Is gratitude making you miserable?

Gratitude is derived from the Latin word ‘gratia’, meaning gratefulness or thankfulness. From the start of the millennium, there has been an obvious surge of positive psychology; leading to having gratitude becoming a new mantra in today’s society.

This is healthy considering the body of evidence about the benefits of gratitude. The Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre of the University of California has found that feeling gratitude releases dopamine and serotonin, two key hormones which are responsible for our emotions and make us feel ‘good’. 

More recently, Jans-Beken et al’s 2019 comprehensive literature review involving the examination of the findings of sixty-four studies, concluded gratitude is beneficially linked to social well-being and emotional well-being. Furthermore, researchers Tedeschi and Calhoun have identified ‘an appreciation of life and of our relationship with others as one of the five areas which enable growth after adversity, opposed to the experience of post-traumatic stress. 

Gratitude and transactional analysis

From the therapeutic approach of transactional analysis, gratitude can be thought of as ‘strokes’. A stroke is defined as a unit of recognition, where strokes are the way in which we met our universal psychological hunger for recognition. Transactional analyst Claude Steiner has suggested as children, many of us are indoctrinated with five rules about strokes. This includes not to give strokes when we have them, not to ask for strokes when we need them, and not to give ourselves strokes. Thus, out of our awareness, we could continue obeying these rules and limit our ability to feel, give and receive gratitude.

The good news is that as grown-ups, this is something which we can re-assess and re-decide - if we want to. Practice of this re-decision can develop the nurturing aspect of our personality structure. We can then use this to lower the volume of the unhealthy aspects, which in turn can manifest intra-physically in terms of our ‘inner critic’ and/or interpersonally (i.e. how we are in our relationships with others).

The even better news is that gratitude can be cultivated through simple acts and does not have to cost money. For example, noticing and taking delight in what makes us feel engaged in life such as smelling our morning coffee, watching something we have planted grow or telling another that we appreciate them

Neuroscience suggests that over time the regular practice of gratitude has the potential to change the neural structures of our brain, in turn enabling us to see ourselves, others and the world differently.

The other side of the coin however is where identification of gratitude’s importance is used, by either an individual or others’ to discount. It is likely at one point we have responded to another when he/she is experiencing distress or chastised ourselves at such times with a 'but it could be much worse', maybe even defining our or the other’s concern as a ‘first world problem’. 

Woman smelling coffee in orange cupThere is also the potential for manipulation or exploitation to occur in relationships because of intense feelings of gratitude for past benefits. For example, where we could have difficulties in establishing healthy boundaries, or stay in an abusive partner relationship due to a sense of obligation, which in turn is likely to have negative effects on our well-being. 

Relativity, therefore, has a place if used as a means of accounting for the full story. That is, accounting for what feels significant to us at that moment in time or that we want to change and what we can be grateful for. This is premised on non-dual thinking, i.e. things do not have to be one or the other given that more than one reality can simultaneously be held. 

Our accounting for the full story is ever more important during the present pandemic, which essentially has involved us all being in the same storm and navigating this in different boats. A personal example of this has been feeling gratitude for having the financial and practical means to access technology. Having such access enabled me to engage in and enjoy frequent video calls with my sister and newborn niece. At the same time, I gave myself permission to account the sense of loss I experienced due to the limited and intermittent nature of our direct contact due to the lock-downs.

In the words of author Richelle Goodrich, “Gratitude doesn’t change the scenery. It merely washes clean the glass you look through so you can clearly see the colours.” 

Authentic gratitude 

This invites us to assume a wider frame of reference about gratitude, which goes beyond a fad we ‘should’ engage in which is premised on an emphasis on the good things in our lives. This has echoes to the concept of counterfeit or ‘marshmallow’ strokes in transactional analysis; where I trust we can all relate to the lack of nourishment experienced in response to insincere acknowledgement from another. 

A wider definition has the potential for a reduction in our use of forced gratitude being used as a plaster we stick over hurts and uncomfortable emotions or as a way of inducing guilt - which ultimately can keep us stuck. Rather it leans towards gratitude being an authentic experience that can carry us forward to take action as relevant, as well as, being a skill we would want to practice more regularly. 

Neuroscience suggests that over time the regular practice of gratitude has the potential to change the neural structures of our brain, in turn enabling us to see ourselves, others and the world differently. It is only in this way that gratitude can positively impact our overall physical and psychological well-being in the long term.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Oldbury, West Midlands, B68 0DL

Written by Reena Purewal - Dip Couns, MBACP

Oldbury, West Midlands, B68 0DL

I am a qualified psychotherapeutic counsellor whom has a range of experience, including developed by my several years practising as a social worker.

I enjoy taking walks, experimenting with cooking new dishes, listening to podcasts, and occasionally bingeing on a Netflix series.

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