The Struggle Towards Gratitude

  • Copy by: Sarah Seung-McFarland

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person, determined not to look back with regrets. I spent most of my twenties working towards a doctoral degree in counseling psychology, a career I could be proud of. With aspirations to do clinical work with children and research meaningful topics like self-esteem and identity, I fantasized about making a difference in the lives of young girls who were otherwise capable but troubled and needed a guiding hand. My creative instincts and love for fashion and design were temporarily swept to the side while I attempted to tackle what I perceived as a formidable and time-consuming career choice.

I wasn’t certain what my life would look life on the other side of the degree but I was stimulated by the pursuit of it, and the opportunity to be more than I thought I’d been. The years in grad school were stressful but I lived for the rewards along the way, and the sense of completion that would come with graduation. In retrospect, my ambition pushed me forward but I was often missing an important ingredient for happiness during those years—gratitude.

Gratitude is a popular concept these days, and maybe you’re even rolling your eyes at the very mention of it. It’s kind of like the 2000 teens equivalent to the 90s “positive thinking” phenomenon and sometimes too much of a good thing can simply wear us out. But the concept of gratitude has been around a long time. And you’d be hard-pressed not to find some form of it mentioned in any of the major religions of the world.

I often get so caught up in my proverbial to-do list that I really don’t practice gratitude like I should

Gratitude is actually quite a simple concept: Be thankful for what you have. It’s one we learned way back in kindergarten, right along with share and always tell the truth (how’s that working out for you?). For some, being optimistic and thankful comes naturally. Others have to work harder at it. That’s me. On the spot, I’ll probably tell you I’m thankful for all I have and really mean it—or at least try to. But between you and me, I often get so caught up in my proverbial to-do list that I really don’t practice gratitude like I should. But thankfully (wink, wink), I’m getting much better at it. As with anything that requires practice, it needs to be done consistently to have an impact. There are all sorts of research and literature that tell you how to practice gratitude effectively. But just because you know to do something, doesn’t mean you do it.

Here some of my insights that may make it a little easier to weather the struggle and practice gratitude this year.

Gratitude and Complacency Don’t Have to Be Friends

There’s an often unspoken idea that if you take the time to appreciate what you have, you lose your ambition and lack the focus to move forward. Somehow concepts such as satisfaction and appreciation have been linked in our cultural consciousness with laziness and failure, even though we know it shouldn’t. This type of thinking can explain much of the anxiety we experience in our daily lives.

Remember in elementary school when we thought we couldn’t be best friends with Shaina AND Amanda? We felt we had to choose. And it was only with maturity that we learned it was OK to have different friends because each one added something unique to our lives. It may have taken a few heartaches and tears, but eventually we let go of our rigid thinking—and we can do the same with our ideas about gratitude.

having gratitude does not make you complacent

In fact, research shows that having gratitude does not make you complacent but actually has the opposite effect. It helps you manage stress better and inspires you to do more with what you have. So it is possible to practice gratitude and have ambition. Be satisfied with what you have, and still strive to improve your life. Before I entered graduate school, I thought I’d feel settled once I got accepted and started the program. Then when I was in school, I thought I’d feel settled when I graduated. But when I graduated, I thought I would only feel settled once I got my license. And I never felt satisfied for long because my “happy place” kept getting pushed farther and farther away.

The allure of unchecked ambition is that you are always chasing your sweet spot, until you realize that it isn’t somewhere in the future, but it’s available to you now. And the key to feeling happy now, and not just in some elusive future, is to be thankful—thankful for the good and through the bad.

Gratitude Can Save a Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

But of course, most people aren’t thinking of gratitude during frustrating, irritable moments. Sometimes we just need to let it out and vent our frustrations. And who doesn’t love a good vent session? It can be a much needed stress reliever during a challenging day. But if all we do is vent without any insight into how our constant complaints may be impacting our well-being, and the well-being of those around us, it becomes a problem.

many of us have bonded with others over our daily frustrations and formed friendships in the name of misery

In fact, many of us have bonded with others over our daily frustrations and formed friendships in the name of misery. But if those relationships do not evolve pass common frustrations, it can have nasty side effects. For one, we may be hesitant to express a more positive outlook for fear of creating tension with our frustrated friends, which consequently keeps us stuck in our miserableness. Fortunately there are other, healthier ways to enhance our sense of well-being and connectedness—like practicing gratitude.

Research show that when we are thankful for things and others around us, it forces us to focus on the present moments and the interconnectedness of life. So in the midst of a difficult day, take a few minutes to be grateful for the small things—a compliment, a lunch date with a friend, or whatever it is that makes you smile. It really works if you practice it and can have a major impact on how you perceive and tackle the challenges you’re experiencing.

Not to mention, when you feel good, it rubs off on others, which in turn rubs off on another set of others. And before you know it your appreciation not only helped you to have some good moments in the midst of a difficult day, but also created a ripple effect that resulted in a bunch of good moments for other people you may have never met. So the question is: When you have multiple good moments in a bad day, is it still a bad day? You decide.

Don’t Wait to Gratitude Your Attitude

For many people, these words will go in one ear and out the other. (Or, one eye and out the other?) And I don’t blame them. It can be really difficult to put into practice something you may not be used to doing. Sometimes what we know intellectually doesn’t connect with us emotionally, because our emotional life is so much more vivid and accessible to us. This makes it easy to react to our feelings. But when we have to put something into practice, like gratitude, it takes a little more forethought and energy, and may seem difficult to do.

But there have been plenty of negative-minded people who have changed their perspective just by being thankful consistently. We are at the brink of a new year, and what better time to upgrade your attitude with a little gratitude.

Each day write down at least one thing you were grateful for that day, no matter how minute. But don’t just stop there—think about why it was good and how it made you feel. Or, when you’re in the midst of a rough day, make a conscious effort to notice things, big or small, that make you smile or inspire you, and ponder it for several minutes. If those don’t work for you, perhaps you have another way of practicing gratitude.

Whatever you choose, do it consistently (especially during challenging moments), and I bet it’ll make a difference in your outlook.

How do you find gratitude in life’s tough moments? Share with us in the comments below.