Recently I was asked to present a mindfulness seminar at a big organisation and was warned not to talk about “gratitude and positive psych stuff.” I really “get” that warning. For many of us, life does not feel comfortable, fulfilling or joyful. To suggest to anyone that what they need to do is ramp up the gratitude, will often cause resentment and alienation. Something like… “You have no idea of what I had to deal with before I even arrived at work! Even before I opened my eyes this morning, my thoughts were racing about what I needed to attend to today. I spent half the night tossing and turning. My daughter refused to get out of her pyjamas and get ready for school. Our dog is on heat and I think that the neighbours’ mongrel might have snuck over and done the deed. I have a major presentation this afternoon to the executive team, and a pounding headache. My colleague has already implied that he did all the work because I had a day off to take my elderly mother to a medical procedure… Which bit am I supposed to feel grateful for?”
Suggesting gratitude as a practice or an approach to life when there is a sense of unrelenting grind, at times close to overwhelm, is not helpful. It is more likely to trigger resistance rather than relief, let alone joy! It is here that a mindful approach can be a useful starting point. Mindfulness works with the relationship we have with our inner and outer experience. It asks: “What’s happening?” and “Can I be with it?” This starting point recognises the value of acknowledging the reality of our experience rather than resisting it or trying to avoid it. This is already radically different to our usual way of engaging in life. We are hard-wired to run after what feels good and run away from what feels unpleasant. And while this might make sense sometimes, often it doesn’t .
When we are feeling unrelenting pressure, it is normal that our attention narrows. We resist yet another call on our limited inner resources. We focus on the problems. Our biology has evolved to ensure that we prioritise what is going wrong. In situations of ongoing low-level stress, it is very hard to notice what is going well. (That doesn’t mean that there is nothing going well, just that the fight or flight reaction coupled with the negativity bias makes it difficult to notice).
Mindful awareness acknowledges the feelings of burden, understands that the human mind has a negativity bias and knows that in such situations we will be focusing on the problems to the exclusion of positive elements of life. Observing this process means we can more objectively see the thoughts that usually spin off and cause additional overwhelm. Stepping back from, and relating to, the thoughts that surround our overwhelm helps us see the role that thoughts play in perpetuating anxiety and stress.
Adding to the effect of our biology, we are surrounded by social and cultural messages telling us that life should be wonderful. Such unrealistic expectations heighten dissatisfaction. A mindful pause can help open our perspective. Acknowledging that this imperfect life contains challenges, we can then broaden our outlook and acknowledge the bigger picture. And the reality for most of us is, rather than terrible lives, we are doing alright. It is only a small step from there to touch moments of gratitude. The research on gratitude shows that being able to tune-in to the positive aspects of life is really good for our physical and mental health.
So, perhaps rather than saying “to hell with gratitude – this isn’t a life!”… it might be worth hesitating and taking a mindful pause. Those challenges you have to deal with generate emotions and thoughts. Acknowledging them clearly may open a space for taking in a little more. As your perspective broadens, is there anything that is going okay? If something positive comes to mind, just for a moment, let the attention rest there and notice what happens. This is not to be forced but to be invited and experimented with, when the time is right.
It is not uncommon when we seek to cultivate particular qualities such as gratitude, that we see the opposite arise quite strongly. All those experiences of lack, of not feeling enough, and of overwhelm can come to mind. This is sometimes referred to as backdraft. This short video by Dr Chris Germer explains the psychology of backdraft and how to meet it.
If you would like to investigate cultivating gratitude some more, our next One-Day Retreat provides an opportunity to do so without feeling like you need to only look on the bright side of life.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness and compassion programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.