Failing at gratitude: Is there more to it than positive thinking?

At some murky point, the general encouragement to be grateful seems to have evolved into a mandate. Maybe we used to be expected to focus on it once a year, sitting around the turkey testifying about all the good things in our lives. But we’ve long since been lectured by everyone from life coaches to physicians to business gurus that gratitude is the key to just about everything, be it financial success, well-adjusted children, or cancer remission. The gratitude imperative has become so internalized in many of us that we may even feel guilty or ashamed for our failures to be appreciative enough. I mean, what kind of a loser must I be if I am unable to maintain this “attitude of gratitude” given the many advantages and privileges of my life? For many of us, I suspect, ungrateful thoughts can even become a source of shame and suffering, yet one more way that we recognize our own failure to measure up.

I’ll admit that I’ve long struggled with the gratitude schlock: the pink notebooks where I’m supposed to record my gratitude lists, the hypnotic audiobooks designed to help me drown out my negative thoughts, the podcast interviews with bubbly new age authors who warn me about the dangers of a “scarcity mentality.” Frankly, I’ve always been suspicious of this sort of thing, in part, because of how gendered it is. Is the gratitude mandate just another “mother’s little helper” being foisted onto unhappy women, not so different from Valium and “wine o’clock”? Is the endless barrage of popular “advice” to be grateful prescribing a paint-it-pink approach, urging folks to paper over their dissatisfactions and perceived injustices rather than seek tangible relief or remediation? I’m not sure, but it does now seem to me that the problem I have isn’t with gratitude, but with the cheap way it has so often been portrayed and purveyed, that is, as just one more version of positive thinking.

Since at least the mid-20th century or so — think Norman Vincent Peale — there’s been a growing focus in the West on individual attitude as the driver of personal success and happiness. Indeed, the emphasis on “staying positive” in the face of illness, financial challenge, natural disaster, and tragedy in general has become so taken for granted that, even now, I am reluctant to question its status as pure gospel. Of course, part of why this positive thinking philosophy has become so popular is because it sort of works. People who are consistently able and willing to hold positive thoughts — appreciation, optimism, gratitude, and the like — do, almost by definition, seem to be happier than folks who ruminate critically, negatively, and pessimistically. Given the choice between running a negative mental tape and a positive one, then, it seems like we’re generally better off choosing the positive one.

But this still strikes me as a superficial rendering of gratitude, one that fails to do justice to our supposedly negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Deep and authentic gratitude would not be a mere escape into positivity so as to avoid sorrow, pain, and grief but would, instead, be based on an expansive aspect of consciousness so open and accepting that there is room for all thoughts and feelings to pass through. From this point of view, gratitude would be rooted not in the avoidance and denial strategies that seem to be implied by so many positive thinking prescriptions, but by the sort of acceptance that arises naturally from being fully present with the sorrows and joys that give form and texture to our existence. While so much of “positive thinking,” then, seems aimed at helping folks avoid becoming fully present, this more Buddhist approach would suggest that we deepen into it. Basically, gratitude is not what we think it is because it is not something that, at its core, is primarily about thinking at all.

Gratitude as a byproduct of embracing reality as it is in each present moment, then, is almost the opposite of gratitude as a self-hypnotic sanitation project. And isn’t it also worth keeping in mind that such efforts to exile negative thoughts are often undertaken as a sort of magical thinking project, an attempt to escape one’s present reality? If I could only get good enough at being grateful for what I’ve got, could I, perhaps, through something like the “law of attraction,” “magnetize” greater health, wealth, and happiness? Again, while cheap gratitude would have us focus on avoiding and changing our so called “negative feelings,” deep gratitude seems to be a result of diving deeper into a form of consciousness that is beyond “negative” and “positive.” What some report finding there is a level of peace beyond the psychological or emotional sensations of “happy” and “unhappy.”

To be honest, I’ve sometimes felt a little envious of folks who seem to be organically attracted to, and able to commit to, the “attitude of gratitude” approach, those who seem able to find real comfort and lasting satisfaction through their gratitude exercises and mantras. And I can’t deny that, in lots of circumstances, “fake it til you make it” can be a pretty powerful strategy, one that can help to alleviate mundane suffering. I’ve relied on such tactics myself and I expect I will again. But maybe because I am sort of naturally inclined toward skepticism, nostalgia, and melancholy, such strategies have never worked well for me, at least not for long. But even though I am not a “positive thinker,” inhaling sorrow and exhaling rainbows, I have trailed my fingers through the deep waters of authentic gratitude. And like almost every other discovery on my stuttering spiritual path, gratitude is not what they told me it was. It is not what I thought it would be.

One thought on “Failing at gratitude: Is there more to it than positive thinking?

  1. Cathryn,

    I share all your reservations about, “Don’t worry. Be happy.” Yet …

    Camus call Sisyphus the “existentialist hero” not because he was “organically attracted” to self-deceived gratitude, but because in spite of full awareness of the mindless and meaningless horror of (much of) life, he chose to embrace life’s struggle out of defiance and pure self-creativity. We are the author’s of our lives: not of their facticity, but of their meaning. Painful life circumstances aren’t the causes of our misery, but our excuses.

    I have a friend in recovery who begins each share with, “Practicing gratitude with each new breath.” Like meditation, gratitude is a practice, a repetitive choosing of where to place one’s focus. It is a discipline rather than a brute personality trait.

    I choose, therefore I am. And I choose beauty because I can.

    …. Another wonderful read.



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