Articles

Gratitude not working for you? Here’s why you might have it all wrong

And how a sprinkling of complaining can actually help.

When I first discovered gratitude practice in James Baraz’s book Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to Happiness, a whole new world opened up to me. For the first time, I experienced the true potential of feeling thankful that was entirely different from the kind of gratitude that’s often forced upon us as kids.

“Thank you for having me,” is a phrase that comes to mind! And I’ve been just as guilty of reminding my kids with hysterical urgency about this one at pickup from birthday parties and play-dates!

Feeling thankful for everyday things; seeing things as glass half-full rather than half-empty, and understanding the lessons or growth that come from challenges has had a remarkable impact on my life and levels of happiness. Psychologist and neuroscience expert Rick Hanson talks about the ability to “shift the happiness set-point” and I have experienced first-hand how gratitude (and meditation!) has helped water down my brain’s negativity bias.

When I talk about happiness, I’m really referring to a satisfaction with or contentment of what is, more so than the heady pleasure derived from ice cream cones and comedy skits. (Although, in the moment, I am grateful to those experiences, too!)

But what happens when your gratitude practice has become stale?

When you’re no longer feeling the life-changing benefits promised by writing down 3 things you’re grateful for every day?

Here’s what you might be missing. 

1. Write your WHY

I’ve fallen into the trap of jotting down three things I’m grateful for and coming to the realisation that my list is always the same, and has become boring, arbitrary and completely uninspiring. 

  • Husband
  • Kids
  • Job

What’s missing from this gratitude list?

Details!

WHY am I grateful for my husband? What did he do that I appreciated and how did it make me FEEL?

I’m grateful to Dean because he has created and tends to this amazing garden for us to enjoy, including the wisteria that he planted just for me, which flowers spectacularly once a year and brings me much joy.

Ahh, that feels better! I turned an arbitrary bullet point into a sentiment packed with feeling and it has quite literally put a smile on my face.

By writing your WHY and getting into the details, the list becomes different every time and that’s where you’ll notice a shift in energy within your body. 

Which leads me to the next point. 

2. Pay attention to grateful feelings in your body

Start to notice how your body responds to giving thanks or appreciating things.

In that one exercise above, I noticed an opening through my chest area, a feeling of warmth in the belly and that my breath started flowing in contented waves.

Where does gratitude present physically for you?

When you become aware of the physiological effects of a practice like gratitude you’ll make a stronger connection to it which will motivate you to keep going and create a positive feedback loop.

3. Be genuine

Choose things you genuinely feel grateful for. Things you genuinely see the beauty within or that bring you joy.

Don’t try to transmute negative experiences with false affirmations in an attempt not to feel those negative experiences. There’s nothing wrong with being pissed off with something. 

EXAMPLE:

I am grateful for COVID. 

Am I?

Well no, I’m not really all that grateful for COVID because my mum suffered terribly from isolation and loneliness and her mental health deteriorated significantly. It was heartbreaking to watch.

However, what I could be grateful for during COVID is Zoom. It’s meant in lockdown we could stay connected as best we could to our friends and family and that meant being able to laugh and see our loved ones’ faces which made the isolation a bit more bearable.


Interestingly, even though Rick Hanson’s message is all about “taking in the good” to rewire the brain, he isn’t a fan of the kind positive thinking that leads to spiritual or emotional bypassing.

In an interview with North & South magazine, he said,

I don’t believe in positive thinking. I think it’s hooey… If we’re just absolutely red-lining on physical or emotional pain, in that moment all we can do is ride out the storm, and any kind of looking around for good news or something else to be grateful for is total bullshit.

He adds, “Pain pushed away too quickly just goes “underground” and returns to bite us. There’s a normal rhythm where you feel the pain, you bear it. The best ‘positive’ you may be able to register during this time is that you are surviving, it’s not killing you. But at some point – the Goldilocks point – you can start letting it go; you can say, ‘I don’t need to keep thinking about this,’ or maybe, ‘This hurts too much and I need to move on.’”

