When gratitude is hard, try this

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 4 of The Year of Happy‘s month on gratitude. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

1. Introduction

With so many benefits, gratitude might seem like something we should be doing 24/7. But sometimes, it doesn’t seem to work; we don’t feel like being grateful, counting our blessings is annoying, and we beat ourselves up because we’re taking things for granted. It happens. Below you’ll find some tips and tricks – and real-life stories – on how to deal with moments like this.

2. Problem: Your gratitude practice is a chore

The research suggests that gratitude journaling every day may actually be counterproductive for the average person; instead, try twice weekly or (Robert Emmons’s recommendation) every other day. If that doesn’t help, it might be time to mix things up.

If your gratitude journal is getting stale, look for new positive experiences to record – or create them! Washington University’s Robert Cloninger found that people who seek out new experiences have better health, friendships, and emotional stability.  

You can also vary the type of gratitude exercise you do – try journaling some days, counting your blessings (in your head) on other days, or even trying to identify ungrateful thoughts and replace them with gratitude. For example, as you begrudgingly go to the gym, try to change your attitude by thinking: I’m grateful for this fancy gym equipment, or I’m grateful I have two legs to run on.

(We’ve tried it – it may not reduce the burn, but it helps.)

One of the other reasons your gratitude practice might not be working is because you’re not being detailed enough. Author and trainer Marie Forleo talks about her experience with gratitude and how to stop being “lazy” about it and truly get the most bang for your buck:


Sometimes, we need a bit of social pressure to get us going. Check out the post below for ways to make your gratitude social, whether it’s by email, at the dinner table, or before bed:

Read “How to Keep the Gratitude Going Beyond Thanksgiving”

The article mentions this video, where researcher Brené Brown talks about her daily gratitude practice with her family and the profound effects it has had on their lives:

3. Problem: You’re not in the mood

Some days, life disappoints us. Nothing is going our way, and we begin to feel like a victim. We focus on what’s missing or going wrong, and there seems to be little to be grateful for.

But on frustratingly bad days or in longer periods of grief, gratitude is actually at its most useful. In that moment, gratitude can help us reframe the experience and not necessarily appreciate it, but at least see the positives. One study out of Eastern Washington University found that people who wrote for 20 minutes about the positive consequences of an unresolved unpleasant memory felt more closure, less unpleasant emotions, and fewer intrusive memories than people who wrote about the memory in general. Looking at upsetting experiences from the lens of gratitude helps us find more meaning in them, including how we’ve grown and learned.

In the article below, author Victoria Maxwell talks about how she came to know gratitude even during her bouts of depression. She offers a way to practice gratitude “even when you feel like crap”:

Read “Harness Gratitude in 9 Steps to Feel Less Lousy”

In another Psychology Today article, Toni Bernhard (who suffers from chronic illness) has a suggestion when you can’t muster gratitude for the big things in life:

Read “What to Do When Gratitude Is in Short Supply”

When you’re feeling down or grumpy, it might be time to “go through the motions” – express gratitude or write down a few positive things even if it’s difficult. Saying thank you, writing gratitude letters, and counting your blessings can help inspire grateful feelings in the long run, even if you don’t feel grateful yet.

That’s what Nataly Kogan, the CEO of Happier, does. On rough days, she tends to share even more positive moments in her digital gratitude journal. In the post below, she shares her top five tips for dealing with a no good, very bad day:

Read “Living Happier with Nataly: 5 Ways to Deal with a Really Bad Day”

4. Problem: You forget to be grateful

In our hectic modern lives, sometimes our packed schedule is the biggest obstacle to gratitude. A simple way to deal with this is to scatter reminders around your home and your devices. You might try Post-It notes around your apartment or inspirational magnets on your fridge. You could set a daily alarm for gratitude on your phone, change your computer passwords to “imgrateful4,” or set your desktop wallpaper to something inspirational.

5. Problem: You’re taking things for granted

First off, don’t feel bad if you’re taking things for granted – a big part of the blame goes to hedonic adaptation, the process whereby we get used to good and bad events in our lives. From moment to moment, we can try a few tricks to combat it:

  • Take someone else’s perspective. If you invite a friend over for dinner or have a family member visit, they may be able to change the way you see things. Their compliments on your stylish living room or growing-up-so-fast kids can jolt you back to reality and remind you how good you have it.
  • Think about endings. When something positive is about to end, we tend to appreciate it more. A James Madison University study found that college students who think about graduation happening soon (vs. far away, even though it’s the same objective time away) have higher well-being and do more college activities. This is the idea behind the video “The Years Are Short,” perhaps the most meaningful piece of content by the Happiness Project’s Gretchen Rubin:
  • Think about death. It might sound morbid, but reminding yourself of your mortality actually decreases unhappiness and increases gratitude, probably by giving us a little perspective. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of near-death experiences where people came through with a fresh new appreciation of life. This is related to the tip about endings – death is the ultimate ending. 
  • Imagine absence. Think about what life would be like if you had never met your partner, found your beautiful home, or gotten hired for your job. How would things be different? This powerful imaginative exercise can shift perspective, too. (If you need some help and don’t mind a little cursing, watch Louis C.K. talking to Conan O’Brien about how we take cell phones and airplanes for granted.)
  • Watch a depressing movie. Oddly enough, sad movies make us feel more joyous and grateful than comedies. At least that didn’t happen to me!
  • Reflect on bad times. By remembering low points in our lives, we remind ourselves that we survived and our lives today are so much better. In one study, participants who completed the sentence “I’m glad I’m not…” became more satisfied with life. But negative memories tend to fade, so it’s important to review them now and then. This is the idea between Tania Luna’s TED talk – how her impoverished childhood as an immigrant from Ukraine makes her more grateful for new her middle-class lifestyle:

6. Problem: You feel resentful, not grateful

Sometimes, we feel resentful for being on the receiving end. As the below article by Stacey Kennelly explains, this can often happen when we’re in an inferior position to someone and they repeatedly help us – whether it’s a parent-child or teacher-student relationship. She also offers ideas on how to move past resentment and guilt:

Read “When Guilt Stops Gratitude”

In the Psychology Today article below, author Meg Selig explains how to turn your resentment into gratitude. She focuses on the holidays, when resentments run high, but her advice is applicable to different times of year as well:

Read “Turn Resentment into Gratitude! 11 Simple Strategies”

7. Final thoughts

In the end, it’s important to remember that gratitude isn’t a cure-all. There are some situations where gratitude isn’t even appropriate, like when someone has truly harmed us or in certain power dynamics. On top of that, it’s completely natural if we don’t feel gratitude when the giver exerted no effort or is motivated by the desire for praise and thanks.

As mentioned above, gratitude is more complex than we think, but probably more powerful, too. What will you take away from your month studying gratitude, and what questions remain? Feel free to share on our Facebook group

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 3: The benefits of gratitude

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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