What we get wrong about gratitude


My social media feeds are brimming with words and images of gratitude this week. The vast majority speak of pleasant things - good food, loved ones, warm fires and the like.

There’s something so seductive about this kind of gratitude, isn’t there? It invites us to turn away from life’s messiness and problems, to spend our holidays wrapped in hygge and hot buttered rum, safe in our belief that though the world outside can be chaotic and cruel, life really isn’t so bad as long as we have food, presents and each other.

It struck me today that gratitude might be one of the most overcommodified, underappreciated emotions in our culture right now.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being grateful for the nice things and good people in our lives (I certainly am!). But as a society, I think we tend to overfocus on the pleasant side of gratitude, the side we associate with material comfort, joyful moments, happy thoughts.

This approach to gratitude is easy when everything’s going your way, but it tends to fall apart as soon as life gets hard, devolving into a series of judgmental “should”’s that make us feel even worse. How many times have you thought, in the midst of a difficult time, “Other people have it so much worse. I should be grateful right now!” or, “I have food on the table and a roof over my head. I should be grateful! So why am I unhappy?”

What if there were another side of gratitude, one that called upon us not to look away from life’s problems but to gaze upon them openly, honestly, even lovingly?

To open our doors and invite our whole, messy, complicated selves inside rather than shut away the parts we do not like? What might come from approaching gratitude in this way?

I don’t mean to suggest we must be grateful for our problems and anxieties or argue that we should try to find the silver lining. Instead, I’m suggesting that perhaps we can practice being grateful for the possibilities our difficult experiences open up for us--for growth, for courage, for wisdom.

Perhaps we can allow our struggles and our messiness to become the fertile ground from which compassion and resilience bloom.

There is a concept in Buddhism that everyone (and everything, really) is a teacher, even and especially the most difficult, frustrating people, because they reveal to us all of the ways that we bump into our own egos and generally get in our own way. I would add that they remind us, too, of our shared human condition, our collective frailty and brilliance.

This week, I invite you to practice the other side of gratitude. What are the hard, messy things in your life right now? What wisdom can they offer? Who can they allow you to become?