I got on the gratitude bandwagon when I was 17, with Sarah Ban Breathnach. After an appearance on Oprah, her book Simple Abundance was a massive best seller, with its own cultural moment.
Every day, I wrote out five things for which I was grateful. It was fun and pleasant at first. I enjoyed filling the pages dutifully with my best penmanship, only using the same black Uniball rollerball micro pen every time. But eventually, the arbitrary requirement to do it every day, and to come up with at least five things, resulted in insecurity. If I couldn’t think of new things to say, did that mean my life wasn’t good enough or that I wasn’t good at finding the good? As well, having to do something every day simply because that’s the rule reduces its meaning for people like me who don’t love routines or rituals.
I kept the habit up when I started my blog in 2008. Every post had “Daily Gratitudes” at the bottom, and some readers, and a popular Canadian magazine, enjoyed this feature of my blog. But I ran into a similar problem as I just described, plus a second problem: without context, sometimes it sounded like and even felt like bragging for the good things I had.
Problems with gratitude
Researcher Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D., noted these very problems with gratitude. She shares that “in a study of gratitude journaling, people who tracked their gratitude once per week were happier after six weeks, whereas those who tracked their gratitude three times per week were not.”
She also cited a way I misused gratitude as a tool: I used it to escape addressing real problems. Instead of acknowledging my valid, unhappy feelings, and changing my circumstances, I tried to wash them away with feelings of gratitude over unrelated things.
A couple of years ago, as things in my life were very hard for a while, a person or two quietly suggested, and one aunt rather aggressively suggested, that I should focus on the positive. “Move on,” she said. Meanwhile, I was swimming in quick sand. Moving on was highly desirable, and happened to be exactly what I was trying to do with my movements that may have appeared to be uncoordinated flailing but were actually me trying to transfer my knowledge about how to swim in water, over to how to swim in quick sand. These people wanted me to use gratitude as a tool of denial, like I had tried to use it for years, rather than helping to alleviate the situation. But I could not deny my own pain and trauma, especially given that it wasn’t over yet.
All of this left a temporary bad taste in my mouth for “gratitude.”
Since then, however, I think I’ve figured out how gratitude works and how it should not work:
- Gratitude should never be used in place of solving a solvable problem. If a marriage is doomed and miserable, for example, being grateful that at least he does the dishes and laundry is not the solution. Being grateful that you have a nice home is not the solution. Gratitude is not to be used like drugs are sometimes used for escape.
- Focusing on the same things repeatedly, detached from the rest of our lives, doesn’t help much. Think: Would Donald Trump benefit from the practice of thinking each day, “I’m grateful I’m so rich and such a great winner. Such a winner. I’m grateful I’m such a great, excellent, yuge winner. I’m grateful I don’t repeat myself. I don’t repeat myself.” He doesn’t need to focus on the obviously great things about his life and we don’t need for him to do that.
- Gratitude works best when it is in relation to hard experiences of loss and trauma, things we can’t change. When there is nothing left to do but dwell in shock/regret/anger OR find a positive outcome and feel genuine gratitude, then gratitude is a pathway through shittiness, lit up with the glint of silver linings. It’s the way out of pain.
When we reach deep into places of fear, resentment and anger, and we search around until we find one positive outcome that would not have happened otherwise, and when we focus on that one positive outcome until it glows and warms us from within, then gratitude is serving us.
And it doesn’t mean that we are glad that the horrible thing happened, or that we think it “happened for a reason” or that it was “meant to be.” Most people aren’t ever glad that their child committed suicide or was kidnapped, for example. And I don’t know about you, but I have no use for any spiritual leaders who insist that a person should eventually feel that way. It’s a lot easier to go along with the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy when our relatively easy and privileged lives keep us from knowing about or thinking about actual monstrosities. Maybe there can be some net gain by not getting the job you want to get, but there’s no net gain when a woman is held hostage as a sex slave for twenty years, or when millions of people are slaughtered by fearful and ideological others.
Just because we can find some good in a bad situation and direct our attention to it does not mean that the equation ultimately balanced out as “good” that the bad thing happened. Finding good out of bad situations is what we do as smart, brave, vulnerable individuals.
Gratitude can require bravery
Gratitude in circumstances like this requires so much bravery because instead of hardening in response to trauma, we allow ourselves to relax and let go, when our resistance had been giving us the illusion of protection against further heartbreak. Being optimistic and at peace is such a vulnerable place to be because when trauma hits us, it’s a shock. It can take a while to recover from shock. But I’ve learned that building walls around ourselves, of pessimism that we call realism, only keeps us living at a low level all the time. Sure, we’re more prepared when a bad thing happens when we expected it, but we can also create bad things with our low energy, our fear, and our resentment. Not through some magical law of attraction (I don’t believe), but by reading people and situations incorrectly and acting out of that.
