If you’re reading this (which of course you are) there’s a good chance you also read personal development blogs and books. If so, you will probably have read that feeling gratitude is essential to finding happiness. It makes sense: there is nothing quite so joyful as feeling waves of gratitude pass through you, and there is little more painful than feeling consumed by resentment.
One way it is often suggested we cultivate gratitude is to “count your blessings”. There are many ways to do this, and one way is to keep a ‘gratitude diary’ each day, writing down all you feel grateful for. I have no argument with this, and have done it myself. If it works for you, that’s wonderful, and you may not be interested in the rest of this article. But if you want to read on, thank you in advance! I’m grateful!
Sometimes we all have off-days. (Okay, sometimes I have off-days and if you don’t you probably don’t bother with blogs like this, so I’ll assume you do.) Sometimes gratitude seems like the last thing you can ever feel, and if that’s you right now, perhaps this article can offer some peace in that.
You can’t feel grateful right now if you don’t, and no amount of forcing will make you. I think this is so, so important that I’m going to say it again. You can’t feel grateful right now if you don’t, and no amount of forcing will make you.
Let’s go back to that gratitude journal. If you write it because you feel inspired by all the wonderful things in your life, it probably will make you feel even more grateful. If on the other hand, you’re trying to make yourself feel grateful because you’ve read this is how to get what you want in life, there’s a strong possibility it won’t work either at making yourself grateful or bringing you what you want. Gratitude is a joyful spontaneous feeling that comes naturally when we allow it to. But saying thank you, whether it is spoken or written, is not the same as feeling it.
It’s interesting to notice that most of the ways we try to make ourselves grateful induce guilt. Were you, as a child, as baffled as I was by urges to think of starving Biafrans or Ethopians when you didn’t like your dinner? It never even occurred to me then that it was supposed to make me feel grateful to be eating food I hated, and I couldn’t see how what I ate would help them. The trouble with trying to count our blessing by comparing ourselves to others is that instead of leading to gratitude it can lead to guilt when we notice the lack in someone else’s life.
When we have this sense of lack it can taint our natural ability to feel grateful. Let’s imagine you are feeling fed up, and try to cheer yourself up by thinking about the new shoes you bought yesterday or the kiss your child gave you at the school gates, or that your boss said you’d done an exceptionally good job today. Instead, you feel guilty for buying shoes you didn’t really need when you could have sent a cheque to charity, you remember the argument with your child as you walked to school, and you wonder if she only kissed you because she’s hoping you’ll relent and buy that iphone she wants, and then you wonder what your boss thinks of your usual standard of work if today was exceptional. And if this counting blessings lark works for everybody else, you must be the most ungrateful, churlish person on the planet.
Maybe there’s a different explanation. Remember the old grumpy great-aunt you used to have? You know – the one who gave you the hideous sweater she’d knitted herself in a style that went out of fashion twenty years before and still hasn’t come back into fashion thirty years later. As you tried it on and noticed the sleeves were far too short and the body far too wide, she snapped, “Well, aren’t you going to say ‘Thank you’?” If you didn’t have that great-aunt, I’m pretty confident you can remember some other adult hiss, “Say thank you,” as they shoved something into your sticky little hands. You may have loved whatever you’d been given, but how did you feel saying the words that were demanded of you? Were shame and guilt now mixed in?
What confused messages do we pass on about gratitude when we say this sort of thing to children? I’ve heard a parent tell a child to say thank you so that her grandparents will keep sending presents. Another justified asking her child to say, “Please,” when she didn’t say it herself, by explaining that adults show it in how we say things and in our gestures. Is this true? Or do they show it more? Which would you rather have: a child’s eyes light up with excitement as they eagerly grab a present – or a head cast down and a mumbled thank you?
Why should a child say “thank you” or “please”? Does learning these words teach them to be polite or to be inauthentic to get approval? And is our motivation to teach manners or because we fear disapproval from others if our children don’t say these supposedly magic words? And what do we teach them by calling “please” a magic word?
Is it possible that all this guilt is exactly what stops us from feeling gratitude? If you’re having a day where you find it hard to be grateful, I invite you to let yourself off the hook. Instead of insisting you count those blessings, or hissing, “Say thank you,” to yourself, take a few moments to notice and question the thoughts that make it hard to feel your gratitude. Like love, it’s there always, but sometimes it gets buried so far beneath ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ that it is impossible to find. Don’t force yourself to feel something you’re not feeling. Allow yourself to feel your resentment and lack of gratitude. You may be surprised to discover you can feel grateful for that!