Be authentic with your gratitude. There is plenty to find without even trying, leave the negative experiences alone.

4. Do some ‘conscious complaining’

In her book The Language of Emotions, Karla Mclaren introduces the concept of conscious complaining. That is, having a good vent so as to not bottle things up – but doing it in a conscious and contained way.

She offers a few different methods for this, including finding a complaining partner who will simply hold space for you to have a gripe, and setting up a complaining shrine in your house you can let leash on!

For me personally, I find putting pen to paper very therapeutic. So as well as journaling your gratitude, you can set aside some white space to get your frustrations, worries, fears, shame, grief and sadness out of your head and into your book.

At first, you might find dot points are enough to release your peeves. But when you’re feeling ready to, you could experiment with adding a why.

EXAMPLE:

I’m pissed off with Telstra right now because I just want to talk to a real human on the phone and all they’re letting me do is use this stupid texting service! This is a total waste of my time that I could be using to get other stuff done and now I’m feeling irritated and angry! Argh!!


Feel the anger. Feel the frustration. Notice how it feels in your body. Tight, constructed, awful. 

Sit with it for a bit. Can you change it?

If the answer is ‘yes’, you’ve found a positive. When it’s time, you can reorient to do something about it. 

If the answer is ‘no’, then the only action you can take is to accept it. I’m not saying acceptance is easy. But it’s easier than the suffering that comes from resisting what can’t be changed.

Here’s a guided meditation you can try to practise acceptance.

5. Don’t edit your thoughts

Your journal is a place free from viewer guidelines. It won’t be stamped PG or M15+. 

In his book Meditation Made Easy, Lorin Roche says,

You don’t need to edit during meditation because you aren’t going to act on the thoughts… You are releasing the energy tied up in them, freeing that energy for your life.

Mindful journaling is the same. It takes a one-way dialogue inside your head and adds an impartial ‘listener’ into the mix. A listener in the form of paper who is all-ears and no judgement.

Start to become friends with your thoughts and feelings. Understand them. Be mindful of them. They will appreciate having your tender attention.

6. End with gratitude

After any session of conscious complaining, try wrapping it up with more gratitude. It’s definitely freeing and illuminating to unleash pent-up peeves, but I prefer, when appropriate, to leave them there on the page and not have them follow me back out into my day. (Unless there’s something truly awful going on, in which case, acceptance is a wiser way to finish.)

Can’t think of anything to write?

How about pick something mundane. And asking the question, what’s to love about this?

EXAMPLE:

I love that our garbage bins get collected at the same time every week. Our streets are clean and inviting and free from odours and disease. We are so lucky to live in a country where this is a given.

I love this eight-dollar grey and white fleece blanket that I bought from Kmart! It keeps me warm and snug in my morning mediations and I also find the colour and pattern visually appealing, which invokes joy and satisfaction.

Sometimes, imagining what’s it’s like not to have something in your life is a way to reveal what you’re truly grateful for.

  • What if my kids weren’t in my life? I am so grateful for them.
  • What would it be like to live without electricity? I’m so grateful we do!
  • What if women in Australia were still not allowed to vote? I’m grateful we can!

When we’re struggling to find gratitude, we can look for it in the imagined lack of the very things right in front of us. I always find something there. In the very least, that I am alive to write these words, is really a freakin’ miracle.

7. Actually do it. 

In my experience gratitude is a practice that you get all gung-ho about for a while and when everything’s going well, you stop putting in the effort.

It’s like any endeavour, be it fitness, healthy eating or learning a new skill. You need to actually practice to get better at it and start feeling the benefits.

Just like Ben Stiller’s character Tugg Speedman says in the politically incorrect satire Tropic Thunder:

“I just did the work.”

But it doesn’t need to be hard work! It can be little as 5 minutes a day. Right before you hit the pillow or first thing when you wake up. 


So, how do you feel about gratitude now?

To sum up the approach:

  • Give it a try
  • Add your why
  • Be authentic
  • Unleash your gripes
  • End with gratitude

Would love to hear your experience with this in the comments!