When Gratitude Works; and When It Doesn't
Focus on the positive to make gratitude work for you.
Posted May 24, 2016
Being grateful is generally thought of as a wonderful quality. But insisting on it is less than helpful. Consider the classic example of when a mother insists that her child gratefully eat his food because other children in the world are starving. The response, Then send it to them!, is not just a sign of being ungrateful, though that may be true. It also points to a bigger problem.
I have worked with many patients over the years who are angry with themselves for not being grateful enough; or who say they are grateful, but that this doesn’t really help them to feel good. The common denominator with both groups of people is that they focus on what they don’t have. They remind themselves that they are not starving or sick. They have neither lost their homes in tornadoes nor do they live in a war-torn country. Even when a catastrophe, tragedy, or difficult circumstance really has befallen them, they focus on what else could have gone wrong, but hasn’t. As a result, they feel relieved at best. But this generally doesn’t invite a warm sense of appreciation.
Gratitude helps people feel good (as opposed to intellectually recognizing they are fortunate) when it focuses on positives. Feeling appreciative for good health is different than being grateful for not being terminally ill. Rather than just knowing they could be worse off, grateful people are conscious of their healthy body and feel good about it. They lower their defenses, allowing themselves to be truly touched by the beauty that the world has to offer. Sights, sounds, and smells aren’t just noticed; kind acts aren’t just observed; all of these experiences are absorbed.
Allowing yourself to feel truly touched in this way makes you vulnerable. It opens you to being hurt by the pain and ugliness in the world. So, while gratitude feels soft and open and awe-inspired, it also requires you to be strong. Fortunately, gratitude is a skill that you can improve. Practice seeing the beauty and goodness in life, and continue to do so even as you face difficulties. By maintaining your openness and appreciation for life’s blessings, you will feel the power that gratitude has to offer.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.
Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love.
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