I could write a blog post about why gratitude is good for us, but given some recent challenges in my life I thought it would be more interesting (and more honest) to write about why gratitude is sometimes hard.
There’s mounting research demonstrating that gratitude will help us to be healthier (1), happier (2), and experience less pain (3). But reading about why we should be grateful doesn’t necessarily contribute to a felt-sense of gratitude.
It’s easy to be grateful when things are going our way. When those we love are well, when we feel strong and healthy, when we take a walk on a lovely day or see a beautiful sunset. It’s a natural and universal reflex to feel and express gratitude.
The experience of gratitude comes easily with other positive emotions. It’s natural to experience gratitude and peace, gratitude and laughter, gratitude and warmth, gratitude and love. With joy comes gratitude, and the converse also seems to be true.
What happens when things are falling apart, as they do for all of us sometimes? Is it possible to feel gratitude and fear, gratitude and anger, gratitude and sadness, gratitude and envy, gratitude and frustration? Isn’t that the point? To be able to soften negative emotions by calling upon our feelings of gratitude?
Nearly all wisdom traditions, spiritual teachings, mindfulness training and modern psychology emphasize the value of feeling and expressing gratitude. I understand that in cultivating a sincere feeling of gratitude, peace of mind will follow. But it’s not always easy to evoke gratitude at will, especially if you are going through a hard time.
I have had an unstructured gratitude practice over the years. Not consistent and not always successful. As I have struggled accessing gratitude while experiencing negative emotions, I remind myself that offering thanks, gratitude or kindness to another person can produce nearly the same results. It feels good to do something kind for someone else. It soothes the recipient and has the lovely side effect of offering comfort to me as well.
When I am struggling or someone I care for is suffering, I often call upon the old standby cliche that “it could always be worse.” This evokes a sense of pseudo-gratitude, which is better than no gratitude at all I suppose. What works even better is first to remember that nothing lasts forever, and then to seek to offer kindness. It doesn’t even need to be directed at someone involved in a hard situation, it could be a completely unrelated act of thanks. It will most certainly make you feel better. Then gratitude becomes much easier to find.
Brother David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine Monk, PhD and author who is well known for building bridges between religious traditions. His words beautifully summarize how gratitude can inform our lives.
“It is not happiness that makes us grateful, it is gratefulness that makes us happy. Every moment is a gift.”