There’s no getting around it: thankfulness is good for us.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely have days when I just don’t feel all that thankful or grateful, when the guy when sits next to me on the bus drips water all over my previously dry pants, a favorite store is unexpectedly out of business, or my doctor tells me to avoid a favorite food.
And that’s just the small stuff. Then there are the jobs that fail, opportunities lost, disappointments in love, the seemingly endless crises around the world, and the deaths of friends. Sometimes, when the pundits of the world tell us to be thankful, frankly, I’d like to tell them to shove it with the stuffing, where the sun don’t shine. Note to good-looking millionaires writing self-help books: don’t tell me what to feel. Thanks.
For years, I’ve wondered and examined why religion, spirituality and psychology aren’t more effective at changing us than they are. After all, they encourage us constantly to be our best selves: to let go of hate and love others, to stop being angry and be peaceful, to practice honesty and integrity and virtue, to let go of poverty-consciousness and be generous. That’s all good stuff, right? And once in a while, you can find someone who is actually a model for these ideals, and when you do, you can be blown away by them and be inspired to go and do likewise. True.
If we’re honest with ourselves, isn’t there something in human nature that wants to reject good advice? That gets ticked off, even, when others tell us what’s good for us? When we’re children, and our parents tell us to eat our vegetables and go to bed early because “it’s good for you,” we tend to want to toss the broccoli to the dog and sneak out of bed to see what they’re watching on late-night TV. This tendency does not disappear just because you gain a few years and pounds.
And sometimes, it feels good to complain—or seems to. There can be a sense of release, of getting something off your chest, of lodging your protest against all the unfairness in the world. You wonder if maybe thankfulness and gratitude are all they’re cracked up to be.
Ironically, these kinds of doubts and questions can come up most strongly at this time of year, when we’re bombarded for months with messages reminding us to be at our most grateful. Because, if we’re going to talk turkey about it, it’s also well known that the holidays are a stressful time for many people. December turns out to be the most stressful month for couples, gulfbreezerecovery.com reports, citing a study that found all of the financial concerns of the holidays put the pressure on them; the Christmas period is hardest on employees; and, for women, it’s the most stressful time of the entire year.
These are certainly issues tackled by Sarah Starrs in her piece, “The Healing Power of Complaining.” Describing a time in her life when thankfulness was hard to come by and complaining was tempting, she writes, “‘Well, my back and leg really hurt …I’m still nauseous a lot of the time and I couldn’t even have imagined this level of exhaustion before getting pregnant.’ Without even meaning to, this list of complaints begins falling from my lips. Instantly I feel a little bit lighter. It was tempting to answer with the standard, ‘I’m fine, thanks.’ But now I’m not alone with this. My friend knows where I’m at.”
Of course, like most of us, she has second thoughts, maybe some guilt: “Even still, my body tenses almost instinctively and a voice in the back of my head pipes up with: ‘You’re bringing down the vibe. You can choose to see love instead of this.’ In the past I would have identified this as…the voice of truth. The voice of my intuition.”
But she questions further: “Now I’m not so sure. Those aren’t my words, and are they really coming from a more honest place inside of me? Because what I said felt…like the most real explanation I could offer right now.”
This kind of soul-searching is valuable, even if it is sometimes difficult, as it clearly was for Sarah. It’s hard, because it goes against the grain of what we’re usually told to think about defending our complaining or lack of gratitude. And, we fear, it goes against what’s true and best for us.
It turns out, it does. And that’s what makes it really hard. Because, as I said at the beginning, thankfulness is good for us. Science has proven it.
Dan Mager, MSW, the author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain, reports in Psychology Today that “numerous scientific studies have documented a wide range of benefits that come with gratitude,” and that “These are available to anyone who practices being grateful, even in the midst of adversity,” including those facing death, chronic illness or pain, and “and those in recovery from addiction.” And just in case you thought you might still wiggle away, they offer “Research-based reasons for practicing gratitude” which include:
- Gratitude increases contentment, improves mood, and reduces anxiety and depression.
- Gratitude promotes physical health, by lowering blood pressure, boosting the immune system, and lessening the effects of illness and pain.
- Gratitude enhances sleep.
- Gratitude strengthens relationships. Partners who express gratitude for each other experience greater satisfaction in their relationship.
Mager goes on to present two specific techniques for practicing thankfulness and gratitude: writing gratitude letters and making gratitude lists. He explains that “A gratitude letter is one you write to someone in your life to express appreciation for ways they have helped you and/or been there for you…A gratitude list consists of writing down 3 – 5 things for which you’re grateful every day, each week, at other intervals, or under situation-specific circumstances.”
