- Trying to force gratitude often creates negative emotions.
- Appreciation means allowing ourselves to experience both the pleasant and unplesant.
- It's okay to not feel thankful all the time.
My first exposures to gratitude often felt obligatory, like gratitude was something you should have to be a decent person. "At least be grateful that....." often felt like a deceptive silver lining in the more difficult times of my life. The more strength I used to force myself to be "grateful" (and the more I beat myself up for not feeling such), the more frustrated I became. Sometimes, we don't feel thankful.
Individuals experiencing depression, grief, or trauma may find it particularly hard to access this. I recall once talking with a therapist during a time of depression and grief. In response to a suggestion of the gratitude journal, I responded, "I have so much to be grateful for. I purposely think about those things. Yet, what you are asking me to do feels like I'm showing a doctor a broken arm and he's encouraging me to write a list of all my bones that are not broken."
Gratitude and Appreciation
Yet, there is real evidence that gratitude benefits us in areas as diverse as well-being, optimism, and sleep quality (Jackowska et al., 2016). But what if it doesn't feel "right"? It's important to note that acknowledging the good things does not mean we have to ignore the more troubling ones. Darkness is real and pretending it is not there is likely to increase negative emotions over time.
Some things in life are awful.
Not allowing ourselves to experience certain emotions often causes those emotions to grow. In the process, we can become self-critical of what we are feeling or miss out on the messages those emotions have for us.
I've found appreciation to be a more helpful construct. I think of appreciation as opening ourselves up to enjoy all the good there is to be enjoyed. A gratitude list could certainly be part of that. But appreciation is more. It's facing reality, noting both the pleasant and the unpleasant. It also encompasses mindfulness, as we have to be in the present moment to appreciate it.
Shadows, Radical Acceptance, Depression, and Trauma
Shadow journaling has become a popular practice of late. The idea is to journal on difficult-to-answer questions so that we can become more aware of ourselves, our past, and our hopes for the future. It draws from the Jungian construct of the "shadow"—the parts of us and our experiences that we push away, questions that are difficult to answer, or things that we don't want to admit.
While not quite the opposite of a gratitude journal, a shadow journal is by no means a flowery list of joys. Research on shadow journaling is limited, but turning toward reality and away from self-deception are often thought of as marks of mental health. Indeed, although not related directly to shadow journaling, "radical acceptance" of beautiful and painful events and emotions is a key skill in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (Linehan, 2014).
Similarly, making room for these "shadows" in our minds is often necessary as we grapple with challenges such as loss, traumatic experiences, and depression. I would argue that integrating one's shadows is just as important as noticing the bright spots in terms of reaping the rewards of appreciation.
So, this Thanksgiving, if you aren't feeling "grateful," that's okay. Notice what you are feeling. Allow it to be there. You don't have to immerse yourself in it, but you don't have to make it go away, either. If you find it helpful to write a gratitude list, go for it. If not, don't. It's okay to be here, in this moment, and to take everything in. That's what appreciation is about.
Jackowska, M., Brown, J., Ronaldson, A., & Steptoe, A. (2016). The impact of a brief gratitude intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep. Journal of health psychology, 21(10), 2207-2217.
Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT (R) skills training handouts and worksheets, second edition (2nd ed.). Guilford Publications.