Is there a Dark Side to Gratitude?

Is there a Dark Side to Gratitude?

I’ve always said that gratitude is one of my favourite characteristics, and something I have worked hard to cultivate in myself.

Gratitude is such as important character strength to notice all the good in life and to view challenges with a positive mindset.  Gratitude helps you appreciate all that you have and focus less on whatyou don’t have, or what rankles… especially those little annoyances that may not really be worth so much of our time and energy.

And no doubt many of you agree – gratitude journals are bestsellers and gratitude practices can be found in everything from Yoga to school wellbeing programs.

While gratitude might help us finding silver linings and lessons in life’s challenges, might there be times where too much gratitude is a bad thing?

Might looking for positives in some cases, stop us from addressing things in life that seriously need addressing? If we are always looking on the metaphorical bright side, might we fail to recognize those things that AREN’T just little annoyances?  Things that may be serious problems and that may actually need time and energy spent in fixing them?

Can gratitude stop us from being angry when actually anger is appropriate?

Many of us think that anger is a “negative” emotion, but rather it can be helpful to view emotions differently, as “instructive” rather than negative or positive.  Instead of talking ourselves out of feeling our anger or frustration and focusing on something better, maybe we need to be willing to “deep dove” a little bit, and ask ourselves if our feelings are justified.

What if our gratitude glosses over things that are bad for us? Gratitude for not being alone may have led many to staying in an abusive relationship. It may lead us to accept poor treatment for longer than we should. Gratitude for a partner doing the dishes may lead us to overlook that he/she is not pulling their weight in other areas.  Gratitude for being a good co-parent, should not outweigh concerns about someone being a terrible partner.  Anger or frustration here may be justified and may need addressing.  The same may be said for friendships, work relationships and families and so on.  Relationships that only work in part, or that we value solely because they save us from being alone, are not contributing positively to our lives

And what about when others suggest we be grateful when we are talking about a real problem?  When discussing a personal or financial issue, it can be hurtful when someone retorts with “well, be grateful you have your health”.  We all need to be heard, and it can be healthy to express your feelings if you can find a safe and willing person to do so.  But encouraging gratitude when perhaps you should be listening can be supremely unhelpful and even do damage.  Yes, things could be much worse… but does that mean we should be forced to accept them as they are?  Forced gratitude is inauthentic and leads to much of what we have just discussed – an inability or unwillingness to address things that might need addressing.

What if our gratitude for what we have, stops us from dreaming of something bigger?  Being grateful to have a job in these uncertain times, while appropriate in many cases, may also stop us from seeking a new opportunity or spending time thinking about what might suit us better in the future.  We can be grateful and also imagine a better life for ourselves… and we should not feel guilty in doing so.  Guilt-based gratitude makes us feel as if we do not have the right to dream or want more… and all the best outcomes in life have often come from thinking creatively about the future… and sometimes even being a little restless.

So what is the answer?  Should we be abandoning gratitude altogether?  I think not. I still think gratitude can help us keep small things in perspective.  Maybe what we should be doing is acknowledging our emotions more, perhaps even critically analysing them.  And isn’t this what our wellbeing theme of self-monitoring should be all about?

Gratitude is helpful in turning around a bad mood and in noticing the good things that may have gone unnoticed.  But it should not be used to cover over serious issues or to hide what is wrong in our lives.


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