When ‘Gratitude’ Goes Wrong |

5 min read
Source: good ideas/Adobe Stock

Source: good ideas/Adobe Stock

This time of the year reminds us to be thankful, but you may not feel it. Loneliness, stress, overwhelm, and anxiety may be more present for you than feelings of gratitude. You may have tried gratitude practices, like keeping a gratitude journal or making gratitude lists, but they did not work out and felt more superficial than meaningful.

It is possible that you feel resistant to the concept of gratitude, as if you are supposed to be thankful for everything in your life when that is not necessarily the case. Worse, you may have heard about its positive impacts and berated yourself for resisting it. All of this leads to the question, “If the practice of gratitude is so transforming, how do I engage in it when it is not what I’m feeling?”

The following three things are true about the practice of gratitude:

  1. Research has overwhelmingly shown the transformative effects of gratitude when practiced from an authentic emotional state.
  2. Many people experience overriding emotions that conflict with the feeling of sincere gratitude, thus negating its benefits.
  3. Understanding gratitude from a psycho-physiological perspective gives us the tools to make it a rewarding practice.

What is gratitude?

Although you might think gratitude is being thankful for a specific act, lately research has expanded the concept to include a sincere appreciation of anything in the world—an affirming “goodness” for something in your life. According to research, grateful people feel more energetic, alive, enthusiastic, determined, attentive, and alert. They feel increased vitality, report fewer depression symptoms, and feel better about their life.

Gratitude practice effectively builds on psychological, social, and spiritual resources and helps you feel more resilient in the face of trauma. It cuts down on cortisol, your primary stress hormone, and increases oxytocin, your primary bonding hormone. One of the most convincing findings in gratitude research is its impact on reducing feelings of loneliness. The criteria, however, for effective practice is that it is felt from an embodied sense. Gratitude must be an authentic experience, not a cognitive exercise, or it is not genuine gratitude (1).

Source: soslukin/Adobe Stock

Source: soslukin/Adobe Stock

The practice of sincere gratitude can change your life.

Admittedly, gratitude feels like an impossible ideal when consumed with feelings of loneliness, stress, anxiety, or overwhelm. You may try and keep a gratitude journal as you have read about it or make the recommended gratitude lists. Still, the presenting emotions are more feelings of obligation, indebtedness, unworthiness, guilt, or ambivalence. Additionally, research has shown that feelings of indebtedness or ambivalence mitigate the positive effects of gratitude.

For gratitude to be transformative, it must be a genuinely felt experience.

From a neuroscientific perspective, this makes total sense. Neuroscience shows us that whenever you are in a specific emotional state, your mind/body complex molds to that state and creates the capacity for more of the same. You are transforming every moment of every day, but what you are transforming into is your authentic emotional experience, not what you are trying to convince yourself of; when you are in heartfelt gratitude, your mind/body complex reaps all the benefits. When you are in other overriding states of guilt, indebtedness, unworthiness, or ambivalence, your mind/body complex molds to those states. The key to effective gratitude practice is to throw out the “shoulds” and instead focus on what you are sincerely thankful for.

How do you feel sincere gratitude?

Source: Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock

Source: Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock

Remember, the definition of gratitude includes a sincere appreciation of anything in the world. It is the psycho-physiological state of your experience that is the transformative agent. Throw away the perfunctory lists; pick one or two things for which you truly feel grateful and bask in the heartfelt experience of appreciation for those things.

If you keep a gratitude journal, writing about fewer but more heartfelt things leads to a more productive practice. Write vividly about what you are grateful for, but only focus on one or two things. It is akin to digging one deep well rather than several one-foot holes. You can repeat focusing on a specific object of gratitude as much as you would like; again, the felt experience is essential, not the thing itself.

Gratitude Essential Reads

The things you hold in a state of grateful appreciation can be small, random, a distant memory, or anything that affirms “goodness” in your life. You do not need to feel thankful for everything in your life if that is not your authentic experience, and there is no need to make lengthy lists of ambivalent material. You need only allow yourself to bask in the felt sense of that for which you are sincerely thankful.

Source: klublu/Adobe Stock

Source: klublu/Adobe Stock

What mind/body science tells us about change

Lastly, neuroscience tells us that once you activate the neural nets associated with any emotion, you create a more extensive network of capacity around that emotion. In other words, small amounts of authentically felt gratitude sharpen your ability to recognize more things to be grateful for in your life.

The bottom line is that you are transforming every moment of every day. When “gratitude” goes wrong, and you feel overriding feelings of obligation, guilt, indebtedness, or unworthiness, you create a greater capacity to live from those states. When you can sincerely and experientially feel “gratitude” for those things you genuinely appreciate, your life will change. That is when gratitude goes right.

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