Gratitude is not a simple thing. The popular view at the moment is that we, no matter how grateful we are at the moment, should all practice gratitude, a great deal more than we already do. This view makes sense on a superficial level. After all, carping and gossip are tiresome and have little value in solving the offending issue or behaviour.
What is not clear to me is how much gratitude is appropriate? Grateful for everything, all the time? Even the adverse situations and unfortunate events that are part of life? I experimented with what would that might look like.
Not complaining was a logical start down the path to gratitude. A few years ago, I did… or rather, I attempted, the 21 day ‘no-complaining challenge’ with my wife and business partner. It was much harder than we ever expected. For weeks we found ourselves falling into the same complaining traps; poisoned by the opinions of others, pervasive negativity in the news and occasionally provoking each other to express something negative, just to let off steam.
Eventually, your thoughts DO drift away from automatic negative responses and even negative thoughts. Not entirely, but a shift is perceptible; a pause inserts itself, a brief chance to NOT complain. Many times we would end up saying nothing, we found most complaining did not add anything of value, so we just shut up.
Moving from negativity to irritation is another possible step along the path to gratitude. While not complaining can be a form of complacency, annoyance, on the other hand, is not necessarily negative. Allow me to explain.
I see opportunity in almost every situation, especially in the barriers and blunders of life. Am I grateful for these delusions? It certainly get’s the creative juices going, shifting my thinking from problem to possible solution. Am I happy about the irritation that creates the opportunity? Nah.
Allow me to illustrate; the person who figures out how to make Airport Security Screening dignified, (particularly the partial disrobing and especially the public recombobulation that follows) will make billions! My mind can’t help it; it wants to solve this problem, for instance; would you pay $5, $10 or $20 to have a private room to prepare for screening?
Imagine you could go into a little room, take off your offending metal bits, shoes, belt, empty your pockets and expose all of your electronics, gels, and creams. Someone gives you a quick metal detector wand scan; your possessions are x-rayed and returned. The room could be little more than a retail store style dressing room with a full-length mirror on the back of the door. If necessary, there could be a back door to a “not visible to the public’ body scanner. You could do the ‘ballerina pose’ without being checked out by onlookers, some of whom are secretly hoping your now belt-less pants fall down (I can’t be the only one.)
Can I take advantage of this opportunity? Probably not. I have my own shit I’m dealing with.
Did it distract me from negativity? Yup
Am I grateful for the experience? Not so much.
See what I mean?
Alfie Kohn in his recent contrarian Psychology Today article “The Overselling of Gratitude” makes several points that are worth considering, here are two;
Utter and complete gratitude is unbalanced, just as being complete discontent would be.
Gratitude and its practice are complicated and a high standard to hold one’s self to, more-over it invites self-criticism and disappointment.
To my mind, while most situations and relationships can be gratitude-worthy, there are two gaps in the blanket of gratitude.
- Regret. There is nothing positive about it, even if you could rewind and repent for the deed, done or undone, it still happened. The worst thing about regret is that it is irretrievable, just as time is irretrievable.
- Negative emotions are also kind of tricky. For example, negative emotions, like the trap of feeling guilty about not feeling grateful. After all, how do you un-feel something, it is kind of like un-seeing something when you enter an unfortunate term into a search engine.
I think that a more balanced approach would be to acknowledge that allowing pleasure and relief are also forms of gratitude. Alternatively, any moment of “not-negativity” for that matter. A day-dream, recalling a pleasant memory, or my personal favourite looking forward to a future that is in a small way, better because of my personal effort or initiative.
Here is a simple example; I enjoy the anticipation and memory of a trip more than the trip itself. I am typically more grateful before, and after, what is supposed to be a pleasurable break from routine. The reason is simple; For me, anticipation is imagining a perfect reality, one without inconvenience, irritation and certainly without jet-lag, dog shit on the sidewalk or overcharged by opportunistic cab drivers.
Reflection, after the fact, can turn those same inconveniences and irritating experiences into part of an exciting adventure, at the very least a story or anecdote.
So, am I grateful or even cheerful at any given moment? Not always, perhaps hardly ever. The difference is that, at the very least, I do not feel guilty about it. I do not feel the need to be grateful, or even feel the need to pretend. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to feel the need to appear easy-going and grateful, no matter what. However, that is a whole other level of self-deprecation and failure to live up to self-imposed impossible standards.
One way I fall down in my expression of my feelings in the moment is that I lack the genius to express myself in a humourous way. The entire premise of Seinfeld, for example, is comic genius. It is hilarity in the face of life’s daily frustrations. Any sentence that starts with “What’s up with…..” or “Ever notice….” or ends with “…not that there’s anything wrong with that” is most definitely not an expression of gratitude or in the latter case even tolerance. Seinfeld, while, an acknowledgement of the not so cheerful reality of life, gives a nod to the fact that you do not have to be grateful to have a pleasant and amusing experience of life. Come to think of it, much of the show was in fact about the acceptance of peoples differences and shortcomings, not how to change them. I guess what I am trying to say is that, in the end, what I am really grateful for is, Seinfeld.
Also published on Medium.