I remember, as a child, sitting at the dinner table refusing to eat “those disgusting peas”- I really despised peas! – and my mother telling me that I should be thankful for the food because there were starving children in China. If you are of my generation, your parents probably said something similar. Did it make you more thankful? I know it never made me feel more thankful. I was ready to box up those peas and send them overseas, if it would be helpful!
This is just a small example of how being told that we should feel thankful – or we should feel something other than what we do feel – does not actually help us to feel thankful. This includes when we turn those “shoulds” inward, and we tell ourselves that we should feel a certain way: “I should feel thankful that the situation is not worse”; “I should be thankful because I am in a better situation than the next person”; or “I should feel thankful because someone else thinks I should be thankful.”
The truth is, we feel what we feel, and no amount of “should-ing” is going to change that. As I say in my book It is What it is…Now What?!, it is important that we acknowledge the truth of where we are – this includes our feelings. Once we are honest with ourselves, we can then decide what to do about it.
Rather than trying to force ourselves to feel thankful/grateful for something that we quite honestly do not, it may be more helpful to begin to incorporate a general practice of gratitude. This can be working to become more aware of those things for which we do genuinely feel grateful. So often, our attention on those things has been pushed to the periphery of our mind while the challenges and difficulties of the day take over the main focus of our attention.
We as a species are programmed to focus more on the negative – on threats, of what is going wrong. The theory is that we have evolved to be highly attuned to the negative aspects of our environment because in order to survive, we must constantly be aware of dangers in our environment1. This tends to cause negativity to come more easily, and it takes effort to notice the good, to obtain that physiological response we get when we have true feelings of gratitude.
What to do about this? There are scientifically proven benefits of focusing on gratitude, and there are many ways to begin to incorporate a gratitude practice.2 There are a multitude of resources at our fingertips that can help us explore this area – books, videos, classes, etc. One simple way to begin is highlighted in Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage. He discusses the “Three Good Things” exercise in which each day you write down three good things that happened that day. Try not to duplicate any item for 30 days. Knowing you will need to come up with three new things each day will cause your mind to begin scanning for the positive things in your day.
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, if you are having a gathering, consider a bringing up the subject of gratitude. Perhaps you can go around the table and have each person say one thing they have been grateful for this year. Another option is to set a bowl in the middle of the room and have everyone write down one thing they have been truly grateful for.
If you are interested in incorporating gratitude more into your life, it is okay to start small as with the “Three Good Things” exercise. You are actually more likely to find success by starting small. It is much easier for us to incorporate something new into our lives if it does not take too much time and is not too difficult. Once that small practice has become a habit, we can build on it. Make it doable.
There is a huge difference between feeling like we should feel thankful/grateful and truly feeling grateful. My hope is that we can begin to focus less on “should-ing” on ourselves and focus more on remembering those things for which we truly do feel gratitude.
As for me, I am grateful that you have taken the time to read this article. Thank you. What about you? You can start right now…What are you thankful for in this moment? Got it? Congratulations! You have taken the first step in a gratitude practice. I encourage you to keep going…