When Gratitude Isn't Good For You


(or "Slow Your Roll with Your Daily Gratitude Journal")

Put down that gratitude journal. You're using it too much. Maybe.

I’m a big proponent of gratitude. It's a relationship-strengthening emotion of connectedness--reminding us to affirm good in the world (which miiiiiight be difficult to do in light of current events); to recognize the many gifts in our lives that are at least partly the product of other people’s generosity, support, or sacrifice; and to acknowledge that we're part of a larger universe. (Group hug, anyone?)

But why is gratitude so important? Science shows that people who practice gratitude consistently enjoy many physical, psychological, and social benefits:

  1. Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure (which promotes greater stress resistance);

  2. More joy, optimism, peace, happiness, generosity, and compassion;

  3. Feeling less lonely and isolated, blocking negative emotions such as envy, regret, and resentment;

  4. Reduced frequency and duration of depression episodes; and

  5. Higher sense of self-worth when armed with knowledge that someone else is looking out for us.

The short of it? Gratitude is good for your wellbeing.

Except when it isn't.

That's right. Gratitude isn't always good. And your use of a gratitude journal is certainly not the panacea you've come to think it is.

I mentioned earlier that I’m pro-gratitude. But I’m also a maverick. Naturally, I’m using this Thanksgiving holiday as an opportunity to spotlight when gratitude could be the wrong prescription (a nod to researchers at The Greater Good Science Center). And, more importantly, what to do about it.

1. Overdosing

  • Problem: When it comes to cheese, "more is better" is usually (always?) the answer. When it comes to tracking gratitude, "more is better" doesn’t necessarily apply. Set too high a goal for your gratitude and you may fall short, which paradoxically leaves you feeling less grateful and happy than if you hadn’t tracked your gratitude at all.

  • Solution: Dedicate a weekly block of time for your gratitude practice. Writing occasionally (once or twice per week) is more beneficial than daily journaling. In a six-week study of gratitude journaling, people who tracked their gratitude once per week were happier, whereas those who wrote tracked their gratitude three times per week were not. “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them,” says gratitude expert, Dr. Robert Emmons. “It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.” Also, focus on fewer items (up to five) but give each item more depth of exploration. Tip: Imagine you're having a conversation with a child in which the child keeps responding to your answers with "Why?" Dig for the "Why?" behind the surface-level answer. Click here for more tips on keeping a gratitude journal.

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2. Unworthiness

  • Problem: If you're in a bad relationship with someone (romantic partner, boss, roommate, other) who is emotionally or physically abusing you, or who just can’t make you happy, focusing on gratitude may keep you where you are instead of focusing on finding a way to get out of an unhealthy situation.

  • Solution: Take an honest inventory of the entire relationship, not just the good parts. But also remind yourself that gratitude can actually motivate you to work toward changes rather than simply accept the status quo.

3. Avoidance

  • Problem: Gratitude helps you focus on what's important instead of getting caught up in the little annoyances of everyday life. But not all problems are little annoyances. By focusing your attention on things you appreciate, you may experience temporary relief from serious problems...but it's just that: temporary.

  • Solution: Embrace negative emotions and channel them responsibly. In one study of romantic couples, expressing anger was more beneficial than being positive when discussing a severe problem because the anger helped them address and resolve the issue rather than sweeping it under the rug.

4. Downplaying

  • Problem: After something good happens to you, you will only benefit when you think about and thank the people who helped make it possible. (Cue the thank you notes.) But it's also important to acknowledge your role in the process. If you focus on thanking everyone else and downplay your own hard work and talent, low self-esteem could be lurking.

  • Solution: Take credit for your own part in your success. (I'm patting myself on the back as I type this post.)

5. Indebtedness

  • Problem: Whereas gratitude is the positive emotion you feel when someone else helps you out, indebtedness generally leaves a bad taste in your mouth: "Great...now I owe [insert name] for helping me. Wonder what my repayment plan will be." Mistake feelings of gratitude for indebtedness and this tit-for-tat, obligation mentality can actually lead to negative feelings between the parties involved.

  • Solution: Focus on giving back through your successes (instead of focusing on repayment). Or simply write a letter expressing your thanks, letting the recipient know you’ve put their investment to use. Bonus points for hand-delivering your letter.

Experiencing a mixed bag of emotions in anticipation of Thanksgiving gatherings? Gratitude is a pro-social emotion that can help carry you through some potentially uncomfortable situations and even strengthen your relationships. And because I’m so solutions-oriented, here are a few great science-backed exercises to build gratitude.

Looking beyond the Thanksgiving holiday, when we all practice gratitude more effectively (reminder: choose weekly [not daily] gratitude journaling), we can foster greater appreciation and social connectedness so that we can address collective problems more effectively (Justice and climate change, anyone?). For the promise of this, we are most grateful.