I struggle with gratitude. Here’s the thing. I am thankful. For so much in my life. For the wonderful people, opportunities, relationships that have brought me joy. And for the challenges—oh those challenges—that have propelled my growth.
And I know that when I consciously appreciate all that I’m grateful for, when I speak it, or write it, my heart fills up all that much more.
Arianna Huffington wrote a wonderful article a few weeks ago for Thrive Global called “The Small Miracle of Gratitude.”
In the piece she quotes from research that says how being grateful leads to better sleep, less stress and decreased depression. Gratitude has even been shown to be good for the heart by decreasing inflammation.
Gratitude is the Mechanism That Can Help Us Switch Gears and Change to a More Positive Direction
Huffington sees gratitude as an antidote to much of what plagues us: “When you find yourself in that stop-the-world-I-want-to get-off mindset, gratitude is the brake lever,” she writes. “Gratitude helps us reset and gives us perspective. We think of gratitude as a coda, an add-on, something that comes at the end. But in fact, gratitude is the beginning. And when we practice it, it sets off a chain reaction of positive benefits.”
I just find that wonderful! I love the image of gratitude as “the brake level.” When we are on that negative runaway train, to continue the metaphor, gratitude is the mechanism that can help us switch gears and change to a more positive direction.
Robert Emmons, PhD. And Michael McCullough, PhD. Conducted a study where they divided participants into two groups. They asked one group to record the things for which they were grateful and the other group to write down the things that annoyed them.
The findings are not particularly surprising: the group that was “more focused on the things they were grateful for than on the things that upset them … were more optimistic and happier with their lives.” Makes sense. But why?
It’s not that the participants in the “gratitude group” had more things to be grateful for. They didn’t. Their happiness was due, rather, to their focus.
So … is it gratitude itself that’s making the difference, or is it simply a matter of where people put their attention?
It Truly Does Take a Village
Robert Emmons claims in “Why Gratitude is Good,” that after even just three weeks of writing in a gratitude journal people have seen “overwhelming” physical, psychological, and social results.
Because gratitude is a “social emotion,” Emmons believes “the social benefits are especially significant … I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
Yes. It truly does take a village. None of us has accomplished anything of any meaning without the support and affirmation from others. And that support and affirmation does help to connect us to each other and makes us feel good.
So… what’s the problem?
“I have always disliked the word ‘grateful’ … I rarely hear my male friends use this word, and yet I often hear it roll off the tongues of women I know.”
I hate to be a downer here, right before Thanksgiving of all days, but … this is exactly where that pesky red flag gets my attention. I think there’s a risk, particularly for women, of giving too much or even all the credit to others. There’s a real danger of not seeing our own contribution to the positive events in our lives.
I wrote about this in a previous blog about gratitude. (I did warn you in the first sentence of this post that gratitude is a struggle for me!)
In that blog I quoted Jessica Bennett from an article she wrote for the NY Times.
Bennett is also concerned about the gender implications of gratitude—implications that could use some close examination: “I have always disliked the word ‘grateful,’” Bennett writes. “I rarely hear my male friends use this word, and yet I often hear it roll off the tongues of women I know.”
Bennett gives examples of the ways some women express their gratitude: “I’m grateful for the opportunity, they will say, upon earning (key word: earning) an opportunity. I’m grateful to have been recognized, a friend will note, upon being recognized for a thing she deserved to be recognized for. I’m grateful for the promotion, says the woman who in fact busted her butt to get it.” Sound familiar anyone?
I Believe We Make Our Own Luck Much of the Time
Here’s the other thing about gratitude that makes me a bit nervous—maybe more than a bit. Things get a little dicey for me when worthiness (or lack thereof) enter the equation. Huffington quotes Emmons and McCullough in their book The Psychology of Gratitude: “At the cornerstone of gratitude is underserved merit. The grateful person recognized that he or she did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed.”
There truly are many gifts that we receive throughout our lives that have been “freely bestowed.” And when we acknowledge and appreciate those gifts, we feel wonderful. We experience a renewed belief in the goodness of the world and those around us. Who can beat that?
But … when I hear “undeserved merit,” I cringe. This gratitude discussion feels like it’s starting veer a bit too much towards luck. (And I have an even more strained relationship with the “L” word than I do with the “G” word.)
I believe we make our own luck much of the time. We’ve all heard the saying “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” There’s a reason those words ring so true.
I’ll never forget the interview I did with Adrian Miller last August, when she talked about her own relationship with luck: “I get really annoyed if I have a big win for work and someone tells me I’m lucky. Oh my gosh. At this stage, I get a little bit acerbic. I answer with a little bit of snarkiness. Because I don’t think I’ve gotten any piece of business because I was lucky. Any. Zero. 32 years.” You go, Ms. Miller—own your hard work—and your success!!
Many People Today are Out of Gratitude Balance
Don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not suggesting that we take full credit for every positive thing that has ever happened to us or that we ever ignore or discount the presence of grace. But … we must balance where and to whom we give credit. It’s O.K.—it’s healthy—to take some time out to say thank you to ourselves!
It seems to me that many people today are out of gratitude balance. Many (mostly women, in my opinion) are too free with their “thanks.” Placing all the thanks “out there” can leave us feeling unworthy. And when anyone feels unworthy, it is impossible to be genuinely grateful.
On the other side of this seesaw sit the many people who suffer from what I call a gratitude deficit. A gratitude deficit may make people plain-old grouchy—or worse. Lacking in gratitude often leads to feelings of self-importance and to self-aggrandizement.
What a recipe for disaster! When people feel little gratitude towards others, the less giving they become—and the less connected to others. We need to feel our connection and “humble dependence” on those around us in order to be—and act—fully human and humane.
In Order to Make Gratitude a Meaningful Practice in Our Lives, We Need to Practice!
There’s one other problem I see with gratitude. For some, the word has lost its meaning. Gratitude has become a buzz word and keeping gratitude journals just another task to put on an already overwhelming “to do” list.
True gratitude takes time—and commitment. While it redirects our attention to more positive thoughts, gratitude itself requires attention. In order to make gratitude a meaningful practice in our lives, we need to practice! And to nurture.
Rushing through our “List of 10 Things I’m Grateful for Today” will not bring us all the benefits that true gratitude will. We need to sit with our feelings of thanks, to honor what it is that has brought us joy—or challenge—to be grateful for the very act of being grateful.
Grateful for being grateful. I kinda like that.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Peace and joy to you all.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How have you managed the balance between gratitude and owning your own successes? What types of gratitude practices do you (or would like to) incorporate into your life?
Please leave a comment or send me an email!
See you December 6th!
P.S. On the note of gratitude, I’d like to extend my deepest thanks to everyone who emailed or spoke with me about their experiences with bullying. I am gathering all of my notes, research, and thoughts, and will post about this critical topic in December. Thanks again.