I don’t trust anyone who tells me that I should just “practice being more grateful” in response to a hardcore venting session or a trivial complaint. I don’t know that I even believe in the concept of practice anymore; this is the real thing, the one shot, the only chance to get it right. There’s no time to practice when this is the only time we’re sure to have.
There’s no practicing. Only doing. And if I’m going to do anything, I’m going to be real and truthful and honest.
It’s not that I don’t value the positive energy of gratitude; I wholeheartedly believe in and feel its profound effects. I do not, however, feel that it’s beneficial to mask anger or sadness or confusion or any other not-so-peaceful emotions with this forced “thankful for everything” attitude.
In this scenario, if done “correctly,” gratitude is supposed to wipe away our sorrows and fears and lift us to a place of abundance in spite of the odds that are not always in our favor. If we’re grateful enough, all the bad stuff will go away and all the good stuff will flood our once empty lives, and voilà!—gratitude has done its job.
This is what I call bullshit.
While there’s certainly a significant benefit to seeing the bright side of bad situations, it’s definitely not healthy to function from a place of “this is bad but I’ll be grateful for it anyway.” In this mindset, we merely encourage the complacence that masks what could otherwise prompt us to make important and life-altering changes. We overlook the discomfort of moments hardly worthy of gratitude in order to maintain a sense of ease amidst this world of perpetual change.
The point is that it’s not necessary to only ever feel grateful no matter the circumstances if grateful isn’t what we feel. This is not the way to create a life without struggles or hardships or tragedies, because those things will happen no matter how grateful we pretend we are; this is merely the way to create a life of insincerity and dishonesty about ourselves and who we are and what we truly want and need in order to thrive.
So, how do we approach this gratitude business? How do we keep it real and truthful and honest?
1. Don’t fake it.
There’s really no reason to pretend we’re grateful when we’re not. If we’re angry, sad, frustrated, vengeful, anxious, depressed, disgusted, or any other way, it’s healthier to feel those things than to mask them. This is because masking what we think and feel neglects a crucial component of every problem in our lives we might solve: why. We can’t ask why we feel angry or sad or frustrated or anything else if we strap on a fake smile and carefully regurgitate the “I’m grateful even though this is total shit” card. We prevent ourselves from utilizing pain in its many forms as the tool it can be: the impetus for change.
And besides, even if we do try to mask the not-so-nice thoughts and feelings with gratitude, the “whys” behind those thoughts and feelings always find another way back to us. Gratitude isn’t the magic eraser we wish it could be.
But yet, the practice of gratitude is often mistaken to be the practice of eliminating any and all negative emotions. Again, bullshit.
Anyone who thinks they’ve freed themselves from all negative thoughts and feelings is a liar. Forcing ourselves to be grateful when we’re actually feeling a multitude of other things only fuels the ridiculous practice of lying to ourselves.
So if we constantly tell ourselves and others that we’re grateful even when we’re not, how will we know when we’re being sincere? How will we know when the gratitude is real? How can we identify what’s better than it was before?
Without sincerity, we can’t know any of these things. We leave ourselves stripped of the indicators that might actually help us make a life we love—but only if used honestly.
2. When you feel it, feel it for real.
This is the part that means the most, because the only thing more important than not faking gratitude is not denying it when you truly feel it.
This feeling—an overwhelm of subtle love, glimpses of hope when we thought it had been all but lost, moments spent with special someones, the quiet times of understanding, the louder rushes of living—it’s gratitude in the raw, the inexplicable pauses in an otherwise busy existence.
This is a sincere appreciation for the things we have, no matter their significance or bearing on our lives, and this is the stuff from which we express gratitude in its truest form. Unforced, unhindered, unpredictable by nature, it bubbles up in our chests and once it rises, there’s no stopping it.
This is the real stuff. The good stuff. The stuff I can’t quite put into specific terms, because gratitude is a tricky thing to express. It’s peaceful, but not complacent; ever-changing, but not nebulous; reflective, but not foreboding or wallowing; accepting, but not without the potential for something more.
This is being grateful and actually meaning it, being as much surprised as we are comforted by these waves of thanks and serendipitous occurrences.
If it’s real, it can’t be tamed or projected. It can’t be forced. It can’t be hidden. It can only be what it is: a moment in which things rest coated in love, in peace, in a calm so rich and deep that it couldn’t be synthetically prepared.
So when I complain every now and then and people respond with a scolding that I should practice being more grateful, I smile and make a silent wish for them.
I remember the times I have felt grateful. The times I hadn’t practiced, but experienced; when I hadn’t forced, but felt. And my wish is that they, too, experience and feel what I know to be true: that gratitude is not so much a practice or means of fixing, but a thing to live when it comes; that we don’t have to be grateful when we’re not; and that we can be grateful when we are—and we can actually mean it.