You’ve probably heard this advice from well-meaning magazine articles, self-help gurus, or spiritual advisers. Maybe you’ve even accepted it as the gospel truth: cultivate an attitude of gratitude, and it will change your brain, make you a happier, better-sleeping, nicer person who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, yada yada. Google it and up comes all manner of scientific studies proving it to be true. But is it? I mean, it seems like a no-brainer, right? Simply write things down you’re grateful for every day and through the magic power of gratitude your life will be better. Well, wait just a minute there. I’m going to call bullshit. Or at least for a time-out.
As returning readers know, or even if you just read my last blog, 2.25 Years of Daily Walking, Yoga, Writing and Eating Changes, I’m into trying to improve myself with better habits, and I have some pretty serious time and effort invested in all the aforementioned fucking activities. I also tricked myself into starting to do regular flossing again, I finally stopped buying candy bars, and resolved to use the fucking f-word a lot more. (The last one is brand new, because, you know, due to the goddamn thing that’s killing people.)
So, on January 1, 2020, without any fanfare, I started a daily record of three things for which I was grateful. I may have missed a few days but after three months I’m doing it regularly. But you may know I’m also a rationalist, pragmatic, and skeptical dude who believes in science, which is ever evolving. Not to mention a fan of America’s curmudgeon, Larry David and his avatar on Seinfeld, George Costanza. So I’ve been questioning the utility (futility?) of my gratitude journal. And it turns out it is not as simple as pop psychologists would have us believe. Seems I’m not alone in my being a bit incredulous. Granted, I did not do an exhaustive search. But how’s this to make you question a little?
Indeed, for all the research on the broad benefits of expressing gratitude, there’s also evidence that it isn’t for everyone. And it isn’t a panacea — it can’t make injustice, loss, or pain disappear.”Source: NPR
Then there’s this:
But, some of the broader claims about the benefits of gratitude aren’t backed up by science, says Philip Watkins, a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University. He says he’s “very pro-gratitude.” But messages “claiming that it’s going to do everything for you, including making you have a longer life and permanently happier,” are not on solid footing, he says.Source: NPR
Jeffrey Froh, an associate professor at Hofstra University, says there is no reason to keep a gratitude journal or write gratitude letters if you don’t enjoy it or feel like you’re getting anything out of it. Just as there are more ways to exercise than go out for a run, he says there are plenty of other ways to pursue gratitude.Source: Ibid.
What I can tell you after three months of regular journalling is that either 1) I’m not doing it right (whatever that is) or 2) I’m the sort of person it doesn’t “work” on very well. After just four weeks, I started adding three things that I’m ungrateful for. Whereas before when I journalled it was occasionally, and just free writing whatever was on m mind, now I’ve targetted it to three “good” and three “bad” things. This seems more realistic and honest, and ultimately more helpful rather than a waste of time.
The whole movement of positive psychology is predicated on the notion that Carl Jung’s “shadow self” is to be ignored, hidden, denied or otherwise diminished. (In an article about the founders of the Four Waves of psychology on PositivePsychology.com, there is this quote: “Carl Jung was perhaps the earliest psychologist to recognize, and be troubled by, psychology’s negative focus.”). I think it’s by accepting and dealing with the darker aspects of ourselves that we are more likely to grow. Not by glossing over things and lying to ourselves. Surely, there is room to accentuate the positive, while in my view it’s not really possible or healthy to completely eliminate the negative (to refer to the Johnny Mercer song).
Granted, I’m no expert in the field, but I know a few things about myself. I don’t think of myself as perfect, but we all have to be bullshit artists to some degree. We probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if we dwelt on all our imperfections as humans. So while you might be able to fool other people, as we all know, you can’t bullshit a bullshitter. In fact, there’s a criticism known as “toxic positivity” in which you really are fooling yourself that everything is just peachy keen, which isn’t helpful in the real world.
So, why do I continue the journal? Well, for now, I think it’s instructive. Maybe gratitude isn’t the motivator for me as it is for others. Perhaps living in theses times of you-know-what, it’s too much pressure to have to come up with three wonderful things every single day. I do know that things you have something to do with are more powerful than “I’m grateful the sun was shining today.” But hey, if you’re living in the Arctic tundra, or maybe Poughkeepsie, and the sun comes out and you’re happy about it, by all means, put that in your fucking journal! Also, they say it’s more effective if you let yourself feel the emotion of gratitude. If that’s easily accessible to you, great! But I say, feel it or not, whatever else may come up is valid, too.
Should you start or quit your gratitude journal? That’s your call. If a gratitude journal works for you, go for it. But there’s nothing wrong with you if it doesn’t. Don’t care for bicycling? Fine, take a walk. Pissed off that you lost your job, you can’t go anywhere, live your life, and the government doesn’t have its shit together to help? Fine, go somewhere you can safely yell, punch a speed bag or a pillow, or otherwise get your anger out. You do you. And as they say these days, authenticity is all the rage. You do you — and you be you. Because no one else can. If people don’t like that, fuck ’em.
Here is one sure thing for which I’m grateful: that you took the time to read this post. And I’d be eternally grateful (wink wink) if you sent it to a friend or two (or 10, or 100…). Thanks!
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