Embracing More Gratitude and Positivity (Without Wanting to Roll Your Eyes)
I have a complicated relationship with gratitude.
On the one hand, I value it. Heavily. I work hard to be a grateful, positive person – especially when my impulse is to slide back toward my natural cynicism. Focusing on the negative is easy, which is why it’s so comfortable to land there and stay put. But there’s nothing brave or admirable about that choice. And it’s no fun to live life that way (or, frankly, to be around it). So doing the work to stay open and hopeful feels worthwhile.
But on the other hand... I sometimes find myself resisting gratitude and positivity. It usually happens in situations where I think I have to choose between gratitude, and something else that deeply matters to me, too.
Like staying informed about the state of the world, for example.
Or giving myself permission to feel disappointed.
I know I’m not the only one with this complicated relationship with gratitude and positivity.
American culture is obsessed with happiness, joy, and other feel-good feelings. We chase them relentlessly, for reasons that makes sense on the surface. (They feel good!) But that obsession warps our thinking.
The more fixated we get on achieving happiness, the more we start to forget that discomfort is part of the human experience, too – and the more we start to interpret those ‘negative’ feelings as signs that we’ve screwed up somehow. When we feel sadness or anxiety or fear, we often jump to the conclusion that we must be ‘doing it wrong’ – so we scramble to fix them and make them go away.
So often, we reach for gratitude as a fix, to replace a more uncomfortable feeling. We try to steer ourselves away from things like fear or frustration or hopelessness by dangling “I should be grateful for…” reminders in front of ourselves like shiny objects, as a way of (hopefully) getting back to feeling good again.
But the belief that we must pick a lane and commit to either being positive or negative, happy or sad, blissfully ignorant or informed-and-cynical… that’s where we have it wrong.
We don’t have to choose one over the other.
The truth is, when we try to shove ourselves into a more grateful state of mind to stave off whatever uncomfortable thing we’re feeling, it almost always fails – for a few reasons.
That brand of 'gratitude' doesn’t feel sincere. We wind up telling ourselves all the things we know we should feel grateful for, even when actual feelings of gratitude could not feel further away. Instead of letting ourselves feel the pain or disappointment, we say to ourselves, “I shouldn’t be feeling so ___. I have so much to be grateful for – my family, my health, my home...” But those ‘should’s are empty, and totally disconnected from the emotions we’re actually experiencing in the moment. Which is where the eye-rolling begins.
It feeds into the lie that a grateful person never has a bad day. Whoever said ‘gratitude’ was contingent on never feeling crappy? If that were true, we’d all be doomed to be hopeless curmudgeons.
By its nature, it’s rooted in shame. Rattling off a list of things we know we should feel grateful for, in a moment when we’re feeling our lowest, just makes us feel ashamed or guilty for having those feelings. Plus, it’s kind of a jerk thing to do to ourselves – you wouldn’t say those things to a friend who was having a rough time, would you?
As long as we keep using gratitude as a distraction or a band-aid for our discomfort, or a reminder of how we should be feeling, it will keep making us feel worse. And that’s sort of ironic, isn’t it? Because the whole point of gratitude is to feel grateful. Open to positivity… not strong-armed into it.
The amazing thing is, some part of us deep down already knows this is a flawed strategy. It’s the same part of us that wants to roll our eyes or throw something when we start rattling off the things we ‘should’ feel grateful for.
So, we know there must be a better way. We know there’s a better answer to the question of how to be more positive, besides shaming and shoving ourselves back toward happiness with shallow reminders of how we should feel. But what does it look like?
The answer, I believe, starts with a metaphor.
If you think of your emotional baseline as your soil, the key is to treat gratitude more like fertilizer, and less like weed killer. In other words, you can’t expect gratitude or positive thinking to serve you if you’re only using them to try and kill off uncomfortable feelings and experiences when they crop up.
Gratitude and positivity are things we have to tend to and cultivate all the time. Not by trying to avoid unpleasant facts and feelings, but by acknowledging them and then continuing to tend to our soil anyway.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what gratitude looks like for me personally, and how I can cultivate more of it in a way that feels genuine without denying myself the opportunity to feel discomfort, or turning my back on the ugliness and injustices that exist in the world. Because Pollyannaism has never felt true to who I am.
And more than anything, my perspective about gratitude these days boils down to this: accepting reality, AND staying open to possibility. Both, at the same time.
Because being alive and human means there will always be highs and lows. Good days and bad days. Joy and sorrow. News that elates you, and news that defeats you. Moments when you feel full of hope, and others when you can’t find it to saves your life.
Weeds will pop up. You get to decide how quickly they take over the whole garden.
One point I want to be sure to clarify: I don’t want to seem completely tone-deaf here. The role of privilege of all kinds in this conversation has to be acknowledged, and it is not lost of me that there are many for whom ‘feeling more positive’ or ‘choosing happiness’ is not simply a choice in the way that it might be fore me. This is not an attempt to shame anyone into being more grateful when the hand they’ve been dealt presents serious obstacles. But to the extent that each of us is able, we owe it to ourselves to cultivate that positive baseline as well, as honestly, and as often as we can.
A Few Tips for How to Be More Positive, Without the Eye-Roll Factor
Shoot for wholeness over happiness. Remember, ‘negative’ feelings and discomfort aren’t inherently bad. Let yourself feel them as they happen, let them move through you, and remind yourself that they’re normal and NOT a sign that you messed up.
Own your ability to pause, to question, and to reframe. When you're feeling especially stuck in a negativity rut, take a moment to really examine the facts, your feelings, and your assumptions. Ask yourself: Is what I’m saying to myself about this situation true? Is there another way I could look at this? Is there something I can do to change this? Be gentle, open, and curious – that’s not the same as being naive.
Stop wasting energy fight the unchangeable. To the extent that something is unchangeable, whether permanently or just for now: accept what is as reality. Staying upset at a thing that isn't about to change is wasted energy. So give yourself the permission and patience to have whatever reaction you need to (whether you need to grieve, or feel frustrated, or shout into a pillow) and then either move toward a solution, or take a deep breath and move forward.
Free yourself up to notice and receive little unexpected surprises. Once you’ve accepted what’s true and unchangeable (even if it's just for now): what little gifts in your environment can you pause to notice, that might suddenly make your reality just a little more joyful, easy, or pleasant?
I’ll give you a small example. Joe and I got home late one night last weekend, and had to park in the lot furthest away from our building. The second we pulled into our parking spot, it started pouring – and of course, we had no coats or umbrellas. After about 30 seconds of cursing the rain and kicking myself for not grabbing an umbrella on our way out – I surrendered to the reality that we were gonna get wet. But then! About halfway through our sloshy jog from the car to the front door, I noticed the sidewalk was shaded by a giant tree… and the pavement under it was completely dry. A tiny unexpected little gift from nature, and just noticing it turned my whole mood around.
Now, I’d love to hear from you
Which of these tips jumps out at you, and which one could you decide to focus on for the next week to cultivate more positivity and gratitude in your daily life? Or, do you have another go-to tactic for staying positive? Let me know!