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When Gratitude Includes "Should"

I recently had a conversation with a family member that made me realize the vast spectrum of understanding that exists around what it means to do a gratitude exercise. There are people out there who think that finding ways to intentionally practice gratitude means that they must falsely manufacture gratefulness for big things, even when they're in a space where feeling grateful is hard. For example, some might chastise themselves to feel grateful to have a roof over their heads in the midst of this pandemic, when so many people in our country are facing financial and housing uncertainty as a result of losing wages and jobs.

To me, intentionally practicing gratitude has never been an exercise in guilt. If the voice in your head sounds something like, "you should be grateful to have enough to eat right now when so many people don't!" then you know what I mean by gratitude-as-guilt. In fact, if there's any kind of sentence structure that includes the word "should" when you're trying to find a sense of gratitude within yourself, then chances are that you're not going to find the uplifted mood you seek.

For me, gratitude is about focus. It's about what I choose to focus on. When your hands are doing one task, that means they can't be doing another task; in the same way, when you focus on thing A, that means there's less space in your brain to focus on thing B. If thing A is stuff that lifts your mood, and thing B is stuff that makes your mood low, then the objective is to focus on thing A. Gratitude is a by-product of focusing on stuff that lifts your mood - it's not the direct aim.

For example, as I'm going through my day, I will choose to focus on the beams of sunlight falling across my kitchen table. I will choose to focus on the especial warmth of a hug from my partner. I will choose to focus on the deliciousness of the pear I ate for breakfast, or the perfection of the cup of coffee I'm holding in my hand. I will choose to revel in the peace of my daily walk.

When I choose to focus on these small things, my mood naturally shifts, to one of comfort, and satisfaction, and yes, gratitude. I feel grateful for these small, pleasant things I can somehow still enjoy in the middle of a global crisis. But I'm not lecturing myself to feel gratitude for them - I'm simply choosing to focus on them. To let myself notice them and rest in the thought of them. And boom, there's less space in my head for worry for my loved ones, or irritation at ever-present family members I can never escape from nowadays, or frustration at the politics around this crisis.

I won't lie, it's hard to get into the habit of these small choices, particularly if you've become fairly entrenched in the kind of thinking patterns where you focus on the things that cause worry or anger. It's very, very easy to have focus on those not-good things nowadays, and it's therefore very easy to have developed automatic thinking patterns where you're focusing on things that don't bring you joy and comfort. But with practice and perseverance, you can shift your focus, and as you try, you might find your mood lifting. Good luck.


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