Gratitude also requires bravery for the pinhole door it opens up into forgiveness. How intensely vulnerable it is to forgive, to move on, and grow something beautiful out of garbage someone gave us. If someone has wronged us and a good thing comes out of it, it’s really hard to express gratitude for that because it feels like we’re giving them credit and saying that what they did to us is acceptable now, that they did us some kind of favour. But what magic we manage to make out of a shit sandwich is our own talent for alchemy. We get the credit and we do it for ourselves, not for them.
An example of gratitude in practice
The way I practice gratitude now requires first being honest about something negative I’m experiencing, accepting it, and finding a silver lining. Acknowledging negativity doesn’t make us negative. Dwelling on it endlessly does.
So, for example: I am not glad that I had a painful childhood that felt eternal. It caused me to grow up too quickly, join the Mormon church, marry too early and the wrong person, and have children too young. And when new problems in my life pop up, I can usually trace it back, through a domino effect, to my childhood. If I had grown up in better circumstances, I think I’d have more self-sufficiency skills, and more balance in my life, among other things. And if I could somehow change the past, I would. I really would. However, I’m so grateful that I can understand issues of social justice from lived experience, so that I can truly empathize with others. I’m grateful that I can appreciate my life now with relief. I’m grateful that I made it out. I’m so immeasurably grateful that I got such great kids. I’m grateful that I can be a young parent and young grandparent. I’m grateful that I don’t have to leave my career in my 40s to raise babies through sleepless nights when my body is more stiff and sore than in my 20s. I’m grateful that I’m not so tied to a family of origin whose opinions and acceptance I’ve always cared about, such that my need to continually have their acceptance causes me to make decisions I don’t really want to make. So many people have such wonderful supportive families that they end up living in a place they don’t want to live, and working jobs they don’t want to work just so they can be close to their families and (understandably!) have their love and acceptance. Aside from my own children and their needs and my need to be close to them, I feel like I could live anywhere in the world, happily, without missing anyone too much. I don’t have complicated relationships with siblings. And growing up the way I did forced me to develop a very strong self-image and identity. These blessings are where I direct my attention most of the time, unless I’m in the very thick of misery. And when I direct my attention there, I feel warm inside, at peace, and happy. The bad stuff is always there. It’s not undone. It’s not even necessarily healed in some cases. I’m just not looking at it anymore.
Ideas for how to find the silver lining
If you are struggling with resentment, anger, or sadness over something in your life, Dr. Robert A. Emmons, the leading researcher on gratitude, has this recommendation:
“If you are troubled by an open memory or a past unpleasant experience, you might consider trying to reframe how you think about it using the language of thankfulness. The unpleasant experiences in our lives don’t have to be of the traumatic variety in order for us to gratefully benefit from them. Whether it is a large or small event, here are some additional questions to ask yourself:
- What lessons did the experience teach me?
- Can I find ways to be thankful for what happened to me now even though I was not at the time it happened?
- What ability did the experience draw out of me that surprised me?
- How am I now more the person I want to be because of it? Have my negative feelings about the experience limited or prevented my ability to feel gratitude in the time since it occurred?
- Has the experience removed a personal obstacle that previously prevented me from feeling grateful?”
How do we know when to focus on the problem to solve it, or focus on the positive to be grateful
Here’s what I have learned:
1. If the thing you are unhappy about is completely unchangeable and you’ve mined the negative for all you can to learn from it, and you’ve talked it out, and there’s nothing new left to say and nothing new left to reckon with, and anyone who needs to apologize to you has or is never going to, and people close to you have empathized with your pain… it’s time to move on and find some reasons to be grateful. This can take some time, after spending so long evaluating the harm and trauma. Even if we can logically see reasons to feel grateful, the feelings won’t come right away. We need time to create new emotional habits and pathways in our brains.
2. If the thing you are unhappy about is temporary and needs to be the way it is for a reason that is to your greater benefit, focus on the positive instead of complaining. So, when I’m not getting enough time with my partner because she’s working so much, I’m focusing on knowing that this is temporary and that she’s doing it to help us financially, and I try to show her gratitude and meet my needs in other ways.
3. Sometimes the thing that is to your greater benefit stops being so. It’s okay to have your needs change. We’re responding all the time to tons of stimuli and circumstances in our lives at once. When just a couple of things change, that can change the whole equation for us. It’s okay to reevaluate and to need someone or a situation to change, instead of accepting it and focusing on the positive. We can honour what was good and still change what we don’t like. So, for example, if we no longer needed Lynne to work so much, and she had more control over it than she was admitting, and she still never spent time with me for a year, I’d give her a chance to change that and leave if she didn’t.
And sometimes, we go back and forth between feeling angry and feeling grateful and I think that’s normal and okay. I don’t think the measure of a spiritually evolved person is someone who never gets angry or resentful; it’s what we do with those feelings—do we dwell, or do we try to move on?
Sometimes growth means taking two steps forward and one step back for a while, right?