Who hasn’t heard over the last few years that gratitude is the way to happiness? “Gratitude is the attitude that determines your altitude!”
Even Oprah keeps a Gratitude Journal.
The thing I hate about gratitude is that it feels like a ‘should’ – and we all do enough should’n on ourselves already! True gratitude is a feeling – like joy or sadness – that can’t be forced. It’s either there or it’s not – although we CAN cultivate it.
So when I’m told that the way to happiness is to be grateful, or to keep a gratitude journal or to do gratitude affirmations it drives me crazy! Because I can’t MAKE myself FEEL grateful just by thinking about it or writing a list. On top of that, I feel that the gratitude explosion is another false hope given to people who are unhappy: “Here’s the answer to all your problems – just be grateful!”
We can’t fix our unhappiness by simply plastering a smile on top of things – because we leave a festering wound underneath. We must acknowledge what hurts, what annoys and frustrates us BEFORE we put that positive spin on it. I’m not suggesting we wallow in unhappiness, just that we first notice it’s there. Our feelings give us messages about what’s working and not working for us. If we switch off the painful messages around what’s not working for us, how on earth can we change things?
So, while forcing ourselves to feel grateful is a GREAT way to AVOID difficult feelings – it also means you can’t acknowledge and learn from them. This kind of gratitude only makes things worse.
What Gratitude really means: I looked grateful up in the dictionary and it says, “being thankful for gifts and favours.” Well, there’s the rub right there. So many of us were taught to say thank-you to our ‘olders’ and ‘betters’ out of duty – whether we felt it or not. Like the relative that said, “Now Emma, remember to say Thank-you!” after they’ve given you a 5 year old packet of soggy, hard candy.
So, it’s all too easy to spout gratitude when we don’t really mean it because we’ve been trained – talk about being INauthentic! Saying what we SHOULD rather than what we actually feel.
And what about those curve balls that life throws us? Sh*t Happens. Sometimes life is definitely NOT a gift. Sometimes people do us DISfavours. We’re probably supposed to be grateful for those too.
Yes yes. I’m sure it was MEANT to be. Something better will come up. And if we look for it, we’ll find a valuable life lesson. (Don’t get me wrong here, I’m a DEFINITE silver lining kind of gal – something crappy happens, I can’t help but try to make sense – and something positive out of it).
And yes. I know that if we’re educated, have a job or a regular income, food on the table, a roof over our heads that we’re LUCKY. And I AM thankful. I just struggle with having to be GRATEFUL.
So – where DO I think gratitude is good? Well, I agree that if we can get to a place where we’re genuinely grateful for our lives and everything that happens to us – that we’re probably happy – and enlightened. Hurrah!
I also agree that practicing gratitude helps create a HABIT where we focus on the positive in life – and this is a very good thing. But enlightenment means we ACCEPT what happens to us, not that we just stick a smile on it and say, “Thank-you” when inside we’re miserable; once we’re enlightened we’ll still have days when we’re sad, miserable and lonely – it just won’t scare us any more.
So let’s be honest here. I’ll explore that in another post soon). Let’s stop pretending that everything’s OK when it’s not. I’m NOT grateful when crap happens to me (at least not at the time). Let’s stop lying to ourselves. Let’s stop the dance of hiding our authentic feelings with how we think we SHOULD be.
In Summary: If you’re going to keep a gratitude journal – go for it. Enjoy it! BUT, ONLY record things you TRULY feel grateful for. Don’t put shoulds down. Don’t FORCE yourself to be (intellectually) grateful for something that you’re not. Because this is a sure-fire path to INauthenticity and UNhappiness. You’ll know when you feel TRULY grateful because you’ll feel light and spacious and wonderful inside – even joyful. And THAT’S what we want.
Coaching Tip: And if like me, you struggle with a gratitude journal, I would recommend starting each entry with a list of things you’re unhappy or really bummed about. Then once it’s acknowledged and out of your system, move onto the grateful part. You may even find you’ll be able to genuinely find the things to be grateful for in your first list – but this time it will help you move you forwards…
You may also like this article with a similar theme: How to End UNhappiness!
and share with your friends and colleagues!
That article has thrown me!! I’ve been trying hard to be grateful for the good in my life..and then feel guilty that it doesn’t make me feel better. Then I feel ungrateful and a bit selfish….
Thanks so much for your honest comment! I think this is exactly the point I am trying to make. We keep being told that to be happy we just need to be grateful/thankful. But it’s not as easy as just THINKING “I am grateful” we actually have to REALLY FEEL THAT. Often we can THINK “I am grateful” while ACTUALLY feeling something else – like disappointed, sad, overwhelmed etc. So, what I’m saying is to be careful that you’re not THINKING you’re grateful while you’re actually FEELING something else. What’s most important is to first OWN and ACKNOWLEDGE whatEVER you feel (you may be feeling pi$$ed off, upset, resentful). Yes, you can SLAP a smile over the top and say, “I’m grateful” but that’s like slapping a band-aid over a festering wound. TREAT the wound FIRST. Then put the band-aid (and the smile) on once you’ve treated yourself. There is nothing wrong with feeling bad.
So, when we feel bad the steps are:
1) ACKNOWLEDGE the TRUTH. What are you REALLY feeling. See it. Own it.
2) Be KIND to yourself. Soothe, support, encourage. (DO NOT beat self up for feeling bad or you will feel worse)
3) Once Step 1 and 2 are done, you can look at gratitude: “Actually, it’s crappy, but I have a good life really.”, “I’m lucky in the grand scheme of things.”, “I’m thankful for x/y/z.” (And if you don’t feel it, don’t force it – it’s great to look for something you feel grateful for, but don’t make yourself THINK you’re grateful for something you’re not). TIP: Keep looking for smaller and smaller things until you CAN find something you feel TRULY grateful or thankful for.
