Fresh Eyes on Gratitude

Nov 25 / Drs. Bryan & Julie Walsh
Hey! I bet this season has you thinking about gratitude.

We did some research on it and found that most people are doing it wrong.

We got to thinking about gratitude. Not a big surprise this time of year, we know.

Before your eyes glaze over thinking this is another recycled recommendation to count your blessings, hang out for a moment while we put some fresh eyes on this familiar old friend.

If you’ve been into health for any period of time, you’re probably aware that practicing gratitude is well documented as having positive effects on numerous health metrics including sleep, eating habits, fewer physical symptoms, well-being, and even happiness.  

Clearly, gratitude is generally a good thing to practice and because of this, you will find health-seekers all-over trying their hand at daily gratitude practices.

But, as with most things, there is more to the story.
In fact, there is so much more to the story, we are considering turning this into a workshop. But for now, here are some nuggets to chew on as you embark on this gratitude-drizzled holiday season.

You Can Overdo Gratitude

Here in America, it is common practice to overdo most things. We learn one thing that is good for us and we run with it. Inherently, we all know that more is not always better, but it doesn’t stop us from taking things to extremes. According to this study, we shouldn’t do this with gratitude. In it, researchers compared people practicing gratitude once per week to those practicing three times per week to see who felt happier. Those with the once per week practice reported more happiness. Perhaps overdoing a practice, even a healthy one, can lessen the effects.

Motivation Matters

Motivation appears to be the secret ingredient as to whether a gratitude intervention will improve overall well-being or not. In two separate studies (here and here), researchers concluded that only individuals with a strong intrinsic desire to be happy and who applied a high level of effort in their gratitude intervention became happier. 
This has obvious clinical ramifications. 
Telling a patient to start a gratitude practice may have vastly different results than if that patient decides to begin a gratitude practice on their own. As practitioners, we could focus on educating on gratitude to spark an interest in the client, without directly advising them what to do.

Gratitude Isn’t One Sized Fits All

While most practitioners, and people in general, love protocols or clearly defined rules to follow to achieve a certain result, it is rarely a good idea. Believe it or not, discussions are being had about harmful gratitude or negative gratitude, and include scenarios such as abusive relationships, different personality schemas, and social structures.

Gratitude recommended to the wrong person can result in people feeling shame that they are not more grateful, which ultimately may make them feel worse.
The take-home here is we should not blanket-recommend gratitude to anyone without the full picture of their circumstances.

You Can’t Fake It Till’ You Make It

In a world where everything seems to be getting faker by the moment (ahem…filtered meditation selfies), we stand with authenticity. We don’t have a published study to share with you on this one. This is our opinion. As humans, we know when things aren’t authentic. We can feel it. And we don’t like it. We don’t like it when other people do it to us, so why would we like it if we were doing it to ourselves. Don’t be grateful this time of year just because it’s the in-season look. Don’t #blessed your posts just because everyone else is. Instead, take some quiet moments to identify what it is you are actually feeling. Where did it come from? Why is it there? What does it mean? Being authentic should always take priority over pretending, to yourself or anyone else for that matter.

Gratitude, like most health topics, should be approached with a wide-angle lens, rather than zeroing in on soundbites. After much discussion and research, we are landing with this:

🙏Gratitude is healthy, but not simple.
🙏Count your blessings, but don’t invent them.
🙏Explore gratitude before enforcing it, on yourself or others.