Cornucopia2We all hear a lot about the benefits of giving thanks, especially during the holiday season. Indeed, people who express gratitude tend to be happier, healthier, and more able to cope with life in general.

However, sometimes we just don’t feel grateful, and all of the advice about giving thanks just irritates us. How do we cope?

It can help to realize that:

It’s okay not to always feel grateful. 

Our feelings are due to a variety of factors that fluctuate. For example, if we:

  • have had sufficient, restorative sleep
  • have been eating moderate and healthy meals
  • have been exercising regularly
  • are in robust physical and mental health
  • have close and fulfilling personal relationships
  • enjoy our vocations, and
  • have adequate financial resources…

we’re likely to feel gratitude. (Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as if we’re clinically depressed, struggle with anxiety, or have unrealistic expectations.)

On the other hand, if we:

  • have had one too many late nights
  • have been overdoing it with the fast food
  • have slacked on our usual exercise regime
  • are struggling with a physical or mental illness
  • are isolating ourselves socially
  • are experiencing interpersonal conflict
  • are bored with our jobs or unemployed, or
  • are concerned about finances…

we may feel upset or resentful rather than thankful. And that’s okay. Uncomfortable, but okay. No need to beat ourselves up for not brimming over with gratitude all the time.

You don’t have to feel grateful to express gratitude. 

True gratitude, like love, is as much an action as it is an emotion. All you need is the willingness to practice being grateful, even if resentment, sadness, or fear have cropped up. Don’t wait for the feeling of gratitude to well up inside you to try one or more of the following:

  • Contact a friend and thank them for some of the ways they’ve brought value to your life. You can be specific, such as mentioning how they stood by you during a difficult breakup, brought you chicken soup when you had the flu, or encouraged you when you were training for an athletic event or studying for a difficult exam at school.
  • Thank the clerk who rings up your groceries and compliment them on their kindness, efficiency, or how patient they are with the long lines at the checkout line.
  • At least once a week write a list of ten things you’re grateful for, even if you usually take them for granted. Consider items you currently have and how life would be without them. For instance:
    • What if you could no longer walk?
    • What if you had no friends?
    • What if you lost your sight?
    • What if you lost your home?

You can go through the motions of showing gratitude, just like you can show love to a cranky spouse, take out the trash, do the laundry, file your taxes, etc., even when you don’t feel like it. Usually by practicing gratitude you’ll eventually begin to feel more grateful, but the point is not to get twisted up into some unnecessary psychological knot by judging and berating yourself for not always feeling thankful.

What you aren’t grateful for now you may be grateful for later.

Sometimes circumstances we consider to be horrendous turn out to work in our favor. We usually don’t see the big picture until much later, if ever. The following parable illustrates this concept:

There is an ancient story of a farmer whose only horse ran away.  Later that evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was thought to be such bad luck. “Your farm will suffer, and you will not be able to plough your fields,” they said. “Surely this is a terrible thing to have happened to you.”

 The farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

 The next day the horse returned but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came to congratulate him and exclaim his good fortune. “You are much richer than you were before!” they said. “Surely this has turned out to be a great thing for you.”

 The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

 Then, the following day, the farmer’s son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses. He was immediately thrown from the horse and broke his leg.  With this injury he couldn’t work on the farm. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy to the farmer for the incident. “There is more work than only you can handle, and you may be driven poor,” they said. “Surely this is a terrible misfortune.”

 The old farmer simply said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

 The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of his broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected.  When the neighbors heard this they came to visit the farmer and said, “How fortunate you are!  Things have worked out after all.  Most young men never return alive from the war. Surely this is the best of fortunes for you and your son!”

 Again, the old man said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

 In addition, you can learn something from difficult people. To quote Kahlil Gibran, “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.” Perhaps Gibran was sufficiently saintly not to have felt irritation at least now and then, but probably not. Yet he was grateful.

Who knows but that you were let go from your last job so that you could put some time and energy into contemplating and pursuing your real passion? Perhaps a relationship didn’t work out, and thus you developed greater inner strength and autonomy. Maybe that addiction you’ve battled for so many years will lead you to effective treatment, a support group, and the ability to help many other people, based on your own experience and recovery. You can make your mess your message.

So, be kind to yourself if you’re having a tough time feeling gratitude at this moment. This is a great opportunity to practice self-acceptance of your full spectrum of emotions and to also practice “acting as if” you’re grateful. Although you may be gritting your teeth, you can still ask yourself, “What’s the good in this?” As has been said, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, but only if we’re able to learn from the experience. Your lesson may come to light down the road, so no worries if you don’t see it now — but keep your eyes open.