I’ve liked rhymes for as long as I can remember. It took me years to appreciate un-rhyming poems. There is something magical about the experience of a rhyme. I think that is why we have so many rhyming expressions – like “have an attitude of gratitude.”
But, as awesome as that rhyme sounds, I think it is misleading.
For me, the idea of “having an attitude of gratitude” implies that I should be able to effortlessly exist in a place where gratitude becomes my orientation and frames my way of responding. The rhyme is supposed to help promote the practice of gratitude, but instead, it has actually made me feel badly about myself – like if I can’t see everything through rose coloured glasses, there must be something wrong with me. I’ve wondered if I were a better, or more spiritual person, if gratitude would arise more naturally from within. I can cognitively understand that I might feel better if I was focused on the blessings amidst my challenges, but sometimes that is not where my focus falls. Sometimes things are heavy and really hard, and I don’t want to talk about the lessons I am learning through the hardship. I want to allow space for the sadness in my heart.
When I first read Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, I felt a weight of “pressure to be positive” lifted off my shoulders. Haidt writes about a concept called the “negativity bias” and he explains that “over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things.” Why?
Because reacting faster, stronger, and harder to threats and unpleasantness can be essential to our survival.
Imagine, for example, you were sitting beside a lake, watching the sun set behind the mountains. You just finished a gorgeous hike and you are resting with people you love. As you enjoy the moment, an alligator starts to crawl up onto the shore beside you.
In a moment like this one, we are wired to start paying a lot more attention to the alligator than to the sunset. As humans, we aren’t wired to focus first on what we are grateful for; we are wired to prioritize what might threaten or hurt us. We have an inherent negativity bias.
Are we doomed to be gloomy pessimists?
No. But by simply reminding ourselves to take an “attitude of gratitude”, we aren’t acknowledging that we are working against the way we are wired or honouring that doing so can be a challenging task. A task that requires far more effort than the whimsical rhyme lets us know.
So, how do we focus more on what we love and appreciate? Simply, we practice. We practice expressing gratitude in the easier moments, so that it becomes easier in the harder moments. Brene Brown shares in her book The Gifts of Imperfection that “without exception, every person [she] interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.”
She goes on to explain how she used to think that joyful people were grateful as a result of being joyful, but all of her research found that wasn’t the case. Practicing gratitude breeds joy – not the other way around.
Practicing gratitude can take many different forms – writing in a journal, doing an art project, using a gratitude app, meditating or praying. The form is less important than the consistent effort. And, even if your practice isn’t as consistent as you would like, there is good news: in The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor shares that studies have found that even a small a period of practicing gratitude has a lasting impact on your tendency to feel appreciative and joyful. Why? Because you have strengthened the neurological pathways that look for what is good in your life.
The yogic concept of samskaras essentially teaches us the same thing: Every time you do or think something, you increase the likelihood that you will do or think it again. Which ironically also further illustrates why, as creatures wired to focus on the potential threats in our environment, it is so challenging to cultivate gratitude!
If you want some guidance on how to start, Achor suggests writing down three things you are grateful for before you go to sleep for 21 days.
And, if you want some more inspiration, watch one or both of these clips of Brene Brown talking about the relationship between gratitude and joy:
What I’ve shared in this blog post has helped me find a greater sense of freedom and acceptance, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share it with you.