you appreciate in this person. Were they supportive? Were they loving? Did they have integrity? Then think of specific words and moments that you shared. Look ahead and write what you’re going to do and say when you see them again. (If they have passed, you can lead with: “If I were to see you again, this is what I would say.”)

Now write them a gratitude letter, pulling from the notes you’ve made.

Try to show love and appreciation in person if possible. Otherwise, giving a note, text, or phone call to specifically express what you appreciate about a person boosts that person’s happiness and your own.


Sometimes, those you love will resist intimacy and brush you off. In this case, hold your ground. Receiving gratitude requires vulnerability and openness. We block these feelings because we’re afraid of being hurt. If you encounter resistance, you might try shifting your approach. Take a moment to consider what form of gratitude the recipient would most appreciate. In some cases, expressing your gratitude in writing is the easiest way for both of you to have time and space to process these feelings.


When you write a gratitude letter to someone who means a lot to you, try to make them feel as cared for and loved as you felt when they helped you. A letter gives recognition to the value of their generosity with more permanence than a verbal thank-you. It deepens your bond. That recognition inspires both of you to be thoughtful and giving with each other, and this, as we have learned, ripples through your community.

GRATITUDE AFTER FORGIVENESS

Perhaps you’re thinking, My parents did a number on me. Why should I be grateful to them? There are imperfect people in our lives—ones toward whom we feel unresolved or mixed emotions and therefore have trouble summoning gratitude. And yet, gratitude is not black-and-white. We can be grateful for some, but not all, of a person’s behavior toward us. If your relationships are complicated, accept their complexity. Try to find forgiveness for their failures and gratitude for their efforts.


However, I’m absolutely not suggesting that you should feel grateful if someone has done you wrong. You don’t have to be grateful for everyone in your life. Monks don’t have an official stance on trauma, but the focus is always on healing the internal before dealing with the external. In your own pace, at your own time.


     We tend to think of gratitude as appreciation for what we have been given. Monks feel the same way. And if you ask a monk what he has been given, the answer is everything. The rich complexity of life is full of gifts and lessons that we can’t always see clearly for what they are, so why not choose to be grateful for what is, and what is possible? Embrace gratitude through daily practice, both internally—in how you look at your life and the world around you—and through action. Gratitude generates kindness, and this spirit will reverberate through our communities, bringing our highest intentions to those around us.


    Gratitude is the mother of all qualities. As a mother gives birth, gratitude brings forth all other qualities—compassion, resilience, confidence, passion—positive traits that help us find meaning and connect with others. It naturally follows that in the next chapter we will talk about relationships—who we try to be with others, who we want to welcome into our lives, and how we can sustain meaningful relationships.







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