Why You Should Quit Counting Your Blessings: A Somewhat Contrary Take On Gratitude

If you haven’t gotten the memo yet you’ve been hiding under a rock.

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.



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Showing 25 comments
  • Sue_Mitchell

    Sarah, that’s a great distinction between being grateful your lot in life isn’t worse and actively noticing what is truly wonderful in your life. You’re so right that there is leftover baggage from adults telling us we should “count our blessings” or “be grateful.” They were right, of course, but it seemed the only time they’d say those things was when we were displeased, so it felt like another way of saying, “Just shut up.”
    If only we’d been taught to be grateful when we considered things to be going well. Adults can tell their kids to be grateful as they pass a beautiful garden (“Isn’t it wonderful that nature is full of such beautiful sights and smells?”) or feel the warmth of delicious soup in their belly on a cold night {“Isn’t that cozy feeling of being warm and fed so nice?”), not just when they’re stuck in a car for 15 hours (“Be grateful you have a roof over your head!”) or forced to eat something disgusting (“Be glad you’re not starving!”)
    I’m also with you on ditching the gratitude journal. I like to experience gratitude throughout the day. However, when I notice I’m starting to enter a negative spin cycle, I will sometimes take time to sit down with a gratitude journal, just for an attitude adjustment.

    • saraho

      @Sue_Mitchell You make such a good point about how this can begin with what we teach and model for our children, or the young ones in our life. It’s not just ‘be grateful and eat it!’! But pointing out all the sweet splendors that surround us and inviting them to savor the appreciation! I sure wish I’d experienced more of that as a kid. In fact, I wish I’d remembered to help my own kids to experience more of that. They did get some gratitude training though!
      And yes, sometimes I do sit down and just lit out some things I appreciate in a journal – I just gave up on keeping a special one just for that.
      So glad to see you back Sue! Hope things are smoothing out in your life! <3

  • JaneRobinson

    Sarah,  Great point!  In fact now that I think about it – I count my blessing just you do – by noticing, being.   I am not a journal keeper – it adds another “to do” to my daily list.  But being conscious, aware, being in the moment is my definition of living. It’s all the small moments that add up to a life.  Again, great thoughts to ponder. Thanks.

    • saraho

      @JaneRobinson  LOVE this: “It’s all the small moments that add up to a life.”
      I can imagine you are a great noticer of what is beautiful in the world – since it shows so much in your art! And yes journals – especially gratitude journals – are not meant to be another To-Do. Far better to find our own way to explore the positive in our lives

  • Priska

    I used to step out on my morning walk chanting to myself all of the things that I was grateful about. 
    It never really worked.  I think that I was trying to hide that other voice that thought ‘who are you trying to kid’.
    Practicing mindfulness meditation, getting out of my head and into my life has helped me in a far greater way to ‘notice’ how much I had to be grateful for.

    • Lori

      @Priska “getting out of my head and into my life” – beautifully said! I love it Priska!

    • saraho

      @Priska  It’s true that gratitude feel so much more authentic when it wells up naturally rather than forcing ourselves to think about what we are grateful for. That said, I do think there’s value in shifting the focus when we find ourselves sinking into that dark hole of resenting our lot in life, or just the blues. It’s just one of the many ways to get an attitude adjustment…  And mindfulness meditation is another excellent way to do that!

  • BobbiEmel

    I like the points you’ve made here, Sarah. And I think you’re right, gratitude is about being mindful and allowing the richness of your moment to really seep into your mind.

    • saraho

      @BobbiEmel  Thanks Bobbi! You’re definitely an example of someone who has learned to welcome the richness of the present – even in the face of pain and adversity. I think when we are mindful and allow that natural gratitude to rise up, it becomes easier to handle the challenges, don’t you?

  • Lori

    Hi Sarah,
    “Embracing what is” surely is the highest form of gratitude! So simple too – no journals, no heavy thinking, just a bit of embracing. <3

    • saraho

      @Lori  Ah, I love to embrace! It’s like a great big hug to all my blessings – instead of getting stuck on counting them! You’ve got me thinking now… next time I’m out and about I’m going to visualize myself hugging the beauty that I found in everyday things.

  • LoriLynnSmith

    wow! I have a lot to love about this life.  Yes!  beautiful way of thinking about gratitude.

    • saraho

      @LoriLynnSmith  So true! So many of us have so very much to love in our lives. And yet, our human nature lets us forget so often. And so we return to gratitude, because we feel it organically!

  • Jackie Walker

    Did I have this t-shirt, oh yes!  I threw it out in exactly the same way as you Sarah!  And now I do my best to just live gratitude – mainly by employing my senses and becoming aware in every moment (ok I miss some and occasionally lots!!).  It’s not easy to explain, but you’ve done a brilliant job of it.

    • saraho

      @Jackie Walker  LOL, love the image of the old t-shirt tossed out – we can make our own shirts – ones that fit us just right. Sensory awareness is so key to experiencing that natural feeling of thankfulness. Yet, how often we lose touch with and get lost in our heads? And suddenly, like a sunburst coming through the trees it’s back! And we can be grateful that such awareness always returns, right?

  • joeyjoejoe

    I’m totally on board with the concept of a “gratitude cheat.” Like you, I often see gratitude as a relative thing instead of an absolute thing independent of someone else, a shared feeling, or a desired status. Lately I’ve been successful in feeling gratitude in absolute terms (despite my dad teaching me at a young age that “it’s all relative”). A couple of tweets and a picture I uploaded to Facebook of a lunch salad I made for myself is proof.
    The best feelings – and the best results – occur when they exist independent of comparison. That’s my belief anyway, and I’m starting to experience it more as the days go by. It’s a damn good feeling!
    Dare I say I’m grateful for it?

