In an age of life hacks and workarounds, therapists are increasingly asked for quick fixes to the issues that bring people into therapy. Who doesn’t want a quick fix for the crud that makes us feel bad? Of course folks want some psych-hacks that will make seemingly simple goals faster and easier – we have them for everything else!
And gratitude has become a go-to psych hack. Who hasn’t heard of gratitude practice? Now that researchers have proven the health benefits of gratitude along with other mindfulness practices that Buddhists have been employing for millennia, you find them everywhere. My Facebook feed is riddled with mindfulness memes about gratitude. Even though it’s trendy, the fact remains when we pay attention to the good things in our lives, our happiness does increase. Making a daily habit of it renders us way more resilient and satisfied in most aspects of our lives, not to mention physically healthier as well. But. Gratitude is not a hack; it is something you must cultivate. And it’s not the only thing called-for when we get to feeling stressed, unlucky, anxious or alone…
“I try to stay positive. When I start complaining, I try and remind myself of how good I have it compared to most people in the world, to touch into gratitude. Gratitude makes me feel better,” said one client this week. His eyes betrayed vulnerability, begged the question. “Right? Do I feel better? Am I ok if I don’t actually experience this?” In fact, this kind of gratitude can be a short-cut that bypasses a very important step to feeling better: Actually feeling our darker emotions.
While acknowledging privilege is an important ability to have, it can also be a way of disavowing your own suffering. On the surface, it makes you feel like a good human being. . The fact that you are grateful and aware of your privilege as a white guy with an advanced degree, living safely and earning six figures does not negate the fact that when you have a communication breakdown with a colleague you feel anxiety, perhaps even a level of anxiety that causes you relationship difficulty at home.
If the goal of practicing positivity and gratitude is to feel happy, then practicing gratitude as a quick-fix won’t get you there. While gratitude is part of cultivating happiness, and it can provide a respite in a moment of self-pity, lasting happiness comes when we allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of our emotional experience – and that includes the negative, too. Putting the gratitude lid on negative emotions does not cure them; it forces them to leak out in other, less obvious ways, like creeping into our interpersonal relationships, causing low-grade depression, a general sense of anxiety and higher stress levels! Not happy!
Cutting ourselves off from parts of our own experience actually leads to more stress and depression than allowing ourselves to feel it. There is a term in psychology, Spiritual Bypassing. It happens when in an effort to transcend our smaller, egocentric selves – the ones that complain and feel sorry for ourselves – we look to spiritual concepts for solutions to human emotional experience, feel-better maxims, mantras to soothe our very human pain. When in fact what we’re doing is suppressing healthy emotional movement in our psyches. Emotions, even the difficult ones, are there for a reason – so that we can know ourselves, our consciousness depends on them, and they inspire our actions. When we refuse to acknowledge them by jumping to gratitude, we privilege spiritual development over emotional development; when, in fact, both are necessary.
To borrow more from Buddhism, when we feel emotional distress – even if we judge it to be petty, since we know we are so lucky to even have the privilege to have this problem – we must bow to it. Allow it to be, accept it, sit with it, digest it, integrate it. When we can bow to whatever emotion is present instead of jumping to gratitude, and let the difficult feeling (envy, desire, fear, shame, anxiety, grief, etc.) have some breathing room for a time, an amazing thing happens. It actually gets smaller. And as it subsides, our capacity to touch into gratitude opens.
The trouble is, this is no hack. It’s a practice. Feeling all of our emotions, and bowing to the difficult ones, is something we need to practice so that it becomes like a strong muscle that has been exercised. How do you even bow? “This feeling sucks; I don’t want to give it any air.” I get it. Here is a handy infographic by Tara Brach, American psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., with instructions.
We are inundated with news of gun violence, terrorism, climate crisis and oppression everyday. It is easy – and appropriate – for those of us privileged enough to not experience these horrors first-hand to say, “Those people have it so much worse than I do.” It’s true that perspective is important, and so is recognizing one’s privilege and practicing gratitude for our blessings. But that doesn’t negate our own very real feelings that arise within our privileged contexts. Those are real too. You are not bad because you have them. And if you want to be happy, practice gratitude for practice’s sake – not as a reaction to negative emotions – everyday.
How to practice gratitude without spiritually bypassing
- Name it to tame it – bow to your difficult emotional state by saying its name: “I’m experiencing envy.” Putting language to it both serves to acknowledge and soothes the nervous system.
- Doing this with another human who cares about you can make it easier, but you can also do it for yourself.
- Building up your capacity to tolerate difficult emotions and identify them can helps you communicate with your partner and can actually improve your relationship.
- Remember gratitude is appreciation for your blessings, not comparing to problems you don’t have.
- Keep a journal, share around the dinner table, write it on your calendar. The hack is to practice. Practice gratitude everyday and watch yourself thrive.