Why You Should Quit Counting Your Blessings: A Somewhat Contrary Take On Gratitude
It’s everywhere: from mainstream newspapers, to church bulletins, to your favorite blog: Practicing Gratitude will make you healthier.
And not just emotionally. Remembering to notice all that is good in your life – according to some of these experts – can actually make physical changes in your cells, promoting a stronger immune system. Positive feelings can lower the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Less cortisol coursing through your system reduces your risk of chronic disease.
There’s lots of ways to practice gratitude, and one of the most popular is a Gratitude Journal.
This is a little book you write in each day, listing 5, 10 or more things you feel grateful for.
Do you keep one? If you do – good for you! If you don’t, or have tried and given up, I can guarantee you’re not alone. Cultivating new habits is hard work. And it takes some creativity to come up with new things we are grateful for each and every day. (Okay, I guess that’s the point, but still…)
I’ve fallen off the gratitude journal bicycle more times than I care to admit.
Although I ‘get’ the benefits, my inner brat doesn’t like following rules – even ones about being grateful. Gratitude journals usually last less than a week for me. Does that mean I’m an ungrateful loser? I don’t think so.
Gratitude Journal Workarounds
I’ve taken to acknowledging the blessings I am grateful for just randomly as I write in my regular journal, or I think about them as I take a walk or tidy the kitchen or drift off to sleep. Sometimes I voice them aloud, sometimes I just enumerate them in my head.
This still counts as a gratitude practice, I’m convinced. And it will for you too – if you’re like me and have trouble keeping up with a separate gratitude journal. Of course, remembering to acknowledge those blessings more frequently than once a month is key.
One way to make this part of a daily practice is the age-old ritual of acknowledging abundance and blessings – saying Grace.
I had ditched this routine years ago as a young religious rebel. Then later I came to realize that this simple practice does not need to be religious in any way. I’m not kowtowing to some white bearded dude in the sky when I take a moment to give thanks and acknowledge my delight at the opportunity to eat a nourishing and delicious plate of food.
Yet even that brief moment of thanks, I forget sometimes.
And I rarely do it aloud. Afraid people will think I’m a Jesus Freak I guess. Or something. I really don’t have an excuse.
(And no offense meant here to followers of Jesus – really. I’m a big fan of the original meaning of Christianity, and his message. I’m just disillusioned because I don’t see it practiced by many modern so-called “Christians” – at least the ones with political power. But that’s a post (rant) for another day.)
The thing that struck me today about Gratitude is this:
I think I’ve been coming at my own practice of it ass backwards.
This realization jumped into my consciousness yesterday:
What if gratitude isn’t about comparing my own lot to that of others so much less fortunate. What if it’s about embracing what IS. Feeling grateful for what IS. Acknowledging the blessing of what IS.
What if ‘real’ gratitude is deeper, more profound, than a knee jerk reaction to my own negative self-talk.
(Now, that’s not always the way I do gratitude. Sometimes I’m deeply, sincerely, profoundly grateful for something as simple as the brilliant reddish hue of a fallen leaf. Really. And I do cultivate that sort of noticing and thankfulness.)
But more often than I’d like to admit, my gratitude goes more l like this:
“Why do I have to live in a basement room that smells vaguely of cat pee and stale tobacco. When will I have what I need to get my room with a view?
“Well, at least you’re living INSIDE. At least you’ve got some space to stretch in here.
“You’re right. I’m so grateful for the spaciousness of my new room.
Okay – it’s a reframe. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But is it really gratitude?
That’s when it struck me: that’s a ‘gratitude cheat.’
Quit Counting And Just Notice
I’m always spouting platitudes about ‘counting your blessings.’ Or telling myself to count my own. But, for me, that particular saying has a critical edge to it. There’s a hint of a ruler-slapping nun’s voice behind the words. Of course they are benign (and contain a valuable truth) in and of themselves.
But I don’t think I’m the only one that hears the sharp edge to those three words. Not the only child that heard them snapped out in an exasperated tone.
Although I love the word ‘blessing,’ the admonishment to ‘count’ them diminishes the purity of that word. Counting your blessings becomes a way to spar with your tendency to enumerate and dwell on your miseries.
So, what’s the path from dutifully ‘counting your blessings’ because that’s the right thing to do, to experiencing the joy of truly feeling grateful?
Authentic gratitude bubbles up from a place of wonder inside. The real thing involves opening up each and every sense and truly recognizing the details that surround you.
It’s about noticing beauty, truth, deliciousness, comfort, aromas, laughter – and letting that loveliness sink in. Allowing the goodness in your life.
Real gratitude is an art form I guess. And I know it’s a habit to be cultivated.
Some days, acknowledging the beauty and perfection of our lives seems difficult if not impossible. We all have those days – you know, the ones when we’re 100 percent in ‘glass half empty” mode.
And that’s the whole point of a daily gratitude practice I guess. To shift that mindset back to, wow! I have a lot to love about this life.
If it takes first looking at what’s not to love, and reframing it – counting your blessings – then I think that’s a fine way to begin the gratitude habit. Ignore what I told you in the title of this article!
Because, with enough practice, that new habit unfurls, blossoms into a sweet realization of the tiny magnificent details that make us smile. That make us grateful. That make us love.
The shape of a branch against a sky of shifting clouds, an ant colony carrying crumbs to the home base, the warm smile of a loved one when you open the door, a steaming bowl of soup set on the table.
Those experts are onto something. Once that shift in attitude has occurred, that mindset change that authentic gratitude always brings – it shifts everything. Our faces soften, our tense shoulders drop, our brows unfurrow.
And so a practice of gratitude gives you so much more than improved health. I believe that this ‘attitude of gratitude’ is a little-acknowledged anti-aging secret.