Gratitude, like other positive emotions, can serve as an antidote to despair, unforgiveness, grief, and other difficult (and important) emotions. With my family, my patients, and my clients (not to mention myself), I encourage the positive emotion of gratitude. Felt deeply and genuinely, gratitude can be remarkably healing. Most of us have heard of the importance of gratitude whether we practice it or not.
But there are different types of gratitude, and not all have the same power to heal.
“At least…” gratitude
You may often hear people express gratitude in this way: “Things could be worse,” or “At least…” in which people express gratitude for not having misfortune befall them. “At least” gratitude is the gratitude we foster when we compare ourselves and our troubles with those of others. “At least I have a home.” Or, “At least I have a job, even if I hate it.” Or, “At least I’m not on fire.”
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.
This type of gratitude, while it reflects humility and yes, gratitude that things are not as bad as they could be, is not the type that changes the way we see the world. It’s more like a consolation prize—something to soothe the losers, something we can conjure up only by thinking of the misfortunes of other people.
Showy or social gratitude
I’m also not thinking of “social” gratitude, where we aim to express gratitude by showing others how happy we are with what we have or who we have in the photo with us. I always have the sense that there’s more to the story than what the picture shows. Perhaps because on more than one occasion, studio photos of my little daughters were taken minutes after one was sobbing and the other resisting the changes of outfits. And, as with “at least” gratitude, social gratitude invites comparison.
There’s also forced gratitude–gratitude that’s prescribed by others. “Think about all the things that are going well in your life!” Or “Aren’t you lucky that you have the best specialists taking care of you [for your chronic, debilitating illness]?” Or “Start writing down three things you’re grateful for at night before you go to bed and everything will get better.” (I do actually believe that this works, many times, for many people.)
The type of gratitude that fortifies, that heals, is the deep and often silent gratitude of accepting life exactly as it is on its own terms.
I have found that the type of gratitude that fortifies, that heals, is the deep and often silent gratitude of accepting life exactly as it is on its own terms. Gratitude that requires no comparison to others. It’s the kind that arises when we recall the stranger who helps us jump our car’s battery on a subzero day. The kind we can grow when thinking of the love of a dear friend, pet, teacher, or whatever it is we call God.
Gratitude for this breath…and this one…and the next.
And if all else fails, in our darkest of times, gratitude for the earth that holds us tight even when our life is in shambles and the world seems to be swirling around us.