All science points to practicing gratitude as having a positive effect on our well being. A wide range of studies have proven this to be true. So why am I so skeptical?
Don't get me wrong, gratitude is a beautiful thing. And it feels wonderful. Acknowledging our abundance and moving ourselves away from a mindset of scarcity can feel like a breath of fresh air. It gives us pause, makes us feel like we are enough and puts the breaks on the capitalist addiction we have to always striving for more.
All good things.
Along with numerous mental health benefits, a gratitude practice can also have a positive effect on our physical health lowering blood pressure, improving sleep, and boosting immunity. And, yes to all these benefits.
Even still, I do have a few concerns.
Gratitude alone is not enough. We are more than one singular experience. And we need to express our multitudes. The aspects we like, and the ones we don't. In most cases when the idea of a gratitude practice is presented, it is a singular act. Do this, feel better. Will you? Yes, the science definitely points to improvement, but it is also of critical importance to practice acknowledgement of our shadow selves.
Many of the highly visible people who have touted their gratitude practices, I'm thinking of Oprah among others, go to therapy, but the connection is seldom made between a gratitude practice as part of a larger commitment to mental health and well being. They do not rely solely on a gratitude practice to keep their mental health in check. Does it help? Hells yeah. But once again, practicing gratitude alone without allowing space to voice what we do not feel grateful for, is not healthy. We are not only the good cozy things we prefer to think about. So we need to make space for gratitude and also speaking to what truly pisses us off. A gratitude practice + therapy gives space for all the things.
A gratitude practice, while a wonderful thing, has become somewhat of an idea marketed at women. Perhaps I am in the dark, but I do not hear too many men touting the benefits of their gratitude practice. Nor do I see hand lettered watercolor illustrated gratitude journals being available in the places men shop. And a gratitude practice alone, without giving space for anger, sadness, resentment, grief and envy is really one sided. And like I said, unhealthy. Especially for women. I worry that in pouring ourselves into gratitude alone, we bury our anger and a host of emotions that speak to how we genuinely feel, not to mention speak to the inequity of the patriarchy. And we are trained to do this by a society that benefits from our silence and exhaustion. I worry that a gratitude practice specifically marketed to women supports quieting emotions we have already been conditioned to quiet. And fuck that. Gratitude is nice, positive, pleasant, gracious and easy to be around. And that's wonderful. But also, we are more than that.
My concern of course begs the question, should we practice gratitude?
Absolutely. And also practice the other things. If you are someone who is in touch with your anger, rage, resentment, envy, then by all means dive in to a gratitude practice without hesitation. But, if you do not have practice being in touch with these other emotions, then make space for those while in gratitude. Both things are true. We can be grateful and also mad as hell.
As someone who is cautious about the popularity of a gratitude practice, I have done quite a bit of reading about the research. The Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley is a great resource for all things gratitude. They have compiled a plethora of research on gratitude along with actionable ideas for how to implement a practice. I also found this recent article in The Atlantic to be illuminating. It speaks to the importance of authentic gratitude and not pretending to be grateful for things that we are pissed off we've had to deal with. Fair enough.
The last point of the article speaks to the act of imagining your demise as a way of eliciting gratitude. Um, okay. That works great for people who have little anxiety and zero sense of impending doom. The past 18 months have left me filled with anxiety and a sense of impending doom. It would be weird if it didn't. Imagining my demise would circulate around my mind in such a fast and furious way that I would crumble from anxiety long before I made the connection to gratitude. Maybe skip that last one.
So here's my little gratitude practice for the purpose of this essay.
Most days I find myself to be here: Grateful and mad as hell.
Both can be true. And I'm grateful for that.
Do you have a gratitude practice? How has it been for you? Let me know.