He then makes what I think are some very valuable suggestions about these practices, relative to balancing them with the concerns that Starrs raises, when he writes:
“You can test the effectiveness of these methods by tuning in to your current emotion(s), mood, and attitude. Once you’ve done that, take a few minutes and identify 3 things or people that you are grateful for and briefly describe to yourself or in writing the reason(s) for your gratitude. Then notice how the way you feel has shifted after doing this simple brief exercise.”
In other words, don’t just employ these methods (or any methods) blindly. Don’t make the mistake that Starrs warns us about, and run roughshod over how you actually feel. Mager is also advocating for asking why we feel gratitude, and for checking in with ourselves again afterward and paying careful attention to the results. If it doesn’t help, drop it. As the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung wryly observed, “Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.”
Years ago, I attended a workshop conducted by David K. Reynolds, who had developed a sort of spiritual psychotherapy that he called “Constructive Living.” He explained that he had drawn ideas extensively from two Japanese systems, Naikan and Morita Therapy, and added some ideas of his own, in part adapting his Asian sources for Westerners. After a brief introduction, he asked us to do an exercise: to take out pen and paper and spend a few minutes writing down everyone we could think of who had helped us get there to the workshop that morning.
He didn’t start with any mention of gratitude, just a practical, nuts and bolts look at the supporting players in our lives, such as the bus driver or train conductor who got us there; the cooks and waitstaff in the restaurant where we stopped for breakfast; the engineers who had built the buses and trains; the farmers who had grown the wheat in our bagels, the truckers who had moved it from the Midwest, the cows that provided our milk, the weather forecasters who helped us figure out what to wear, the factory workers in the plant that made our pencils…well, you get the idea. If you carry the exercise out to its natural limits, you discover that it doesn’t seem to have any. You end up throwing in the woman who discovered how to start a fire and the guy who first refined metal. The inventor of toilet paper and contact lenses. It’s endless.
The beauty of this approach, I found, is that it doesn’t order us to “be thankful,” or “practice gratitude,” in that eat-your-peas and drink-your-cod-liver-oil spirit that puts our backs up and makes us want to misbehave just to spite whoever has decided to be our life-coach for the day. It just said: “Take a look at your actual situation. See all the people and places and things your life depends upon.” It doesn’t demand a particular interpretation. But I can tell you, when you do it, first comes a feeling of amazement at how closely your wellbeing is tied to the actions of countless others; second is often a natural, unforced feeling of genuine thankfulness to them, in part because the decency in us causes us to realize we hadn’t been giving credit where credit is due. Something softens inside.
As Sarah Starrs puts it, “Almost all of us have been taught to slap a smile over our discontent and just get on with things. Yet we’re also striving to be our most authentic selves…Where does the line between being real and not complaining fall?”
I like her answer to the question: “I’ve concluded that it’s not really complaining but dwelling (on our grievances) that causes the problem. This is what causes us to get stuck.” We get caught in a loop of negative thinking, which produces negative feelings, which creates all kinds of tension and holding in our bodies, which eventually can lead to health issues—which we then complain about. In other words, complaining itself can become an addiction, through excessive repetition.
Instead, she says, “being real is just honesty about where we’re at, admitting that we don’t have it all figured out, and being light-handed with our pain – allowing ourselves to feel it but also giving it space to move and dissipate… Complain when you need to but cultivate the self-awareness of when it’s expression and when it’s indulgent dwelling. It sounds simple but it’s not easy.”
This careful balancing of knowing what we’re really feeling, not faking it to make others comfortable or fulfill some early parental or societal programming, with mindfully moving into an exploration of thankfulness and seeing where it leads us can bring us into a place where we can reap the benefits to us that all the research says gratitude can have, when it’s real, without putting ourselves down or getting ahead of what we’re capable of feeling or doing in a given moment. Our complaints and our gratitude are both part of the spectrum of being fully human, and both can be embraced in the practice of consciousness and kindness towards ourselves and others.
If you find it too hard to be thankful or grateful toward your family or the world, be grateful to yourself—as long as it’s for all the right reasons. Be grateful you entered and stayed in recovery. Be grateful for recovery itself. Be thankful that you found the strength to do it. Be thankful toward those that actually stood by you and helped without judging you. Be thankful for all of the things you love and enjoy. Be thankful for whatever problems have left your life for good. Find the places inside yourself where thankfulness is natural, and lean into them lightly. Don’t fake it.
At the least, be thankful that Thanksgiving is now over, and you won’t have to see the crazy uncle who still calls you by that awful childhood nickname for another year. We do what we can, and sometimes that’s good enough.