Gratitude is Not an Attitude

Living Yoga


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.


Lean into Change

Ishvarapranidhana Yamas Yoga

Sarah Jamieson Yoga

“All we know about the future is that it will be different.
Perhaps, what we fear is that it will be the same.
So we must celebrate the changes.”
– Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

We’ve all heard people say it, and we’ve maybe even said it a few times ourselves: “I don’t like change.”

But, I want to challenge anyone who simply says they don’t like change. How many people wouldn’t like to suddenly have an extra $10,000? Do you know any one who doesn’t like getting an extra hour of sleep at Daylight Savings time? Would you ever turn down an extra week of vacation time?

We like change – we sometimes even love change – when it brings us things that we want. But sometimes change brings us misfortune, pain and suffering, so avoiding change feels like playing it safe. We feel like we can trust the status quo.

But the truth is that there really isn’t a status quo. The future is unknown, as Judi Dench’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel says: “All we know about the future is that it will be different.” Even if our circumstances don’t change much, we change in them. We start to look older and, as a result, the world around us changes how it responds to us. Being in the same job for 5-years is a very different experience than having been in the same job for 25-years, and we are different as a result of having that experience.

Most of us know this already. We know that change is inevitable. We know that change can bring wonderful things and that change can bring heartache. Change is certain. When we say, “I don’t like change,” what I believe we are really expressing is the very common human experience of struggling with the uncertainty that the certainty of change brings to our lives.

I struggle with uncertainty. I love you and the thought of losing you feels unbearable. The thought of that pain makes me want to freeze time and hold onto this moment as hard as I can. Because you might not be in the next one.

I struggle with uncertainty. I cannot feel at peace with the amount of money that I have because the future might bring a tragedy that prevents me from supporting myself. I need more money to protect myself and my family.

I struggle with the uncertainty of it all. It overwhelms me. I am afraid of being hurt. I am afraid of being alone. I am afraid of seeing the people I love suffer. I am afraid of losing the people I love.

I struggle with uncertainty.

There is a part of the classical yoga practice called ishvarapranidhana; this practice asks us to trust in what we cannot see or know. Most simply, it asks us to trust in the future, to loosen our grip on the attachment we have to our actions leading to specific outcomes. The practice of ishvarapranidhana requires that we give up the illusion that we can control what will happen to us and to the people around us.

Our struggle with uncertainty and our desire to protect ourselves and the people we love from pain sometimes leads us to live life with a cautious rigidity that shuts us off from the wholehearted human experience. We have an endless stream of catch phrases with which we endeavour to knock ourselves out of this gripping place: “Dance as if no one was watching, sing as if no one was listening,” “Live as if you were to die tomorrow,” and “What would you do if you knew that you could not fail?”

Brené Brown, one of my favourite writers and speakers, powerfully reframes the question above about failing, and asks: “What’s worth doing even if you fail?” The value of failure aside (perhaps for another post), the fear that our actions won’t lead to our desired outcome keeps many of us frozen. But our actions don’t predictably determine the future. The truth is that terrible things might happen no matter what you do, so lean into change. Explore it. Trust it. Take advantage of it.

Feel it when it breaks your heart – so you can feel it when it fills your heart with joy.

Photo Credit: Chris Yakimov

The Edge of Joy

Living Yoga Yoga

“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it.
It’s our
fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”
Brene Brown

If you like Sarah Jamieson Yoga on Facebook, you may have noticed a recent trend of posts referencing the work of Brene Brown – which accurately reflects the fact that I am a big fan!

Brene first caught my attention with her TED Talk The Power of Vulnerability. If you haven’t watched this talk, I highly recommend it (and have placed it at the bottom of this post). I have used ideas from this talk to theme a number of yoga classes, and I’ve also been to classes for which it was the inspiration. My second dose of Brene Brown was her second book The Gifts of Imperfection, which I just finished reading last week.

In all honesty, I want to share this whole book with the world! But, I will moderate myself and offer you the following paragraph on the difference between happiness and joy:

Anne Robertson, a Methodist pastor, writer, and executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, explains how the Greek origins of the words happiness and joy hold important meaning for us today. She explains that the Greek word for happiness is Makarios, which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries, or to describe a person who received some form of good fortune, such as money or health. Robertson compares this to the Greek word for joy which is chairo. Chairo was described by the ancient Greeks as the “culmination of being” and the “good moon of the soul.” Robertson writes, “Chairo is something, the ancient Greeks tell us, that is found only in God and comes with virtue and wisdom. It isn’t a beginner’s virtue; it comes as the culmination. They say its opposite is not sadness, but fear. (79-80)

The last line of this paragraph – positioning Joy and Fear as opposite emotions – fell into my body. I felt a subtle but profound drop, which I can only describe as a deep recognition of the weight of this truth.

By nature of being opposites, fear prevents joy.

One of the most eloquent and strikingly honest examples Brene offers of this tension between joy and fear is from her personal experience. She tells a story of peacefully watching her daughter sleep, and then, suddenly, seemingly out of no where, having the love and joy she was feeling towards her child be replaced by an encompassing fear of something terrible happening to her daughter.

She articulates this experience as “being on the edge of joy only to be overcome by vulnerability and thrown into fear,” which posits a fear of vulnerability as an obstacle to joy – and, at the same time, offers being vulnerable as a path to a more joyful life (82).

I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on being vulnerable, but I have unquestionably experienced it as a source of connection and compassion. And, I’ve found that the more honest I am with others about what scares me and what I feel insecure about the less impact these fears and insecurities have on my life.

And, even though I don’t always have the courage to wear my heart on my sleeve, I am committed to pushing past the edge of joy.