We’ve all seen the statistics, hashtags, and articles by now: gratitude is good for us. But cultivating gratitude can be a tricky pursuit. The issue is not our ability to be grateful but our misconceptions about gratitude. We tend to think gratitude as a glowing and fleeting feeling when we witness or experience something meaningful. For some, gratitude is short-lived. For others, it’s abundant. Gratitude, like most positive traits, requires intention and practice.
But what about when optimism doesn’t come easily? Is it possible to change your life outlook when things are tough? The simple answer is: yes. But it takes practice. Just like we need to exercise to keep our muscle mass healthy, it takes time and persistence to build those layers of mental strength that allow us to see life through a loving lens, even during our worst times.
What Gets in the Way of Gratitude
The Striver’s Curse
The Striver’s Curse leads people to live a life of comparison. The curse steals joy, mobilizes your Gremlins, and atrophies your gratitude muscles. Arthur Brooks (From Strength to Strength) has focused the last decade on the dilemma. In his philosophical pilgrimage, he uncovered that a culprit of success addiction stems from objectifying ourselves.
“When we think ‘I am my job,’” Brooks writes, “We become [Karl] Marx’s heartless work overlord to ourselves, cracking the whip mercilessly, seeing ourselves as nothing more than Homo economicus.” However, when we trade The Striver’s Curse for the optimist’s opportunity, we turn our future, as Brooks philosophizes, “from a matter of dread to an opportunity to progress.”
Expressing gratitude can often come with feelings of guilt or embarrassment. Many of us worry that we’ll appear as though we are bragging or trying too hard to be positive. A gratitude practice isn’t just for Pollyannas or the good times in our lives. Of course, the world isn’t perfect. Of course, you’re allowed to have bad days. Gratitude and toxic positivity are not the same.
Toxic positivity comes from feeling uncomfortable with difficult situations and uncomfortable emotions. Often well-intentioned, it causes feelings of disconnection, invalidating the experiences, interpretation, or emotional reaction of what is happening. Being grateful isn’t about rewriting reality; it’s about seeing the beauty still there, even when the mirror is foggy.
An Aversion to Endings
Endings abound in life. It could be the death of a person, the loss of a job, becoming an empty nester, a divorce, or a move. There is no other way to say it–changes, transitions, and endings are hard. And midlife may be filled with more transitions than at any other time. It can be almost impossible to feel grateful for some transitions. How can you muster gratitude when you don’t feel there is something to be thankful for? It is possible–It may take a period of being in the Doldrums, but it is possible to find joy again. It takes work.
Practicing gratitude shifts how you see the world, shining light in the dark corners of hopelessness. When there is a tragic loss of a loved one, for example, gratitude is the force that eventually will enable you to accept and even celebrate that person’s place in the world and your life. For those shifting from one season to the next, gratitude pulls us out of longing for the past and places our attention back on the acceptance, potential and wonder of the present.
My dear friend, Craig, recently lost his 98-year-old father. After the loss, Craig reflected on how his dad aged with grace until the very end of his long and well-lived life.
“You know Barb, he didn’t grow old bitter; he grew old and grateful,” he told me.
How to Build Your Gratitude Muscles
Get Proximate to Suffering
Yes, you read that right–and I don’t mean getting proximate to make you feel luckier by the laws of relative suffering. When you join forces with other purpose-driven people, you become imbued with the universal energy of pursuing a shared mission. When you work (paid or unpaid) in service of the people and things you care about, you will find yourself beginning your day with gratitude for what is and with the energy to somehow make even a tiny dent in what could be.
“If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering,” Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of The Equal Justice Initiative, says, “you will find the power to change the world.” Be willing to feel. Be willing to empathize. Be willing to be there for those who need you. Be in community. And your time affluence and gratitude muscles will be stronger for it.
Practice Realistic Optimism
“Tragic optimism,” a phrase coined by the existential-humanistic psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl reminds us that life is replete with hope and meaning and full of pain and suffering. Researchers who study post-traumatic growth posit that we can grow during difficult times, having a greater appreciation of our lives and relationships and increased compassion, altruism, purpose, utilization of personal strengths, spiritual development, and creativity. However, it’s not the traumatic event that leads to growth, but rather how we process the event and integrate the lessons learned into our lives during and after.
Tragic, or as I prefer, realistic optimism calls us to search for and savor meaning even amid the inevitable indignities of human existence. It calls us to understand that life is full of woes and wonders–and we can learn and grow from both.
Bound into New Beginnings
Virginia Woolf famously asserted: “A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” We’ve all heard the maxim that “every ending is a new beginning.” Rather than becoming paralyzed by overthinking what’s concluded, what if you reflect on the privilege of having experienced something or someone so wonderful?
That’s the beauty of the changing seasons of our lives; at the starting line of each season, there’s a little bit of mystery and madness. You never know what opportunity could fall in your lap tomorrow, who you could meet, and where you could go. So find the excitement in the opportunities that new beginnings beckon and hold those effervescent emotions close to your heart.
Put Gratitude and Optimism into Action
When we cultivate and activate gratitude, we set the stage for positively impacting the world around us and inside us. Just five minutes a day is enough to increase optimism and forge a happier future.