The problem with gratitude (and what you can do about it)
There’s no doubting that gratitude is good for us.
There’s a wealth of evidence to suggest that practising gratitude will help us feel happier and more fulfilled and will have a positive effect on our wellbeing. Being grateful leads to higher levels of activity in the brain’s hypothalamus, which controls essential bodily functions such as eating, drinking and sleeping, SO experiencing gratitude ‘could have such wide-ranging effects from increased exercise and improved sleep to decreased depression and fewer aches and pains’ (Korb, Alex: The Grateful Brain 2012, Psychology Today).
Gratitude also engages our brains in a virtuous cycle. Our brains look for things that prove what it already believes to be true – confirmation bias. Once we start to notice things we are grateful for, we start looking for more things to back up what we already think, so our brain is proved right. And that’s the virtuous cycle.
All good so far. But what about when gratitude feels false or difficult. I’ve been running a series of webinars around personal resilience over the last couple of months and I include an activity around gratitude. In one session, a participant asked, ‘do I have to force myself to be grateful’? A great question, and one which honestly acknowledges that gratitude is not all sweetness and light. Sometimes it can feel like a struggle. Sometimes it feels incongruent. Sometimes we feel as though it’s beyond us in that moment.
So if you’re struggling with being grateful, here are a few things you might want to consider.
Problems with gratitude
1. Gratitude is not a sticking plaster
If we’re feeling sad, frustrated or fearful, for example, it’s important to acknowledge those feelings, even if that feels painful, and if we use gratitude as a way to push the feelings away, they’ll still remain with us, unprocessed and unresolved, a bit like putting a sticking plaster over a festering wound. When gratitude gets in the way of us acknowledging our true feelings, seeking comfort or taking action, it gets stops us healing and hinders our potential to feel fulfilled.
2. Gratitude is a feeling not a state of mind
Logical gratitude happens when it makessense to be grateful for something, when we understand how lucky we are. But if we don’t feel the gratitude at the same time, we can feel lacking and empty. Gratitude is a feeling of thankfulness that arises naturally when we know in our hearts the truth of things.
3. The second arrow hurts!
When we tell ourselves gratitude is something we ‘should’ practice and ‘ought’ to do, we’re essentially firing the ‘second arrow’. The first arrow, the difficulty feeling gratitude, strikes hard. The second arrow, the judgement and the self-criticism which follows, make it even worse.
5 ways to cultivate gratitude
- When difficult things happen and gratitude feels inaccessible, practice self-compassion instead (see last month’s issue of Consciously Connected!) Do this until you have acknowledged what is actually going on for you, the real emotion of things, sought help or found learning there. Acknowledging these feelings will open the doors to gratitude and future possibilities.
- Create an environment where gratitude is more likely to arise naturally and authentically. Practising gratitude helps create a habit where we focus on the positive aspects of life.
- Be gentle with yourself. Rather than strictly telling yourself you must or ought to practice gratitude, consider inviting gratitude gently into your day. Try The Outdoor Coach podcast about gratitude.
- Think of a time when you know you’ve been truly grateful. Tap into that experience and the feelings as if you were there – perhaps there was a warm spaciousness in your chest, an involuntary smile, joyfulness or calm. This is felt gratitude. By noticing and paying attention to the feeling when it occurs naturally, you will more easily notice it and access it in the future.
- Keep a gratitude journal and record what you actually feel grateful for (not the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘oughts’!) Pay attention to the feelings you experience for each item in your list to tap into the genuine positive feelings.
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