I’ve been thinking about gratitude a lot lately, but it’s hard to get motivated to write about something that’s absolutely everywhere. For lots of good reasons (and a few bad ones) we live in a culture that talks about gratitude a lot. Just in case you haven’t heard, feeling and expressing gratitude is important for all kinds of reasons, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and energetically. There’s a host of research out there telling us why the practice of gratitude can change our bodies and our brains. There are all kinds of reasons why it makes you a better person and how it changes your life. Rather than rehash all the details, I’m going to send you over to Be Calm with Tati to read her blog post with a great summary of gratitude: why it’s important and how to practice it every day.
I’ll be honest that another reason I’m having a hard time getting motivated to write about gratitude is because I do have a bit of a disagreement with the culture on this topic, or more specifically the “good vibes” culture. Many seem to think that being grateful is the cure for all the world’s ills. That if we were only more aware of our blessings, suddenly we’d realize that nothing is really that bad and we’d all live happily ever after. On one hand, I agree we should all try to work a little harder at being grateful for what we do have and stop complaining about every little thing that makes us the least bit uncomfortable. On the other hand, I very much disagree with anyone weaponizing gratitude to cover up real problems or injustices (read more on my thoughts on this here).
There’s a time and a place for everything people, and sometimes gratitude is NOT the answer to the question. When your boss is making your life miserable AGAIN, it is not the time to say, “I’m so grateful for my job.” It’s time to pick up your phone and start looking for a new one. If you wish to express gratitude for your phone that will connect you to a better opportunity, then go for it. But don’t feel like you need to be thankful for the jerk making you leave something you worked for and possibly liked until they made you miserable.
So maybe my issue isn’t so much with gratitude as with the misapplication of it. There’s the kind of gratitude that helps you change and the kind of gratitude that keeps you stuck. Telling yourself you are thankful for a bad situation doesn’t help you get out of it. It keeps you there dealing with something that you shouldn’t have to accept. That’s the kind of gratitude that keeps you from creating your best life. It’s faked and forced. It’s gritting your teeth and telling yourself that you MUST feel grateful because everyone says you should and somehow that will fix the problems.
I’ve tried that kind of gratitude. It doesn’t work. It’s not helping you become your true self. It’s denying your own emotions and the reality of what you don’t like and keeping you from changing into who you need to be. That’s a problem.
What you need is real, authentic gratitude. The kind that notices and appreciates good and bad things in your life. That expresses your genuine emotions and reactions. That flows easily from your heart and wants to be shared. That kind of gratitude opens you up to new opportunities and gives you the support you need to change your life. That notices the stuff you want to change but doesn't get sidetracked by it.
Energetically, I think of gratitude as the base from which we orient our life. If we practice thankfulness regularly, it opens up our hearts to notice the blessing we already have. It also allows us to compassionately see what needs to be healed in our lives and accept the help we need to do that healing. It provides us with the fundamental trust we need to believe that things can get better. It makes us available and ready to grab opportunities that come to us. Gratitude says thank you to everyone and everything for our gifts and leaves our arms open to accept more. It gives us the freedom to share with others because we recognize that we’ve been given much and that there is more to come.
That’s a pretty great way to be in the world.
Not that I live this way all the time. It’s not like you can flip a switch and suddenly be grateful for all the right things while pushing to change everything else. It’s a tad more complicated than that and I’m still working on it. I wrote a blog post last year about how gratitude helped me through my last (difficult) year of teaching (you can read it here). I talk about how I was trying so hard to be thankful for the good things but some days all I could manage was some nice thoughts about my morning cup of tea and my warm bed I couldn’t wait to fall into at night.
I definitely wasn’t feeling overwhelmed with opportunities or an abundance of love I could hand out to everyone I met. My gratitude practice was barely getting me through a really rough time.
It was, however, leaving me open to those snippets of happiness that would pop up out of nowhere and surprise me. I remember moments sitting on my back deck watching birds with a rare feeling of peace and calm. I remember random times sitting with students at school laughing at something they said or enjoying a puzzle together. I remember moments of hope thinking about what I’d do once those interminable months of school were over.
Energetically, the gratitude I was attempting to practice was giving me a basis from which to appreciate small moments of happiness whenever I could grab them. That’s why, even when times are really bad, being thankful can orient you toward the important things in life while still pushing you toward the change you need.
If being grateful had made me cover up the issues I had at my job, then I wouldn’t have had the motivation to leave. I wouldn’t have believed that there was anything better. I wouldn’t have been able to push past my fears and set out for something new. Gratitude misapplied could have kept me from being who I am now. It would have stopped my transformation.
Instead, gratitude kept me from sinking into despair while also allowing me to be uncomfortable enough to be absolutely certain that it was time to leave my job. It provided the openness and freedom to orient myself toward what I needed to do with my life. It opened my heart to the long-term healing I needed, not necessarily the quick fix I wanted.
So, I think everyone should practice gratitude every day, no matter how tough life is. I think there is great value in it. You should appreciate all the good things in your life right now, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem.
Just practice gratitude along with a large helping of honesty. Don’t fall into the fake gratitude that forcefully grins through a root canal because you don’t want to spread “bad vibes” to the dental staff. Be truthful. Be real. Acknowledge your feelings (good and bad). Admit that some things in your life aren’t right (while other things are). Tell people that things aren’t going well (but other things are going great). Notice the places where you need to heal (or what you’ve already healed). Then get up and find the help you need to change (and be thankful that you can find that help).
You see, it’s not an either-or kind of thing. It’s not that you ARE grateful or you AREN’T. It’s not that you DO spread bad vibes or you DON’T. It’s not that you ARE happy with your life or you AREN’T. Both exist together all the time.
Right now, I’m happy I left my steady job to do freelancing on my own schedule. I’m thankful for the freedom it gives me (especially when it means writing blog posts in bed). On the other hand, I’m not thankful that I’m freelancing because it’s really hard to get an apartment without a steady paycheck. Therefore, I am living in someone else’s house right now enjoying my schedule but not enjoying my living space.
Both exist at the same time. I can be grateful for good things in my life while also working to change the things I don’t like. If I were simply grateful for the place I’m living, I’d be here forever and never find another place to live. If I weren’t grateful at all I’d be energetically existing in a place where I couldn’t see any opportunities come up (and probably be a beast to live with).
So, there is always time for gratitude appropriately applied. It sets you up for positive change but does not block it. It allows you to see what needs to heal without stopping you. It keeps you positively oriented while not blinding you to what is wrong.
Think about any gratitude practice you have now. Does it allow space for you to change? Does it help you open up to the healing you need? If not, it’s time to make some adjustments.
If you don’t have a gratitude practice, start one now. Gratitude will help you change your life if you use it well. You can find suggestions for practicing gratitude absolutely everywhere. If you are on Pinterest, you can follow my board on Mindfulness and Gratitude. Every week I post a gratitude prompt to ponder as well as good articles I’ve found. Check it out here.
If you are feeling ready to start making changes in your life, check out the rest of my blog for ways to get started or contact me to talk about how I can help you.
Energy work helped me through a lot of changes I needed to make in my life so that I could leave my teaching job and move on to creating a life that worked better for me. I believe that with gratitude as the basic orientation and energy work as a tool, you can create massive transformation in your life. Send me a message today and get started!