I love practicing gratitude, as it tends to keep my mind on the right track. And with it’s many proven advantages you could almost call it al pillar in practicing self-love and self-care. But is practicing gratitude really a solution to feel better in any case? It took me a while to find out but the answer is no: Practicing gratitude doesn’t work for everyone. And here’s why.
The advantages of practicing gratitude
I’m an advocate for practicing gratitude. As it is a popular buzz-word in the wellness industry, I’ve picked up the practice of writing down daily what I am grateful for in life more than once. I even created the 30 Day Gratitude Challenge to make people acquainted with the concept of being grateful for the smaller things in life every day.
Although I often slip up in my daily practice (oops) I like making a grab for my gratitude journal when I am feeling a little down, or when something exceptionally nice or funny has happened which I simply feel I have to put on paper. And I am not the only one!
In fact, practicing gratitude by writing down regularly what you are grateful for has many advantages. Practicing gratitude can:
- Improve general happiness and self-esteem
- Improve empathy
- Improve personal relationships
- Decrease negative emotions like aggression and jealousy
With such staggering good qualities you’d think there is no going wrong by practicing gratitude. But the opposite is true: Gratitude is great, but should be practiced mindfully and correctly to prevent ingraining your mind with unhealthy thinking patterns.
Why gratitude doesn’t work for everyone
Recently I have read this article about journalist Moya Sarner putting gratitude to the test. Although I expected another plethora of positive experiences (like all the articles on the topic generally do) she described the opinion of psychologist and professor Alex Wood, who mentioned ‘the dark side of gratitude’.
He states that many people feel a lack of gratitude because they are in objectively bad situations. Instead of practicing gratitude for the situation they are in, they should face what (or maybe rather whom) is making them feel this way and change the situation hands on, rather than constantly look for a silver lining.
A short (but brutal) example
A good example is a woman being in an abusive relationship.
Imagine her picking up a gratitude journal in which she describes she is grateful for her abuser not hitting her today.
The day after she states she is happy her boyfriend finally gave her a compliment.
The day after next she states she is grateful that her bruises didn’t show despite wearing a short-sleeved dress.
The longer she repeats the ‘positives’ of being in a dysfunctional relationship, the more she is likely to believe her situation is ‘normal’. Secondly, she is even programming her brain to see a silver lining in what is being done to her, finding positivity and even solace in her relationship rather than trying to escape her abuser.
Instead of reaping the positives from practicing gratitude, she is practicing being grateful for all the wrong things.
How does this apply to us?
When you live a fairly regular life, this example might seem too over the top for the most of us. But there is a reason I am putting effort into writing this article to underline why gratitude should be practiced mindfully and “with discern” – as Alex Wood so graciously states it.
In fact, I myself can leaf through my gratitude journal and find several entries in which I have tried to sugarcoat the bad days by giving them a grateful note on paper. Some entries are innocent, in the lines of “I dropped my omelet on the ground today and I feel happy it still tasted good despite the cat hair”. But others are simply incoherent when you know the context: Entries in which I desperately try to find the silver lining of encounters with toxic people, by summing up their good qualities in the hopes of evening out the bad.
That sounds eerily familiar to the paragraph above, doesn’t it? Although I find myself by no means in a situation that comes even close to abuse, I can easily imagine how practicing gratitude ‘the wrong way’ slips into what is meant to be a fruitful habit.
Practicing gratitude differs from sugar-coating
When you’ve had a bad day, your evening gratitude practice might very well tend to make a flying leap to find a silver lining for the events that had a negative impact on you. If you’re a regular practitioner you have learned by now that finding gratitude in your day before you go to sleep puts your mind at ease, and might even give you (often described) mild feelings of euphoria.
The danger in finding a silver lining in your day – turning bad events into mildly good ones, or even erasing what has gone wrong all together – is that you do not learn from your mistakes. Or in the worst case scenario – that you’ll learn to accept (or even appreciate) the wrong that has been done to you, which instead deserves action or contemplation rather than forgiveness by gratitude.
Gratitude practiced wrongly can greatly affect our means of self-reflection, and our judgment of others.
If you ask me, this is a good thing to keep in mind if there are people or situations in your life you tend to sugar coat in the name of practicing gratitude.
What can we learn from this?
That practicing gratitude can be a very helpful tool to become more optimistic. But that caution is recommended for people who find themselves in extra-ordinary situations which require a good bit of (self-)reflection.
Do you practice gratitude? And have you been prone to look too hard for a silver lining in certain situations?