Gratitude gets a lot of attention these days. Hopefully, you’re at least somewhat familiar with the benefits of a gratitude practice. It helps train your brain to notice and appreciate the little things in life and, in doing so, shifts your life experience tremendously.
Gratitude can increase your happiness and wellbeing, life satisfaction, even overall health while decreasing the stuff we all want less of like anxiety, depression, and anger. Whether its a gratitude journal or expressing gratitude, it is important to practice gratitude. Today, though, I want to offer some new perspectives on gratitude.
Power of Gratitude as a Competing Response
In the world of habits, there’s a treatment approach called Habit Reversal Training. A key component of HRT is the use of a competing response, which is an action that is incompatible with the habit you are trying to break. For example, if you’re trying to break a nail biting habit, you might clasp your hands as a competing response when you feel the urge to bite. It’s really difficult to clasp your hands AND bite your nails at the same time. Consistently using a competing response trains your body to replace the undesired habit with the new one.
Rumination, worry, complaining, and negativity are mental habits, and ones with far worse consequences than nail biting. These mental habits involve stewing on negative thoughts, indulging them in a repeating and amplifying loop with the effect of dragging down your mood and pulling you out of the present moment. I propose that we try gratitude as a competing response for these mental habits.
It’s surprisingly difficult to tap into gratitude – really tap into it – and also get stuck in negativity. When you find yourself getting wrapped up in those negative thoughts or starting down a spiral, challenge your mind to find something in that moment to be grateful for. Be sure you don’t just go through the motions, though. The goal is to truly activate grateful feelings to help buoy you against the negativity and to help keep you grounded in the present moment.
When Gratitude Backfires
I’d argue that you’d be hard pressed to find a situation in which tapping into gratitude isn’t possible or isn’t helpful. That said, be mindful that gratitude doesn’t become fuel for guilt. That happens when your mind uses gratitude to minimize your painful experiences.
It might sound something like this: “I don’t have a right to be sad. I have so much to be grateful for. I haven’t been hit as hard as others.” Sentiments like that take gratitude, which is an expanding and bolstering practice, and turn it into a mental whip with which to flog yourself. The resulting guilt is unnecessary and underserved.
Research shows that grateful people are generally happier people, but gratitude doesn’t negate pain. It’s a “both and” not an “either or” practice. You can be both hurting AND grateful. You can use gratitude as a lifeline to keep you from drowning in the negative mental habits that intensify your pain but not to eliminate pain completely.
Your daily gratitude practice can start small. Spend time every single day just tapping into feelings of gratitude. Acknowledge the reality of your present situation and find some small bright spot.
In this moment, I miss my family who I haven’t seen in eons because of COVID AND I am grateful for grocery delivery and a warm sunny day.
In this moment, my heart hurts for those who were affected by the recent shootings in the U.S. AND I am grateful for feeling well rested this morning.
In this moment, I am SO OVER this pandemic AND I appreciate my Brandon Sanderson audio books that I love so much.
In this moment, I am grateful for you, that you’re in our community and that you’re a part of the movement to make life better.
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
P.S. If you like this post and want to understand gratitude even better, Dr. April and I just recorded a podcast episode about gratitude habits and toxic positivity. We go so much deeper into these topics. It was such a great conversation!