December 08, 2014

The Problem With Gratitude

Photo found here: Lack of Gratitude

By Crabby McSlacker

Seriously, a blog post dissing Gratitude? Have I gone completely bonkers?

It's hard to think of a more ridiculous target for complaint. Gratitude is pretty much universally acknowledged to be the most healthy, positive, healing, transformative, awesomest mental state we can possibly cultivate. Right?

Gratitude practice is a Thing now, backed by libraries full of gratitude research. Short of advocating that we step up our efforts to club more baby seals, or start tossing crippled old people out of their wheelchairs for sport, or convert all our national parks into nuclear testing sites, it's hard to imagine a less defensible position than one griping about gratitude.

But hell, I'm up for it!

I was actually gonna run this on Thanksgiving, just to make it even more obnoxious, but heck, the whole holiday season is one big chorus in praise of the Glories of Gratitude. So there is still plenty of time left to offend legions of gratitude junkies.

(If fact, if you are irate at this horrible awful post, please leave lots of blistering critical comments and share this reprehensible post on all your social media channels so your friends can be alerted to this anti-gratitude outrage!)

So anyway... what's my problem with the whole gratitude thing?

Here's my crazy-ass anti-gratitude stance. (In list form. 'Cause I'm weird like that).

1. Sometimes, for some people, gratitude is just not a realistic feeling, whether due to life circumstances or psychological issues.

2. Constant admonitions to feel more grateful just make these people feel crappier! They feel badly already, and then feel worse for having lost the ability to emotionally respond to things that "should" make them feel grateful. Adding a sense of failure or guilt or frustration doesn't help.

3. So I think there needs to be some slack-cutting around the whole gratitude business.  Be grateful if you can Be Grateful, but try to be compassionate towards those who are having a tough time getting there.

4.  All that said, gratitude is a lovely state of mind to be able to feel. Efforts to move towards a place where that happens more easily really pay off and should be encouraged. The whole brain-rewiring thing really works! But unfortunately, it can take a crapload of time and effort to get there, which sucks.

This is actually strange timing for me to write this post. Lately I am nauseatingly full of gratitude myself.  I would be nutty not to be, as I am blessed with more unearned Good Stuff in Life than any human has a right to even dream about.

But, both personally and professionally, I know a lot of people who are down or depressed or struggling right now. And I also know what it's like to appreciate something intellectually, but not be able to feel an emotion deemed "appropriate" on demand.

cartoon: natalie dee

A Few Suggestions if You Just Ain't Feeling It:

1. Lower your expectations of your ability to feel grateful. "OK-itude" is a terrible name, but try practicing it when you can.  A state of mild contentment or even perfectly acceptable boring neutrality? Both are actually worth cultivating if you've been feeling down.

But you need to be watchful, because moments of "OK-ness" are easily overlooked. They're just not as sexy as outright gratitude--let alone joy or bliss or compassion or love or other feelings people tend to trumpet this time of year.

Are you indoors, sheltered from bad weather?  Do you have the prospect of a pleasant dinner to look forward to tonight?  Is there anyone who cares about you, even if they are sometimes infuriatingly inept at expressing it?  Is there something that used to be awful in your life that's gotten better?

"OK-itude" is a small and subtle feeling; it ain't going to knock you over. But then it doesn't require a huge heaping serving of shiny sparkly good fortune, either.  "Things Not Totally Sucking This Very Second" may be sufficient to generate "OK-itude" if you practice and get good at it.

Note: Here's a good place to mention Rick Hanson's books, audios, and online programs once again, as he is master of explaining and showing how to "take in the good" and rewire your brain to feel happier.

My poor regular readers have to put up with my periodic pimping of his stuff, sorry, but I've just been informed that if you want to check out the Foundations of Wellness Program, there is a new free 3-day “tour pass” that will let you sample stuff, and there's a $50 discount if you get crackin' before December 31. (Christmas presents and/or New Years resolutions helpers, anyone?). And no worries about not starting at the very beginning; it's self-paced and all of the content is available for download through December 2015.

The Foundations of Well-Being program: Holiday Discount and Free Tour Pass

And yes, I do get a kickback if you go through me, so if that's too annoying just proceed directly Rick's site and he can keep more of the cash which he will no doubt spend more sensibly than I will.

