The Gratitude Myth

How the wrong approach grows discontent

We’ve all been told … Think positively! If you just think good thoughts, everything is going to be great! Don’t be negative. Focus on all the beauty you have in your life. Try to think about what you are grateful for. We’re promised that an amazing life will magically emerge if we drink the elixir of gratitude. Your life will be open to even more wonderful things if you just focus on what is already good. Yet somehow this forced approach doesn’t work, and it isn’t making us more grateful. It is making us more resentful.

I’m sitting here next to a box of tissues, sneezing and wiping my already raw nose. This cold is compliments of my three-year-old daughter. Naturally, she picked it up from any number of places – preschool, the park, nearly every sticky, dirty surface that she feels compelled to touch when we leave the house. I’m told that she is building her immune system. Apparently, mine also needs some building. So, as I’m sitting here with my tissue box, the guilt-ridden mother part of me says – “Oh, she’s so beautiful! The late-in-life child who you always hoped and dreamed would grace your life. A miracle indeed! A little cold is nothing! After all, it took you five years to conceive and deliver this gem of a human into the world. This child may be the answer to world peace!” All of which I’m sure she’ll accomplish, right after the tantrum she throws this evening because she inexplicably doesn’t want to eat – ever. Which, oddly, is the one thing I can count on wanting to do, inexplicably, always.

My dear friend is a pediatric hospice nurse. Each day she helps families navigate the unnatural path of walking with their child to their death. She does this with such grace that it reveals the sacred nature of trauma and the heart of pain. We meet for tea and talk about authenticity. We talk about our deep preference for real conversation and the mild nausea that forms from navigating circles where masked small talk is required. She tells me about two families. Both have children with devastating illness. One family is perpetually positive, always quick with a positive assessment and boundless hope. The other family is a mix of deep pain and confounding thankfulness. One feels real and the other saccharine, my friend notes.

The difference is found not in the expression, but in the processing.

The blindly happy family has yet to touch their profound grief and, out of fear of the overwhelming nature of their sadness, they have moved directly to a state that seems more comfortable. It is a detachment from the abyss of their pain that sits just below the surface. Let me also note that there is nothing wrong with this. Grief is not linear and everyone’s process with it needs to be honored. It is only important to make a distinction between avoidance and coping with the richness of gratitude. Because when we make this distinction we can honor the truth, instead of calling it gratitude and wondering why it is leaving us feeling so hollow.

The other family is at a markedly different point. The embrace of the devastation has become the opening for authentic gratitude. It is rich and beautifully sad. If you’ve ever had deep grief, then you know just how beautiful sadness can be when it is fully honored.

Now back to my petty cold, with sniffles and a generally dulled opinion of life at the moment. Without embracing the mild misery of my cold, without honoring my puny indignation, there is no room to move onto the truth of the beauty of my life and the beauty of my daughter. I’m stuck in a state of repression, and all attempts at refocusing on my gratitude are blocked.

We’re doing it all wrong.

Where does this attitude of gratitude that produces boundless abundance come from? Again, we’re doing it wrong. Too often we think about what we should be grateful for, instead of what we are, very genuinely, grateful for. It is true that what gets our attention expands, but what we tend to leave out is that what we repress is getting a lot of energy too. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep something buried. It takes a lot of effort to avoid, deny and hide. This energy of repression creates growth too. Usually that growth results in a bevy of resentment in our lives. The resentment often surfaces as martyrdom meltdowns. Have you heard yourself sniping some variation of, “I make the whole house function. I hold a full-time job, run the social schedule, manage the house, keep the groceries stocked, and participate in the toddler dance class. What have you done this week?!” After the meltdowns, the guilt overcomes and it is back to the old story of how grateful you feel for your beautiful life. I mean what kind of a wretch would you be if you didn’t feel mounds of gratitude for your children, spouse, house, health – for God’s sake, running water?! Actually, I do feel grateful for running water. I’ve been without, and nothing is better than a hot shower. So while you berate yourself for not feeling deep warmth about all the things that you are supposed to feel grateful for, you missed your chance to notice what you DID feel grateful for.

By putting such emphasis on what we think we are supposed to be grateful for, we miss the chance to expand the things that did, organically, bring beauty into our lives.

We miss the chance to expand our joy because we are focused on obligation instead of gratitude. When obligation gets the attention, resentment results. We aren’t actually growing gratitude. We are growing discontent.

The repression of our dissatisfaction and pain is preventing the acceptance necessary to change. Change can only happen through acceptance. Acceptance is the portal to change. As we accept the truth of what we feel or what is the reality of the moment, we are freed to move to the next place. When we accept the anger, the resentment, the frustration, the grief … we can then see through these to the beauty. Everyone wants to skip this step, but this uncomfortable step is resolutely necessary to come to the next point. You can’t get to point B without going through point A.

The cure for this is twofold.

First consider what actually did make us happy today, not what is supposed to be gratitude-inducing. The smaller, the better. That hot shower really was nice. Thank goodness for caffeine. The sincere voice message my husband left. Suddenly, there are a million little things that I actually do feel true gratitude for. Not the things that society tells me I am supposed to feel grateful for, but the things that bring me true joy. When obligation is removed from gratitude, it does work to expand our lives in positive ways. It is a magic tonic for happiness when it is pure and straight up what you really felt good about. Gratitude only dissolves when it is tainted by obligation, leaving us fertile for growing resentment.

The second is to honor the reality of what you are actually experiencing. To honor is not to feed it with thoughts of what should be or has been, but simply an acknowledgement of where you are at in this moment. The acknowledgement drains the wound of the infectious puss of repression and lets you begin the redirection to all the authentic beauty you can – genuinely – see. No room for trying here. If you’re not quite grateful yet, just wait. You may be grateful in another moment or maybe more, maybe a lot more, but by giving your attention to true gratitude, the magic of it can manifest and expand. Turns out that the gratitude myth is true. There really is a magic elixir when you take it the right way.