You feel guilty because you think you SHOULD feel or be thinking something else. FIRST acknowledge your truth (whatever it is) WITHOUT judgement. Accept it. Accept yourself. And ONLY THEN, do the gratitude piece. (Feeling guilty, ungrateful and selfish are ALL judgements of yourself. Stop judging yourself!!! You’re human!)
Hope that helps…
Great post! Thank you! I was thinking the same things about this… and there are so many articles repeating mindlessly the same thing – how good it is for you to keep such a journal.
Thanks Irina! It’s a tough subject to write about because so many people seem to be on the gratitude bandwagon… As I’m sure you realised, I’m not saying that it’s bad, just that mindless application of Gratitude can be destructive… So, great to hear from you – that really helps!!! Warmly, Emma-Louise.
Thank you SO much for writing this post.
I’ve recently been doing a lot of personal growth work and can’t escape the pressure of keeping this gratitude journal.
If the journal worked for me, that would be one thing, but instead it’s been the source of self-doubt and lack of confidence. My struggle is that I can tell it’s not authentic. I often don’t “feel” the gratitude that I’m convincing myself to write about. Sometimes I do, but other times there’s a complete disconnect between what my heart is feeling and my brain is saying I should be grateful for.
The trendiness or popularity of this topic has left me feeling like there’s something deeply wrong with me for not feeling as much gratitude as everyone else–which is quite the opposite of what the practice was supposed to achieve.
This article has finally given me some validation that just because it works for some people doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. I’m not a negative person, and in fact I naturally look for the silver linings, lessons learned and the light at the end of the tunnel.
Thank you for liberating me from the guilt of failing at this task! I’m going to put it into my things to “Let Go”.
Hi Anne, Thanks for taking the time to comment! And for being so honest – it is brave of you. Gratitude when we’re ready – and it’s genuine can be very powerful. But not before we’ve acknowledged the truth of what we’re feeling and processed that. Silver linings (I’m a big fan too!) are a form of gratitude after all. What is the good that has come out of this? What positive thing can I focus on and be grateful in all of this.
Moshe Feldenkreis said “Anytime words alone stop you doing what is important to you – change the words.”
Perhaps you would benefit more from looking for the “silver linings” than gratitude…
Thanks again for commenting! So glad the article was helpful.
Warmly, Emma-Louise x
Thank You Soooooooo Much for this Article!!!!!!
Dear Gwenne, I’m so glad you like it. Perhaps you found it a relief (as I did to write it!!!). Warmly, Emma-Louise
Thank you for this affirmation. If one more privileged, Caucasian, bliss ninny in Yoga pants tells me that happiness will come if I practice gratitude, someone’s goin’ down… I know that I have more ‘stuff’ than 95% of the people in this world, and for that I thank my privileged, American citizenship. I am 56 and have seen a lot – observing this society outside of The Matrix affords one the gift of reality, not rose colored glasses. I am happy on some days, angry on some days, engage on some days, retreat on some days. If all the self-help ‘gurus’ are right, then why is the self-help section in Barnes & Noble the most popular section? Shouldn’t their ‘wisdom’ prevent one more insufferable book from being written?
Dear Cassandra, it sounds like you find the senseless gratitude very frustrating and irritating! I believe gratitude or thankfulness for what we have is a key part of happiness (ie. not wishing you had another life, more stuff AND not fighting reality/wishing things were different from the way they actually are). My “beef” is when gratitude is touted as THE answer, the ONLY thing you need to do. And when people suggest that if only we were more grateful, we would be happy! It’s important that first we acknowledge (and actually feel) what we feel. Let’s be authentic. See and feel the “truth” of things, and then CHOOSE to be grateful. But trying to do this on top of feeling angry or sad doesn’t magically make those thoughts or feelings go away, it’s shoving a patch on top of things so we don’t need to look at them. It sounds like you are switched on to what you’re feeling! Warmly, Emma-Louise
Thank you, thank you. I was seriously Googling “practicing gratitude make me angry” and found this article. It is so exhausting and condescending when people tell me to “just be grateful”. It’s like we’re expected to prostrate ourselves on the altar of humility, and elevating others above ourselves. If I feel gratitude for everything, there is no incentive to move forward and make changes – after all, everything’s peachy! Admitting that your life needs changes implies that there is something you should NOT be grateful for, and it’s overall a very positive force that propels you to become a better person.
Hey Anna! I am so glad you found this article helpful 🙂 Whilst ultimately we can probably find reasons to be grateful for all life experiences, in the moment we need to feel what we feel – and process. Not “spiritually bypass” our feelings and life by immediately going into gratitude. The same applies if we’re going through a rough patch in life which lasts a few days/weeks or months. We can work towards being thankful and being grateful for the small things, make gratitude lists even, while ALSO feeling whatever we feel whether it’s anger, sadness, shame, guilt etc. And anytime gratitude is a should, well usually there’s some self-care that needs to come first! Warmly, Emma-Louise
Im a bit late but thank you for this article
I’ve been trying so hard to be grateful for what I got/content with the cards ive been dealt etc. because anything that gets drummed into us at our low paying jobs is that “It could be worse. You could have no job. Think of the people who dont have a job” but its never made me feel any better
Sometimes I want to shout “Why??!” “why the hell should I be grateful for being screwed?” Then I feel bad for being ungrateful and keep it in and then feel worse. Reading this has allowed me to acknowledge those feelings and deal with them versus pushing them in and letting them fester