“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.“
– Oprah Winfrey, Daytime talk show host
We’re all, again, soon to face the round-robin “What’re you grateful for?” death march around the Thanksgiving table. Aside from the family groans and grumbles, there will be some old favorites, some panicked responses—as though they’re surprised we did it again this year!—and the usual decreasing attention and energy level that usually peters out around the time somebody picks a random food item on the table to be grateful for.
Don’t let my acerbic description fool you; I’m a die-hard gratitude supporting fellah. You can read about that here and here. But in defending the virtue and value of gratitude one must also stand up for its pure, undiluted expression. The power of gratitude is that “it opens the heart and activates positive emotion centers in the brain, according to Dr. Melanie Greenberg (2011). “Regular practice of gratitude can change the way our brain neurons fire into more positive automatic patterns. The positive emotions we evoke can soothe distress and broaden our thinking…so we develop a larger and more expansive view of our lives.”
Awesome, right? Right. “But research suggests that gratitude is not always good,” says Dr. Aimee Gordon (2011), “Focusing on what you have instead of what you have-not is generally a good idea, but there are times when feeling grateful may backfire.” So, before we march around the table this year, let’s be clear on when it’s best to be grateful and when its best to be quiet or even be dissatisfied or angry in life.
Powerfully Thankful; Thankfully Powerful
“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
– Thornton Niven Wilder, Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright and Novelist
One study of people who kept a Gratitude Journaling (something I support) found that those who tracked their gratitude once per week were happier after six weeks. BOOM! Simple, right? Gratitude rules, let’s do it every day! Wait, it also found that if they tracked their gratitude three times per week they became actually less happy? (Gordon, 2013)
Gratitude, in its power, is not an every moment thing. It is a feeling we can and should cultivate, a healthy discipline to be developed, but not at the expense of quality for quantity. Gratitude for the little things is meaningful but being grateful for everything becomes meaningless.
Another way to undermine the true power of gratitude is to simply give its power away either by excessive gratitude, indebtedness or devaluing your own success (Gordon, 2013). I have to watch on that last one. I’ve been told that it’s hard to give me a rightly-earned compliment. It’s usually due to the progress of one of my patients and I believe they deserve all the credit—I’m grateful to work with them. But I’m denying well-meant praise, potentially hurting a colleague and undermining the power of true gratitude with being overly humble. It’s ironic that to return the gratitude with a simple “Thank you” solves the problem.
“Cultivating gratitude,” experts say, “will not only improve your overall demeanor and increase your happiness, but also your health…exercise, diet…gratitude is also a stress buster, immune booster, and natural sleeping aid” that prompted one expert to declare that “if you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep,” (Dial, 2014).
But if we mistake our feelings of gratitude for indebtedness, the opposite holds true. Every good turn done for us, every attempt at easing our stress becomes another burden on our backs. How can we be grateful for that? How can we feel kind when every kindness we do to others is simply a way to even the score? Dr. Gordon (2011) warns that we need to be especially watchful of this pattern “in close relationships” where “this need to repay tit-for-tat can actually lead to negative feelings between partners.”
Actively Thankful; Thankfully Active
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
– President John F. Kennedy
“Being grateful for everyday things isn’t difficult but it requires a concerted effort,” Dr. Dial reminds, “A large part of cultivating gratitude into everyday life is integrating it into your schedule until it is like second nature,” (2014). Daily gratitude is a wonderful practice, but part of that “second nature” habit must be first an assessment of the true impact of what you are trying to be grateful for and why you’re even seeking to be grateful. “Gratitude helps you focus on what is important instead of getting caught up in the little annoyances of everyday life; however, not all problems are little annoyances, and focusing your attention on things you appreciate may provide you with relief from serious problems, but the relief will only be temporary,” (Gordon, 2011).
True gratitude is active and aware. It is not a leisurely stroll down a flowered lane, it is a purposeful stride toward a healthier, happier life. Gratitude at being employed in a hard economy is healthy, settling for a job so demanding that it’s ruining your well-being and family may not be. Being thankful for a well-providing spouse who has a temper but is seeking help is healthy, being grateful that you only suffer abuse sometimes is not. “Don’t focus on feeling grateful for someone or something who isn’t worthy,” Dr. Gordon encourages, “When you should be focusing on finding a way to get out of an unhealthy situation. In cases like these, a negative emotion like anger may actually be more constructive.”
True gratitude is acknowledgement of the positive of life in the context of the negative, not in denial of it. These positives may not be plentiful, but they are powerful. With active gratitude comes a growing awareness of these powerful moments, and as we grow in awareness, we see more of them.
This Thanksgiving, I give you the right to say “pass” when the “What’re you thankful for?” question gets to you. But, when the eyebrows are raised, you must respond, “I’ll let you know when I have a good one,” because being grateful for the right thing at the right time and sharing it is truly powerful gratitude.
And I am truly, powerfully grateful to Tiffany Donahue, winner of the Fall Gift Card Subscription Sweepstakes! Usual deal, Tiffany, just email me once you read this and I’ll send it right along.
I’d also like to take this moment to thank all the subscribers and readers out there. Thank you for making this little nook of the net a thriving and valued home for ever more people seeking to live well every season. If you’d like a shot at a gift card this Spring, sign up now! It just takes a second and all who enter can win!
*The title is actually a play on the 2010 Article “Gratitude Doesn’t Suck.”
Dial, D. (2014) How To Be Grateful For Everyday Things. AustinPsychology.com. Retrieved from http://www.austinpsychology.com/how-to-be-grateful-for-everyday-things/
Gordon, A. (2013) 5 “Don’ts” of Practicing Gratitude. Between You and Me. Psychologytoday.com. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/between-you-and-me/201303/5-donts-practicing-gratitude
Greenberg, M. (2011) The Seven Best Gratitude Quotes. The Mindful Self-Express. PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved From http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201111/the-seven-best-gratitude-quotes