2. Look to the Present Moment To See if There's Anything Worth Noticing.  It may be that many of the things hampering your ability to feel contentment are mental preoccupations about the past of future: little films you're playing in your head featuring regrets, resentments, worries, or outright panic.

uploaded by James Vaughan

Well, screw that!  Turn off the freakin' projector and come out into the light of day!

If there's nothing concrete you can do to fix things right now, you should perhaps start training your brain to notice negative rumination and settle itself elsewhere. The present moment may offer many little clues about things that aren't actually terrible right now and might even be slightly agreeable.

Jus' Sayin.

What if you are in extreme physical pain? Well, that's a bigger challenge than I can address here at the moment. But short of that, there is probably something around you that you can feel some mild "OK-itude" about.

Note: Training your brain to find little moments of "OK"-ness in the present can be hard and it's a huge pain in the ass to keep trying and succeeding only fleetingly. It's that whole mindfulness thing that takes boatloads of practice and persistence.  But--it's worth it!

3. Use your thinky brain to help out your feely brain.  Many people who struggle with #2 above are highly intelligent people who sometimes over-rely on cognition. There may be a tendency to over-think things and dwell upon them, especially anything that is scary or annoying or kinda sad.

But guess what? Having this sort of clever, scheming, over-active brain means you have an excellent resource.
Over-Thinkers? You Know Who You Are.
uploaded by James Vaughan

You can employ your freakishly large and over-active brain to figure out exactly what leads to more positive moods, and then devise ways to expose yourself to more of those situations. Often, we are so busy devising ways to DO things better that we don't put enough planning into tweaking our lives to bring about triggers for FEELING better.

Are there people or places or things or events, whether small or large, that help you feel glad or at least "OK?"  How could you expose yourself to some today?  How could you plan so you there are more this coming week? And even more the coming month?

Hell, if you're as immature as I am, something as doofy as a couple of gratuitous beefcake bath-towel advertisements from the 40's might be enough to boost you into "OK" territory.

(Just one more reason I freakin' adore x-ray delta one).

4. Watch the self-talk and the out-loud talk and don't make things worse on yourself or innocent bystanders.  Cranky Fitness, your authoritative world-renowned health and wellness website (in some as yet undiscovered alternate universe) hereby grants you a Free Pass on having to feel gratitude. You're are now officially off the hook if you don't feel all that grateful!

However, this does not give you license to make yourself, and those around you, feel crummy.

If you are spending more than occasional second or two telling yourself (or worse, others around you unless you are paying them) how miserable things really are for you: cut it the hell out.

You can acknowledge that you feel crappy, sure.  But don't start marshalling evidence and looking for even more justification for feeling bad. And especially, lay off the blaming and victimization talk, even if you really truly are totally an unfortunate blameless victim. It's mighty hard to be around for long, and you may end up alienating the very people who could help cheer you up.

Bottom line: even if there are big honking looming ominous steaming piles of Bad Shit on the horizon, don't be talking constantly about how awful and unfair those piles are; it doesn't help.
If you feel compelled to go visit them, do so with the intention of embarking on some clean-up. (And remember, break any oppressive task down into tiny, itsy-bitsy chunks.)  Otherwise, detour way way the hell around them.

5. If you are depressed or confused, don't tough it out. Consider getting help.  If lack of gratitude is part of a more painful, bigger picture, and it isn't going away by itself, GET SOME SUPPORT.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness has depression resources and FAQ's and a Helpline, and your local city or county may have resources, and there are groups and counselors that have helped many people in your situation find hope again. Your friends or family or co-workers may have ideas, or your doctor may have some helpful pills to tide you through until you can get your brain chemicals back to a happier place, or she may be able to supply a referral to a good therapist.  Even your blog friends may want to reach out with some encouragement or thoughts or virtual hugs.

Seriously.  Don't suffer alone.

Have you or anyone you know ever struggled with the whole gratitude thing?


  1. Well, yes, in an odd way, I struggle with the gratitude thing. But my version is a bit different. The thing is, I am one of the happiest, most contented people I know. I have been ridiculously lucky almost all of my life. The part I struggle with is the distinction between recognizing things that make me happy, and feeling gratitude for them. Gratitude to whom? Or what? That is partly a result of my suspicious, unreligious self, but that's not all. To me it is one more sign of our puritan heritage: you'd better not just sit around being happy about it - you must show proper appreciation for it! I think there's almost a superstitious feeling that if we don't show (?whatever it is?) that gratitude, the happiness tap might be turned off, and that would be only what we should expect for being so ungrateful!

