In the United States, it’s almost Thanksgiving. All across the internet people are participating in gratitude challenges. Stories highlighting the link between gratitude and happiness are floating around the media like ducks a pond. I am absolutely pro-gratitude and a firm believer that being grateful increases our overall happiness. If you are here looking for tips to increase your gratitude, you will find mine at the bottom of the page. If you are here because of the media focus on gratitude feels oppressive in some way, read on to the very next paragraph.
Let’s talk about the whole concept of gratitude. I believe that the word gratitude has baggage. For example, “You should be grateful you have food on the table.” Yes, it is a sad truth that many do not have regular access to enough food. Yes, not having to worry about where our next meal is coming from is definitely a blessing, something we often take for granted. However, whenever the word “should” is tossed around, guilt is not far behind. When we are told we should be grateful, we do not suddenly feel enlightened about our blessings flooded with gratitude. Instead we feel ashamed for not being a better person, or angry that we are being judged as such, or both.
On the topic of things we “should” be grateful for, that list is easily assembled: clean water, a roof over our heads, etc. It only takes a single experience of not having the necessities of a healthy life to make us appreciate the value of what we are missing. Gratitude flows easily and profusely when they are restored. Without such an experience, however, our gratitude for such things can be perfunctory and empty. While it is extremely valuable to acknowledge the importance of these foundational blessings in our lives, there is no real gratitude in mouthing thanks for them because we should.
Another thing that can stop us from fully experiencing gratitude is the concept that it is somehow shameful to have plenty when others have little. If we share our thankfulness for having a new car, there can be the fear, and often the reality, that we will be judged as materialistic consumers who care more about shiny things than we do about helping those who have less. (In truth, having plenty can exist side by side with philanthropy.)
Sometimes we are so lost in grief, depression, pain, or illness that gratitude feels very much unreachable. In a post I wrote in May of 2017, I spoke of a method I used to find gratitude in times such as these:
– When the tough times hit, I often have to re-frame a challenge in my life until it becomes something for which to be grateful. For example, “I am grateful for migraine medicine.” –
This is a technique that helps me, however, there can be baggage that comes with this method as well: It is so easy to feel as though you are, or will be seen as, complaining under the guise being grateful.
When people are suffering some kind of loss, well-meaning friends or family sometimes offer as a kind of balm this well-known quote by Dr. Seuss:
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Rarely are people trying to shame people for their grief, and yet this is another example of “should” gratitude. You should be happy you experienced this thing, this love, this time. Indeed, there is a great deal of healing to be had when we are able to remember the joy we experienced before an ending. Please note that the key words of the preceding sentence are “when we are able.” Grief runs its course differently in each instance and there is no shame to be had in the mourning phase of a loss. Healing cannot be forced upon one’s spirit.
Despite being aware of the obstacles stated in the paragraphs above, I am pro-gratitude. There is irrefutable evidence that gratitude is critical to our well-being. Unfortunately, our beliefs and society’s beliefs about what we should be grateful for, and why and when we should be grateful for it can actually hamper our ability to feel gratitude. How, then, are we to experience true gratitude and all the benefits it can bring to our lives?
1. Start with releasing any “shoulds.” It doesn’t matter if your gratitude looks different from anyone else’s. It doesn’t matter if you are grateful for the “right” things, or grateful for the “right” reasons.
2. Think of the last time you felt happy about something. This can be your morning cup of coffee, the refuge provided by your bed at the end of a bad day, or comfort from a school counselor when you were in third grade. Remember the first rule: release the “shoulds.” It doesn’t matter how big or small it was, how recently or distantly it happened. Just remember that happy feeling and feel it again as much as you can. Remembered happiness is the seed of gratitude, just as gratitude creates the fruit which is happiness
3. If you are in the middle of a difficult situation, don’t use this as a reason why you can’t be grateful. Acknowledge the situation. Look at it from as many angles as you can. Many times, it is possible to look back on a situation and see how it benefited you. Hindsight is a wonderful gift in that way. In the moment it is happening, however, you may have to look for peripheral blessings. These can be things such as a nurse providing you with a heated blanket at the hospital, a meal brought over by a friend or neighbor, or the fact that you took big, scary steps to free yourself from an abusive relationship. It can even be something as seemingly small as making the bus on time. Learning to spot these moments even (and perhaps especially) in difficult times helps us get to the other side of them without becoming bitter or cynical.
4. Remember that we can be grateful for internal things. It doesn’t have to be something you have received from an outside source. We can be grateful that we have a sense of humor. We can be grateful that we talked ourselves into that shower. We can be grateful that we learned to treat people with more kindness than we were shown.
5. When you’re really struggling with gratitude, look for just one thing that makes life better in some way. Feeling gratitude for one single thing is still feeling gratitude. It doesn’t have to be a different thing a day for 30 days. It doesn’t have to be public. It doesn’t have to be conventional. Being authentically thankful for anything is better than simply going through the motions of what we believe gratitude looks like.
Gratitude is about way more than the Thanksgiving holiday. In fact, the preparation, expectations, and general hoopla surrounding any holiday can consume our thoughts to a point where everything else falls to the side. Before the crush of the holiday season begins in earnest, please make time to find reasons to be grateful. The more you practice, the more natural it becomes. What we focus our attention on matters. I wish for each of you the ability to focus on the best parts of each and every day.
Bright blessings, Sunny