Hijacking Gratitude

I love the idea of practicing gratitude. (And before I forget – thanks for reading this…)

Many of us are accustomed to saying the words “thank-you” as a form of politeness. We may even mean it from time to time. Sometimes we engage in rituals – like going around the table at thanksgiving and mentioning one thing out loud that we’re thankful for.

photo-1447619297994-b829cc1ab44aAt the same time we live preoccupied busy lives in which the real experience of heartfelt gratitude is more of an irregular and unexpected interruption, than a part of our daily routine. Some very wise people have been pointing me in the direction of cultivating gratitude: a set of intentional practices and habits that orient my mind and heart towards the experience and expression of appreciating life’s gifts on a regular basis.

Scientific studies are beginning to show the value of this kind of practicing gratitude. Amy Morin, writing at Forbes online reported some of these findings. She cited scientific journal articles that suggest gratitude might be good for: physical health; sleep; relationships; psychological health; increased empathy; decreased aggression; increased self-esteem; and improved resilience to stress. Sounds good to me. What’s not to love?

But here’s my little hesitation about gratitude as a practice that’s turning into a fad: we run the risk of manipulating a deep truth about life into a performance enhancer so that we can squeeze more out of the 25 hours we have each day.

That same article in Forbes captures the ethos of our self-help age when it states, “In fact, gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools that we all have access to every day. Cultivating gratitude doesn’t cost any money and it certainly doesn’t take much time, but the benefits are enormous.”

You see what they did there? Gratitude has made the subtle transition to being categorized as a tool, and a free and quick one at that. In this view gratitude becomes measured and valued in terms of its utility. This concerns me because I think it shrinks gratitude to less than it could or should be.

I have the same concern about the popularization of meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and contemplative practices in general. Each of these are wonderful, even sacred things. I’m personally convinced of their value as “tools” for a healthier and better life. I regularly use them in personal and professional practice. But when something becomes a tool it takes on the quality of being used to reach a particular goal. Very rarely do we celebrate a tool for it’s own merits and value. Instead the tool becomes a means to an end. And where I really start to get concerned as a psychologist is when we load up on tools without questioning whether the life projects or goals themselves are actually healthy (or good) in the first place.

Nadia Bolz-Weber confesses: “On the outside my plan looked like ‘good self-care’, but really, it was just a laundry list of habits I adopted to ensure I could continue to over-function.

Over-functioning. Over-coping. We feel that we are never enough, but at the same time we live too much, work too hard, and keep pushing through no matter what. We stress about being too stressed but just can’t seem to get off the ever faster treadmill of things to do.

I wonder, if we use tools like gratitude and stillness in order to manage the stress of things like unhealthy jobs without questioning the choice of employment to begin with, might we actually be doing more harm to ourselves than good? If our lifestyles are preoccupied with the pursuit of status, power, or wealth; then using thankfulness along the way to get us through another day is perhaps like running a mile to get our daily donut.

As a culture we have a strong tendency to turn things into commodities that we can use for own consumption or tools to make us more productive. We tend to hijack really good things like nutrition, exercise, intimacy, self-care, and relationships, and make them into strategies that allow us to get more of what we think we want or feel compelled to pursue. Have a gander at headlines at the checkout lane of supermarket or on Huffington Post (no slam intended) if you need to be re-familiarized with this genre. Everything is marketed in terms of how it will benefit us – even spiritual practices like gratitude and generosity. But what if constantly implementing these “life-hacks” as they’ve become known, without questioning our drive for more productivity and consumption is actually a road to destruction?

And, if we use tools like these to pursue our self-serving goals without questioning what impact accomplishing them may have on others, might we be creating a world in which those same others have much less to be grateful for? It’s like that cringe-worthy tweet or post you see when an honest soul proclaims to the internet their gratitude for their new gas guzzling Hummer with the “#blessed” while failing to consider how their alleged blessing is causing harm to others.

I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on gratitude and its ascendance in popular culture. But I’m cautious – at least in my own case – of this tendency that I have to hijack good things and use them as tools to accomplish my own agenda for life. I’m particularly cautious not to let this happen with the practice of gratitude. Yes, I want the scientifically “proven” benefits of a grateful heart and mind. But I’m wary of how my selfish streak could co-opt this beautiful experience of thankfulness and turn it into a performance enhancing drug in my lifestyle of over-functioning.

Gratitude is the recognition that everything in life is a gift.

But this isn’t just savvy advice, it’s true advice. And sometimes we psychologically informed folks can be tempted to use something because it works, while missing out on the deeper truth of the matter. While it may seem like I’m just splitting hairs here, I think the reason why all of this is so important to me is that when things are true, they have the capacity to profoundly change us.

I don’t want to just use gratitude to help me get out of a funky mood – although I do find it very helpful for that purpose. I want gratitude to change me at my core. I want gratitude to change me because the world needs more people who can respond to the gifts of life by themselves giving more love and mercy and compassion. I want my entire worldview to be shaped by the recognition of life as a gift so that I can be free to share and let go of things rather than cling to them and hoard them.

I want to be immersed in gratitude; submerged in a genuine experience of thankfulness for all things good and bad in my life. I want the tool of gratitude – but I want so much more. I want gratitude to use me to make the world better.

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