Gratitude: the good, the bad and the ugly

I like gratitude. We live in a fast-paced culture where we're always teetering between future tripping or stressing out about what needs to happen right now. It's fair to say we're not very good at being present. We can miss out on so many things, and gratitude can be a really good way of staying in the present. But I think it does have its limitations. No matter what's going on in your life, you're supposed to be grateful. Even if something unexpected has happened that has pushed your life in a completely unexpected direction.

In fact, especially if that happens.

There are some great ways to really practice gratitude in a way that gives more meaning to your life (read to the end of this post to get some practical ideas), but before I start waxing lyrical, let's get something out of the way.

While it can be essential for living a wholehearted life, there's also a danger in forcing positivity onto ourselves and feeling like we have to be grateful, regardless of circumstances and situations that leave us feeling low. Sometimes we end up using gratitude as the stick to beat ourselves with.

It's okay not to be positive all the time

Life can be shit. You know that, I know that, the Pope knows that. But regardless of that, gratitude seems to have become this blanket thing to practice and apply to all situations.

I disagree.

If I'm having a shit day, or dealing with hard stuff, or something happens to my family and friends, telling me to be grateful that:

A. It could have been worse

B. I'm still alive

C. I'm more fortunate than others

isn't going to help. It's going to make me feel worse, and very likely, very pissed off.

Firstly, everything can always be worse. That's not helpful, that's just irritating.

Secondly, sometimes being alive and surviving everything is the hard part.

And thirdly, comparing yourself to others 'less fortunate' is a great way of patronising a whole load of people and also an effective way of reaffirming the power dynamics that keep this society as unequal as it is. And I'm not into that.

So give yourself a break. It's okay to not be grateful for things that make you or the people around you feel shit. That's human. Acknowledging how you feel and appreciating that you're allowed to feel whatever you're feeling, however, is always going to make the situation better, as hard as it can be to do that. Self validation can often be a much better tool than gratitude.

You don't always have to see the lesson

This is a HUGE one. While I believe that sometimes the shit in life does share an important lesson, sometimes believing that everything happens for a reason just doesn't help. It can leave you bewildered, lost, furious and heart-broken.

Going back to a point I made earlier - you don't have to be grateful and positive about everything. You don't always have to find a lesson in everything. While I really do value reflection and trying to pull the flower buds out of the compost, deal with one thing at a time.

Besides, sometimes you're not going to see the lesson until years later. And often, it only turns up exactly when you need to learn the lesson.


You don't have to be thankful to anyone in particular

I'm not religious. When I'm thankful things, I just am. I guess if I were to have to put a name to it, I would say I'm grateful to the universe.  But I think we often get so stuck into thinking who we should be grateful for, and working out all the logics of it; why did this happen, when that didn't happen? Who's pulling the strings here?

We can also get seriously stuck in trying to wish things were different, or trying to change our fate. In my view, gratitude is for gratitude's sake. Not this kind of piecemeal, I've said thanks, now when am I going to win the lottery kind of deal.

Gratitude is about acknowledging what's good in your life and taking time to reflect on the things that can be swept under the rug when life gets busy (when was the last time you really thanked your best friend, just for being her?). It's not about asking for more, demanding things be different and getting pissed off that things haven't happened for you yet.

When combined with intention and action, that's goal setting. Not gratitude.

But that's not to chuck gratitude out of the proverbial pram. There's plenty a time when gratitude it going to make you feel amazing, appreciate the moment and add to a more wholehearted life.

And for those times, here are some great ways to welcome gratitude into your life

Gratitude practices you can try

•  3 good things - a couple of years ago, I did a positive psychology course, and this really stuck with me. Every day, try to think of 3 good things that happened in the last 24 hours. And where you can, share them. This can be a really nice thing to do with a friend or a partner, a really positive way of starting a team meeting, or something to make you feel warm as you fall asleep at night.

•  Keeping a Gratitude journal - this can be an extension of the above exercise, where you record your good things in a small notebook, which you can look at when you're feeling low. You could also try doing this once a week on a Sunday night to kickstart your work. There are approximately a gazillion ways you could keep a gratitude journal. Ultimately, it's what works for you, how you think, and how you live your life.

•  Tell people on a regular basis you appreciate them. This could be writing random postcards to family/friends, sending short texts/e-mails or through big bear hugs (my favourite). And that includes being grateful for YOU. Ever written yourself a letter of gratitude? No? Now's the time to try!

•  From Mind, Body, Green - Reach out to an author whose book has changed your life and share your gratitude in an email or letter. I did this when I was 17 and was astounded by the response. I need to remember to do this again soon

  • This post has a great list of ways of practicing gratitude that you can start today. I love that it includes giving compliments and taking walks

Life always feels better when you're taking notice of the good things, storing them in your internal memory and appreciating them. Just don't beat yourself with the gratitude stick when life gets hard!

I'd love to hear any gratitude practices you have - let me know in the comments!