    • saraho

      @joeyjoejoe I’d say that’s definitely something to feel grateful for! It’s funny how there’s such an mass acceptance of this idea of “it’s all relative” and “well, look how much you have compared to…”  And so little attention paid to how lucky we are just to be!
      And I totally agree that all of our best results happen when comparison has not entered the picture. Whether we’re talking about the experience of gratitude, our own creative work, or enjoying time with others. Time to banish that comparison demon! (Easier said than done – but the first step is recognition, right?)

  • AnnieAndreHacks

    I’m one of those people who have been taught and teach my kids to count their blessings. I had never heard of a gratitude journal until a few months ago but When i learned of it and it’s power I immediately knew what was missing in my life.  I don’t have a journal per say it’s digital app. My friend Benny Hsu actuall made a gratitude app for the iphone http://getbusylivingblog.com/gratitude-365-app-change-your-thoughts-change-your-life/  
    I’ve definitely noticed a shift in my thinking and mind set. One thing that surpirised me is the reduction in stress.  I can see how less stress might help slow down the aging process as well. Less frown lines perhaps too?  🙂 🙂

    • saraho

      @AnnieAndreHacks  Oooh, you mean we can all geeky with the gratitude?! Love the idea of an app – and I know Benny puts together great ones. I remember his big breakthrough photography app. I think I’m gonna have to download this one. Have to admit I’m always happy to have another reason to play around with my phone – why not pull it out and record the closest thing I’m grateful for? Thanks Annie!
      And you got it – happier, more grateful attitude = fewer frown lines and happier cells.

  • HappierHuman

    This is a great article. I don’t see it really as a contrary take, so much as the perspective of a unique subset of the population. 
    I totally agree – in my talkings with other people and some informal coaching, the toughest part about gratitude is making it into a habit. 
    As for “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?” I think your answer hits it spot on – Quit Counting And Just Notice.
    I never actually treated gratitude like a counting exercise; I always treated it like a meditation exercise – it’s a skill to be practiced in generating a unique mindset or emotion. Now, after months of practice, the mere thought of gratitude generates reams of happiness, dissolves headaches, relaxes my IBS, etc… 
    I hope you’ll soon be able to do the same 🙂

    • saraho

      @HappierHuman  Wow, that’s quite the testimonial: gratitude dissolves your headaches and helps the IBS. Yes, I find it always shifts me into a ‘better’ mindset, one I’m more interested in experiencing. And despite my tongue in cheek whining in this article, I DO find some value in putting some effort into remembering the gratitude part of life….during those days when I’m far to focused on all the things I don’t like so much.
      Love your idea of treating the cultivation of gratitude more as a meditation execise. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  • PaigeBurkes

    In the time BK (before kids), I dutifully wrote in my 10/10 journal every day – write a list of ten things you’re grateful for to get your positive emotions flowing followed by ten goals (big or small).  The positive emotions flowing into the visualizations of your goals makes them more likely to happen.
    And then I had kids and all my daily zen rituals went out the window.  I used to beat myself up for not doing these things the same way I always had.  Then I accepted that life will never be the same and looked for any way to practice my practices at any time.  Usually yoga and a touch of meditation are mid-afternoon instead of first thing in the morning (unless I let my day get away from me and don’t heed my 3pm Outlook reminder to “do yoga.”).  Having the time and focus to write lists seems elusive so I express my gratitude “on the fly.”
    I live in the woods and whenever I go outside, especially for a walk, all I have to do is look around, take in some deep breaths and feel the gratitude for living where I live and being surrounded by such beauty.  I stand outside and say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” out loud to the Universe.
    While my little kids can certainly test my patience sometimes, all I have to do is look into their big, blue eyes and see their unending beauty.  And I say Thank you!
    Yes, things to be grateful for constantly surround us.  It’s all a matter of slowing down and noticing.
    And on those “glass half empty” days when gratitude is one of the last things I want to think about, I notice my dark mood and make myself smile a big smile for at least 30 seconds.  It changes everything.  I can usually appreciate the very things that have been bugging me.  Mindset is everything.

    • saraho

      @PaigeBurkes  You’re so right here Paige, all it takes is a step outside and a deep breath of fresh air – saying thank you helps – but inside our being is saying thank you even when we don’t verbalize it. Even when life is a busy whirlwind and things like a special notebook have fallen by the wayside, noticing blessings, feeling deeply grateful can still be a part of our day.
      I used to love peeking in on my sleeping children, their peaceful faces always filled me with such a profound sense of love and gratitude for what they brought to my life.
      Thank you my friend for these potent reminders of why our glass is always getting fuller!

  • Dave Rowley

    Wonderful post Sarah!
    This was such a beautiful thought, i popped it into my notebook:
    “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.”
    I’m doing an online course at the moment where we were asked to list down things we are grateful for, and it is a beautiful practice. There’s always something wonderful going on if we take the time to notice it and, as you point out, it’s the act of becoming aware of these things that causes the gratitude to bubble up on its own.
    I think that;s why I get a little resistant when I feel I’m being pressured to feel gratitude because when someone does that it actually seems to get in the way of that process of gratitude bubbling up, and becomes a ‘duty’, as you said.

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