    So none of this means I don't think appreciation is important. When someone does something nice for me, I am (almost always) properly appreciative, and even grateful. If someone on the street smiles, I smile back. And although I feel very fortunate to have the life I have viewed through my own easily pleased eyes, I don't think gratitude is what I feel.

    Having delivered my little rant. I would like to add that I actually agree with what you are getting at. It's not always easy to find the good spots in a life, but it's worth seeking them out. And it's wonderful to help other people find theirs.

    1. DRG, what a great comment! Never really thought of the inherent puritanism in the "be grateful" commandment, and I think you raise a really interesting distinction between appreciation and gratitude. I find the former much more natural unless there's a very specific person (or animal) who is responsible for the thing I'm appreciating.

      Like, I feel way grateful for you and other awesome Cranky Commenters, so you'll just have to put up with it! :)

    2. I can really relate to this - "you'd better not just sit around being happy about it - you must show proper appreciation for it!" Read many things about 'gratitude practice" and when I read it, it makes sense and resonates with me, but I never seem to be-able to actually get to the 'practice" part. Perhaps I need a different word rather than 'gratitude', having been admonished so many times when growing up to 'be grateful', told I am ungrateful, told that 'you owe us',(to believe what we believe, think and be the way we want you to) given a sense I 'owe God' (because of original sin). So the term 'gratitude' does conjour this fear at some level - of acknowledging a debt, one that has been imposed on me, I am not sure of what the terms of repayment are. The 'superstition' anxious feeling DRG refers to. Expressing appreciation, relaxing in my good fortune - are these the same as "gratitude"? I don't know, but theses terms do not have the same overtones for me that gratitude does.

    3. Love the way you express that Ann! And relaxing into good fortune seems a very healthy mindset to cultivate without the baggage that "gratitude" comes with.

  2. Dear Crabby,
    Wow, there's my pic at the top! ;)

    Good points! btw, I'm grateful for the hilarious towel ad above!

    If someone lectures people to be grateful, that's approximately zero on the helpful scale. That's kind of like when you say to your boss, "wow, that project was really tough", and they say, "be grateful I wasn't hitting you with hammers while you were doing it, worm!"

    Sincerely, Tabby

    1. Tabby! You're right, I sort of stole your picture "but be grateful I didn't steal your entire site!"

      'Cause yeah, the "it could be worse" thing is strangely unhelpful and yet I find myself thinking it all the time when OTHER people are whining.

    2. :) Meow!
      Me too, I think of things where I (and others) could improve. And some of them may actually be valid. :) To me, the presentation and timing are key. But when someone is feeling particularly bad, I don't want to hit them when they're down. Instead, I might meow petulantly behind their back. ;)


  3. Excellent post. No one should be forced to feel gratitude. If it isn't there forcing it will do no good. And I love the OK-itude idea.

    Now, about those towel ads...thanks!

    1. Glad you appreciated the beefcake Leah! Who knew they were so racy back in the day?

  4. So you know this is going to pique anyone's attention who struggles with all this happiness, gratitude, optimism stuff and you are not alone in your struggle. I personally think all of this "gratitude" stuff is just a twist on the other aspects of this we have run into the ground: happiness and optimism. Here is the issue I have take with all of it: gratitude, just like happiness and optimism are emotions. Emotions are fleeting as well as dependent on hormones and receptors for those hormones. An emotion is really a combination of 3 things: 1) Perception of an experience (internal or external); 2) Physiological response to that perception (hormones, neurotransmitters and cell receptors for those); 3) Response

    Perception is largely driven by neural networks or neural brain patterns. Some of this is genetic and some of this is based on our previous experiences and how we interpreted them (probably based on genetics and other previous experiences). Question becomes: can you change your neural patterns? There is some evidence: neuralplasticity...but how much we can change is still debatable. In other words, we perceive any event or experience it a certain way and we really can't help the way we perceive it. That's the intellectual side of it.

    Physiological response is largely determined by that perception (and therefore our hormonal cascade) that makes us "feel" an emotion. Now some of this is also dependent on how much of any hormone we can produce based on that perception and even if we produce it, the receptors on the cells could be downregulated or we don't have enough of them (probably genetic) so then we don't actually even really "experience" it physically speaking. That's the "feeling" side of it. Some of us "feel" more than others.

