It's time to take back gratitude. I'm talking real gratitude — the science-backed, bona fide practice of taking a timeout to count your blessings. The powerful practice that can rewire your brain for appreciation and altruism.
Why? Because somewhere between New Age and the dawn of the Age of Social Media, gratitude got hijacked. People dressed it up and paraded it around as another girl in the positivity pageant. The hashtag came with all kinds of subliminal messages, like #grateful ("Look at how awesome my life is!"). Or worse, #grateful ("Look at how stoically I put up with crap i shouldn't), #blessed (and a positive spin makes me sound like a nice girl).
But gratitude isn't just another word for positivity. And to mistake it for that can undermine the very benefits of gratitude that you keep hearing about.
That turns gratitude into a cross you can use to bear anything that happens to you — and you end up accepting and swallowing bad things that you really, totally shouldn't have to.
What gratitude, real gratitude, requires of us first and foremost is that you see what something is clearly and honestly. It requires a heaping dose of humility, heart, and a willingness to heal. And science shows, when you flex your gratitude muscle, you not only boost your brain's optimism — you are more apt to spread the love to others. Gratitude is a giant spiral, starting from you, that makes your corner of the world a healthier, happier, more compassionate place to be.
When we mistake gratitude for a cheap, silly knockoff, we sidestep the benefits. Here's how to tell the difference between real gratitude, and hashtag nonsense.
Gratitude isn't a backdoor brag
Put a hashtag in front of grateful or blessed and the meaning is forever perverted: It's become the au courant version of "Look how awesome my life is! But I'm #humble, so don't hate me."
Real gratitude isn't about highlighting the "looks-unfiltered-but-it-totally-is" version of your life. Actually, gratitude isn't about what other people think at all — it's a gift of introspection. Sharing your gratitude with the intention of lifting someone else or gifting them with a little piece of yourself is a powerful thing to do. Lobbing it at them like a pee-filled water balloon to inspire jealousy is not only rude — it undermines the very purpose of the practice.
Gratitude shouldn't feel like putting lipstick on a pig
Expressing gratitude for the light side of the darkest moments of your life is a powerful way to rebuild after you've been knocked down. It's deeply healing to honor the lessons learned from a breakup, cherish the wisdom gained from intense personal grief, and the roads you were pushed down you otherwise may never have explored.
But you can't magically make a bad thing good through the power of magical thinking — in fact, that kind of denial can lead to the neglect of wounds and a heightening of crisis. I went through a phase where I did this a lot. "Well, if my mom hadn't died, I never would have moved to NYC and met my husband, and I wouldn't have this awesome new stepfamily!" For a while, it morphed my grief into a weird, nihilistic space where her death was somehow "meant to be."
No. No no no no.
Some things are just awful. They just, through and through, absolutely suck. But, when you finally sit with suffering and loss, your reward is a wellspring of wisdom and a real confrontation with the real you — your stripped down, bare bones, core self.
Specificity is key. Don't be grateful that bad things happen — that's insane. Be grateful that good can be mined from even the worst situations — and go ahead and bless, kiss, and praise each hard-earned jewel.
Gratitude is a creative practice
I know, I know: You've heard everyone from Oprah to your mom's best friend tout the benefits of gratitude journals. You've read the articles — and you know they're right. And maybe, once upon a time, you gave it a go and scribbled down your thanks for your family, your job, and your coffee over and over — to no avail.
To strengthen and flex your gratitude muscle, you must be creative in how you practice.
Get specific. It's better to write three to five detailed, highly specific things down than ten generic bullet points. "The way my husband cackles at Parks and Rec" is much more potent than "I am grateful for my marriage."
Think outside the journal. You can write each moment down and store them in a pretty jar or box by your bedside. You can decorate a board with washi tape and pin them up (with the added bonus of seeing them every day). You could fill a dry erase calendar every day, watch the month fill up, and reflect at the end of each cycle. Whatever makes your inner kindergartner excited to practice gratitude — do THAT.
Use variety to spice it up. Never write the same thing twice. Even if it feels like the same thing, find a fresh take. What new aspect or angle can you highlight? What was different about it this time?
Don't shy away from the deep or the dark. What scares you most in this moment? What worry is relentlessly running through your brain's treadmill? Sit with that thing. Again, you can't magic a tragedy into a blessing. As yoga pro and bestselling author Seane Corn says, "Before you say 'Bless you,' you have to say 'F*&k you.'" But, when you've come out the other side, nothing inspires more hope or confidence than seeing how the fires of suffering or the dark of the unknown humble and refine you into your best self. So bless the dark for a better you — after you've told it to go f*&k itself a few times.