How to *really* make gratitude work for you

“I know everyone’s telling me I’ve got to be grateful, I know looking at all the people around me, I should. But I can’t. Am I a bad person?”, my client Terence asks me.

I look at him and ask him, “We’ve all heard of that person who tells you stuff like ‘at least you’ve still got your health’ or ‘think positive!’ when someone close to you dies. Have you experienced that before?”

Terence nods passionately and tells me it’s happened to him.

“And you want to punch that person in the face, right? At least, mentally”, I continue.

He laughs so hard, the frown furrowed between his brows disappears.

That’s because, gratitude isn’t always the solution.

Sometimes we put the cart before the horse.

When adamantly trying to be grateful, we are going through the Gratitude Bypass— bypassing being human, and it will come back to bite you with a vengeance.

This is for everyone who finds it hard to be grateful at times. Or realises that gratitude isn’t always helpful.

1. Is there a reason NOT to be grateful?

Maybe it feels like your life has hit rock bottom. You’re in some kind of crisis. Because life happens. To you, to someone around you; it doesn’t matter.

Or maybe you are in a toxic relationship— and *drumroll*… gratitude actually keeps people trapped in abusive situations. Because it’s not 100% bad, we look for the best, and convince ourselves that overshadows the very bad stuff. And we apply Cognitive Photoshop to turn the neutral into great. Not cool.

The thing about emerging from any situation is not to be deludedly positive— even if there are people uttering “Chin up!”, “Think positive!”— and rather, to partner with reality.

So if reality truly sucks right now, the wisest thing is to acknowledge it, and then work from there.

Or how I remind myself in Chinese: 既来之则安之— since we’re already here, let’s accept the right now, and get to work.

2. Acknowledge your experiences right now

What flipped for Terence was acknowledging what was going on for him.

Yes, he knew logically he should be grateful. Values-wise, everything he’d been brought up with was screaming at him “Be grateful!”.

And that extra burden of guilt and shame? Not good.

Most of us don’t like to acknowledge what we’re actually experiencing. Because it’s perplexing— how can we feel both sad and relieved at the same time, and then angry?! The truth is that we’re complex creatures who experience a cocktail of emotions.

And then we also fear that acknowledging means we lose control. On the flipside, acknowledging means our power increases.Here’s some prompts you can use:

  1. Right now, this is what I’m experiencing: _ _ _ _
  2. The feelings I have are: _ _ _ _
  3. This is what I’m thinking: _ _ _ _
  4. I feel all these in this part of my body: _ _ _ _

Surprise yourself by how naming these (without judging yourself!) suddenly takes their power away.

Then delight yourself as you take three deep breaths to bring your higher brain back online— as compared to operating from your fear centre— and realise that you can now wisely tackle the situation at hand.

This is when you can actually start to feel grateful. Not by trying to be grateful before acknowledging.

It’s the simple nuances that make a difference.

The more sophisticated your self-awareness becomes, the better you’ll be at this.

We all know the importance of high emotional intelligence in relationships and at work; part of the EQ equation is also about being aware and mastering what’s going on inside us.

3. Understand why gratitude matters

For some of us Type A+++s, willy-nilly throwing terms like ‘meditate!’, ‘be grateful!’ and ‘tech detox!’ make us roll our eyes and write you off as another faux positive person.

That’s because, our brains need to get onboard with why we do certain things.

Gratitude is potent salve, and then also a rejuvenator of our spirits.

It’s linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression, and generally better mental fitness and improved sleep.

It is the bridge between people in great relationships.

We become more optimistic. And our immune health improves.

Whether for individuals, relationships or team cultures, gratitude is something useful and easy to draw on.

4. Engage in a gratitude practise as your new craft

We need three positive experiences to offset a negative one. And said positive experiences can be primed by gratitude.

And often, we aren’t used to acknowledging or even recognising the positive ones.

It can be something as simple as acknowledging what’s great today.

Such as, finding that carpark lot, especially in a place where it’s always crowded. Winging a table at your favourite restaurant last-minute. Having a realisation that’s unburdened you.

If you look at the world through purely negative lenses— i.e. Me Against The World— you will find and also create situations that prove yourself right. And if you look at the world  appreciating some of the good things life sends your way, you also make everyday more meaningful and enjoyable.

5. Ask: “How can I create a life I/others will be grateful for?”

Gratitude begets gratitude in the grand scheme of things.

Or in the words of my favourite Taoist philosopher, bad luck is simply bad luck, it happens. But good fortune is a matter of preparation. If you’re able to look into the future and make plans to mitigate potential problems and then also cultivate habits that help you, the result often looks to an outsider like good luck. Except, it’s something you’ve sowed, nourished and therefore, harvested.

If you’re feeling a little stumped or plateauing regarding what you can be grateful for, an exercise I love is to future pace.

Imagine yourself being interviewed 1 year from now, and as you look back, what would you say about your life in a year’s time, and how you did that.

Let that inspire you. Then, get to work!

6. Make gratitude interpersonal

I’ve saved the best for the last. Gratitude works best when it’s interpersonal. Here’s when Newton’s acknowledgment that he got where he did, only because he was standing on the shoulders of giants, comes to mind.

True gratitude, as some philosophers argue, is a communal emotion and not a clinical individually-focused wellness practise.

The stoic Seneca himself penned that in this way, gratitude has the power to strengthen relationships and communities.

If you’re finding it hard to engage in your regular gratitude practise, or even bored of writing the same ol’ same ol’, then you might benefit from reflecting about where you are today, and who paved your way.

They could be people who are or were in your life. Or people who’s work touched you and inspired you into action.

If you’d like to, perhaps even reach out with a note of thanks.

And then pay it forward, by doing something that would inspire someone else.

And it is with deep gratitude that I thank you for reading to the end of this piece, and would love to know which of the above you’d add to your repertoire.  

Of course if you’d like further help with understanding the importance of gratitude as a mindset intervention we’d love to have you at our next online workshop series.