    Response, is actually what we can do about it. We have a "natural" response which is heavily dependent on the other 2 aspects but there is some evidence that just by "acting" a certain way, that might have a backward impact and literally causes us to "feel" the emotion we are acting out. How far that goes....I don't think we know. We might naturally want to be pessimistic, but by acting more optimistic....could this really change the hormone cascade and then eventually the neural patterning? I don't know, and neither does all the research.

    How we perceive our world is largely dependent on genetics, epigenetics, hormones, neurotransmitters and cellular receptors. It's more than just a choice and instead of embracing diverse perspectives, we try to make everyone think and act a certain way...that's the real issue. The glass is both half full and half empty, that's the reality and when we can learn to see the world that way....we are better for it.

    1. Damn it Tiffany, I was going to say just that, but you beat me to it. Just kidding. I only logged in to say thank you for the towel ad, Crabby! I was determined to remain as irritable as possible until I saw that! Now I have to be all grateful and I have to tell you, my friend, I really resent that!
      Sending hugs and wishing you unexpected bursts of laughter!

    2. dlamb, you crack me up. Hugs backatcha!

      And Tiffany, how much do I love, love, love, love that you got all this great sciencey stuff in here for me to ponder? I find it fascinating the extent to which the subjective world is influenced by our biochemistry and neural wiring, and yet, as you point out, it is something we can (to some extent) modify!

      I think part of my fascination personally is that my brain DOES seem to be somewhat re-trainable, because I've definitely seen some of my former emotional responses change drastically over time. (Others, alas, are a little more stubborn). It actually helps my motivation to think of the actual structures and chemicals involved, and that my efforts to willfully change the way they habitually do things can make a difference.

      But I know other people who work on this stuff and don't see much improvement. Sort of like it is with exercise! Same workouts, different results. I'm just lucky that while my original wiring was pretty anxious/pessimistic, it seems in my case to be modifiable with persistent effort.

      Thanks so much for that thoughtful response!

  5. When someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, just lost the house to a fire, just had a terrible accident and is in the hospital, or similar, no way am i going to tell that person to look for the things to be grateful for. Instead, i'm going to acknowledge that these things are awful, and mourn with those who mourn. If that person brings up something, an "at least no one was killed in the accident" sort of thing, i will agree, but not force chipper-ness.

    If someone is depressed, and i've been there, s/he has my sympathy and support, not my demands to count blessings.

    From my religion, there's a reason we are told to "bear one another's burdens." It's because there will be times when we have burdens.

    Great reminder post not to rub gratitude into the face of those who really do need support through a tough time.

    1. Thanks Messymim! (And I totally doubt you're the sort to need reminding not to face-rub, as you always have the most empathic and kind responses to others who are suffering!)

  6. It's nice to see someone acknowledge that we (the royal) DON'T always have things to be grateful for, or express gratitude about...sometimes life does just suck. And adding guilt onto that makes it worse. I blame FB and those stupid "30 days of gratitude" posts for November. I preferred Helen's "30 days of things I hate" - now that was realistic!

  7. A very timely post for me. I've been working on the positive voice but that negative one is such a pushy thing. General okayness with gusts up to gratitude, it is. Thanks.

  8. Tonight I'm not feeling very grateful at all - I'm sitting here with my wine (skipping the band Christmas concert) after a long day full of obnoxious people while my hands and arms have burned. Thankfully, this is usually a temporary feeling for me and hopefully tomorrow will be all happiness again (or at least not full of such crankiness!).

  9. I completely agree with all of this, not everyone can exude gratefulness every single moment of every day, and a lot of your terms made me laugh loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Those old ads are fantastic, have you seen this one?

  10. OK-itude. Now THAT'S awesome!

    Seriously, the gratitude thing is on a continuum. Appreciating the fact that your feet hit the floor in the morning when you got out of bed is just a few degrees removed from thanking your Deity of choice for your personal assistant, who booked your first class flight to your next speaking engagement in Hawaii. And when you allow yourself to be fully present for any of the stages of gratitude you're on, it not only opens the door (a crack) to the next stage, it also gives you the chance to make peace with whatever is holding you back.

