The Problem With Having an “Attitude of Gratitude”

You’ve probably heard dozens of times about the need to have an “attitude of gratitude.” I have even talked about that on this blog. But I have come to believe that telling ourselves, “I need to have a grateful attitude” is about as helpful as telling ourselves to “have a dieting attitude” or to “have an exercise attitude.” As with dieting and exercise, so with gratitude: what counts is actually practicing it in a tangible way.

We often think that specific gratitude practices flow out of a prior attitude of gratitude. But usually it works the other way round. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown tells how she used to assume that the people who were naturally joyful were the grateful people. But after devoting countless hours to interviewing hundreds of people about joy and gratitude, a surprising pattern began to emerge. Brown’s research began showing that a conscious choice to engage in gratitude activities is the cause of joy, not the other way round. “Without exception,” Brown writes, “every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice…. When it comes to gratitude, the word that jumped out at me throughout this research process is practice.”

Brown rightly distinguishes between a gratitude practice and a gratitude attitude. Again, think back to what I said earlier about dieting and exercise. With gratitude what counts is actually practicing it in a tangible way.

What does a gratitude practice actually look like? For every person it will be different, but here are some examples.

  • Santiago works as a janitor for a large call center. One of his many duties includes taking out the garbage about at about 10:30/ He has decided that every day, when he takes out the garbage, he will call to mind one thing to be grateful for. Throughout the rest of the day, if ever he feels stressed or maybe just needs an emotional uplift, he will return his attention to the thing he is grateful for.
  • Every morning Hannah has a devotional time for half an hour before beginning her day. During this time she prays and reads the Bible or a devotional book. Last month Hannah committed that during this devotional period, between her prayer and reading, she will bring to mind two things in her life that she is particularly grateful about and to thank God for those things. After practicing this for two weeks, Hannah began to find herself more joyful during the day.
  • Sarah keeps a gratitude journal in the evening, writing down what she’s thankful for.

    The Johnson family has a tradition that before each dinner time, every member of the family has to say something he or she is grateful for. No one is allowed to eat until every person has done this.

  • Ava has determined once a week to thank someone in her life who has blessed her. She will either email or phone a person who has been source of blessing to her and let them know how much she appreciates the thing they did.
  • When Ken and Sarah got married, they agreed that for the first year they would keep gratitude journals, and try to write in it every day. Ken uses his lunch breaks to do his gratitude journaling while Sarah does hers in the evening. Ken often spends his afternoon commute imagining what his life would be like without the thing he is grateful for, in order better to appreciate how blessed he really is.

Let me end with a quote from Peter Vishton, from his audio course Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies to a Better You followed by a video from Brene Brown about her discoveries. Here’s Vishton:

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“Expressing gratitude serves to call your attention to the good things in your life. Almost everyone has both positive and negative aspects of their lives at any given time. It’s just the nature of human existence. In many cases, our current happiness or unhappiness isn’t based on the particular amount of good stuff and bad stuff in our lives. In many cases, our current happiness is strongly influenced by which stuff is commanding our attention and our thoughts. By thinking of the good things – parts for which you are presumably most grateful – those good things come to be more central to your thought process.”

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