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Why Is Being Thankful So Difficult For Some People?

An attitude of gratitude: It's more than a simple saying.

Key points

  • A lack of gratitude is a telltale sign of deeper issues.
  • Starting to acknowledge and appreciate the positive is often a turning point in therapy.
Source: Donald Giannatti / Unsplash

Holidays can be stressful for numerous reasons and Thanksgiving, a holiday dedicated to feeling gratitude, can be especially anxiety-provoking. For those who suffer from loneliness, live far way from families, or find that family gatherings spark painful memories or trigger tension, Thanksgiving may be one of the most challenging days of the year.

There is a great variation in people's ability to experience and express appreciation. For some, being appreciative comes naturally. For others, feeling grateful is almost impossible. These attitudes are usually seen as personality characteristics. There are contented, optimistic people who seem to be born "on the sunny side of the street." Others appear to have a "chip on their shoulders." They have a sour look and never feel like they have enough. Their lack of gratitude almost inevitably hurts their relationships. Relatives, friends, and colleagues assume this is just "who they are."

Being able to appreciate—or not appreciate—is a telltale sign

While an “attitude of gratitude" sounds like a Pollyana-ish phrase, it is actually a significant sign. When an individual comes into my office unable to express anything positive about their own self-worth, family, friends, work, relationships, or the world in general, it is typically a sign of depression—a condition that must be addressed, whether with psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, mind-body practices, and, most often, a combination of these approaches.

The importance of getting a comprehensive mental health consultation cannot be overstated. Certainly not everyone who has trouble feeling gratitude suffers from Major Depression and is paralyzed by gloom, hopelessness, and a host of physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms, . They may have a condition called Persistent Depressive Disorder (also called Dysthymia) which is a mild depressive condition. People who struggle with it are often thought of as seeing the glass half-empty. The good news is that psychopharmacologic medication today can alleviate symptoms of Major Depression and Persistent Depressive Disorder, often without any side effects. Suddenly a person can see the good in their life, the potential for things to get better.

A turning point in psychotherapy

People don’t come into therapy because they are grateful. They seek help when they feel overwhelmed by problems and have a litany of challenges in their relationships, work life, financial situation, health, or some other serious matter. However, when a patient begins to express appreciation in therapy—whether toward the treatment, clinician, relative, friend, work colleague or occurrence in their lives—it is usually an important turning point. It's a sign that treatment is beginning to work. Yes, there are still obstacles to overcome but being able to recognize a glimmer of good reflects a healthier perspective.

The gift of recognizing the positive in our lives

Famous psychoanalyst Melanie Klein wrote about envy and gratitude, the former being a central element of depression that eats away at the capacity for gratitude. It leaves us with deep concerns about what we don’t have, overwhelming the sense of what we do have. This often has roots that go far back in our lives, sometimes to childhood and family relationships, to be explored in psychotherapy. One form of meditation is called lovingkindness meditation, which focuses on directing loving thoughts toward self and others and can be a powerful antidote to envy and help rejuvenate a sense of gratitude.

People who find it challenging to acknowledge the blessings in their lives often lack perspective. After all, there are people who have millions of dollars but never feel satisfied and those who have much less money and are content with what they have. It’s said that the “city of happiness is in the state of mind.” Writing in a gratitude journal is one way to exercise the muscle of gratitude, to encourage a change of perspective, and channel the mind in a more positive direction.

The broad range of approaches we have today for treating depression are remarkable. With our vast array of tools to target the specific symptoms of depression, there is that every reason to have hope about recovering from depression. By being attuned to one's own or a loved one's attitude and seeking help from a mental health professional you can turn embitterment and disgruntlement into a sunnier, more appreciative mindset.

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