    Glad I found this site. In fact, I have gratitude for it! :)

  11. Just pointing out that "grateful" contains the word "grate." :) So no wonder reminders to be grateful might grate….

    Like DRG, I am wired to be ridiculously happy: "Wow! I have running water--that is So Cool!" (Having grown up surrounded by people who didn't grow up with running water I really do think that frequently.) And it doesn't quite feel like Gratitude. More like Appreciation.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  12. As you know I do Gratitude Monday. I started it to help with the UGH feelings of Monday for many. I have had a lots of shit going on for too long so this at least forces me to think about things that are good in life m=no matter how little otherwise I would drown in the crap! :)

  13. This is such a compassionate and lovely post. I personally think about my life in terms of gratitude a lot but that's mainly because I have such an incredibly GOOD life and for a long time I...well, I didn't. So I'm super grateful for the fact that for right now, I am one of the very few, very lucky people who gets to lead a life that is basically free of hardship. For me, conscious expressions of gratitude play a very important role in keeping me on an even keel psychologically and emotionally.

    But I also know that this is just how *I* feel about things, and it's not a statement on how I think others should or should not feel or behave or think. I can tell you that if someone had come to me several years ago, while I was struggling with mental health issues and feeling trapped in a terrible relationship, and told me to be grateful for the good things in my life, I would have cut them. So yeah, I totally get what you are saying and appreciate that you wrote this post for that reason.

  14. When I've thought about how lucky I have been, my ability to feel grateful is the only reason I have ever come up with.

    My phase is: Thank you for the gifts I have been given, and for those which I am about to receive.

  15. You always NAIL it! Yes to all of this.

    I feel SO GOOD most of the time now, especially since starting acupuncture and launching my own business (how clever of me to start both of them at the same time ;)), but some days - like yesterday - I'm much more in the OK-ness zone. The most frustrating part of it, to me, is that I know I have no reason to feel "just OK." I struggle with it because I used to be depressed, and now that I'm not, the occasional day (or moments in a day) when it all comes back is so sudden and unexpected and I don't really know what to do about it - and I feel silly and frustrated, because I'm no longer depressed so I tell myself that "I shouldn't feel this way." But I suppose since it's a mental health issue, we never really can CURE it, just treat it, right?

    I feel like most of the time my think-y brain slaps around my feel-y brain when I start to feel low... definitely gotta focus more on keeping the two working together! Thanks so much for your ideas here.

    1. But if that's how you feel, that's how you feel. There is no should!

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  16. I have a daughter that has a hard time with gratitude and always feels like her life if not measuring up, I remind her sometimes that it is okay to have a mediocre day. Not every day has to be compelling, satisfying, rewarding...blah,blah,blah.....its okay to have some mediocre days. Rest there and look forward to the next big surge of gratitude! Love your post and you are so right, sometimes, we cannot muster gratitude, no matter how much we want to. How insightful to remind us not to judge another person's journey. But I am glad you yourself have the joy, joy, joy down in your heart! 'cause I kinda like you.

  17. Oh the lack of gratitude I receive is remarkable. I help others SO MUCH... And I don't get very much in return. I actually don't really ask for help though so perhaps that is why. But really, all I want is a THANK YOU. Just so I know you actually MAYBE (even pretend) appreciate my taking time and energy out of my day to HELP YOU! Sometimes I spread myself a bit too thin and I actually have days (maybe once every 3 - 4 months) where I just EXPLODE! ha ha ah aha h! Yeahhhh I typically stay home those days!

  18. OH OH IM IN for slack cutting in all and any and every arena too.


  19. Can somebody else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them as well?

  20. Such an awesome post! Dare I say that I'm .... grateful? For a post that doesn't ram gratitude down people's throat, that allows space for times when it's just not a valid feeling. For 'ok-ness'. For someone mentioning the guilt that can accompany bad times if we're not grateful enough. And it's just refreshing! So, thank you!

    I have one single small issue: about the talking about things part. There might be times when that doesn't work either. I totally agree we shouldn't be constantly on about it to others, it's hard to be around, constantly complaining, it robs others of energy and is inconsiderate to do too much - but sometimes, we need to express ourselves, or stand up for our own needs, or our rights if someone really did do something that is harmful; and as for self talk, that is a very big battle for some people, let's say if their self talk started with disability plus abuse in childhood and they didn't hear of 'positive self talk' till they were thirty or forty. I feel like I want to cut all those people a little slack, too. along the lines of sometimes it needs to be okay to not be okay, if you really aren't.


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