The Downside of Gratitude

tim-brownson-hpThis is a guest post from Tim Brownson. Don’t stop reading though, because it’s a really good post that I wish I had written my dang self.

It seems that gratitude is the new black when it comes to self development and happiness.  Life Coaches, self development bloggers and enthusiastic amateurs on Pinterest can’t wait to tell you to be grateful for what you have. If that is, you want to be happy and content with your life.

And it’s tricky to argue, because gratitude is an incredibly powerful state to be in.  After all, you cannot be resentful and grateful, angry and grateful, or jealous and grateful.

The downside for a modern Society is that negative states and emotions are, on the whole, more powerful and far more prevalent than positive ones. In many cases there are good evolutionary reasons for this being the case, but times have changed and our prehistoric brain has yet to catch up.

The upside is that gratitude is one of the very few positive states that can, if used properly, take a sword to the negative ones.

There’s a dark side to the gratitude movement though and one that few people in the industry seem willing or able to recognize, and it’s how gratitude can often give rise to guilt and self recrimination.

All of a sudden people are fearful of admitting they aren’t satisfied with what they have. They feel like there’s something wrong with them if they can’t look on the bright side, put a smile on their face and pretend everything is awesome even when their life isn’t anything like as they want it to be.

I am seeing this again and again with clients who feel like they ought to be grateful for having a job that pays their bills, even if they hate it, dread the thought of getting up every morning and are plotting to drop some acid in their bosses coffee just to inject some excitement into their day.

Or feeling the need to be grateful for having a load of material stuff that in the final analysis they really don’t care about, or being physically healthy when they feel sad, lonely, or even depressed.

For many, they will fake gratitude just so that friends and family cannot use their lack of it as a stick to beat them with. And in other cases they will defend themselves against those that tell them to be grateful whilst deep down feeling those people are right, and that there’s something wrong with them for not feeling grateful.

But it doesn’t work like that, you cannot fake gratitude. If you despise your job, then being grateful isn’t the antidote, getting a new job is. If you don’t love your husband, should you really feel the need to be grateful just because you have one and a friend doesn’t? Of course not.

In fact trying to be grateful in the face of life sucking can exacerbate the situation because it creates cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is that awkward feeling you get when trying to hold two contrary beliefs at once. Even though there are way more than 50 shades of grey your brain prefers not to believe that. It wants binary information because it’s easier to deal with.

It likes black or white, true or false, big or small, right or wrong, fake or real. So when you try and tell it you’re grateful for something you really aren’t it knows and resists fiercely.

Being told that millions of people have it worse than you doesn’t improve your personal situation, any more than seeing somebody who is morbidly obese does when you’re merely obese.

You want to be happy, I want to be happy, we all want to be happy, it’s how we’re wired up. But happiness is a combination of many things as Britt’s book will tell you, including meaning or purpose, good self esteem, belief and yes, gratitude.

If you want to make a pizza and all you have is tomatoes it doesn’t matter how many tomatoes you throw into the oven you’re still only going to get hot tomatoes.

And if you have no meaning, no purpose, a low self esteem and don’t believe in yourself then no amount of gratitude will make you genuinely and lastingly happy.

I am NOT saying don’t be grateful, not at all. In fact do practice gratitude for those things you are genuinely appreciative of such as a a gorgeous day, a roof over your head or the fact that the dog threw up on the tiles and not the carpet. In such circumstance gratitude is awesome and has been proven to help raise happiness levels.

I am however saying don’t beat yourself up for not feeling grateful for something you dislike, anymore than you would for not feeling grateful for not being attacked by a  Velociraptor and a Great White Shark today whilst browsing in Anthropologie.

It’s easy for people to tell you to be grateful, but they aren’t living your life and only you truly know what that is like and whether elements deserve your thanks and appreciation, or your determination to change them.

I am grateful you read this post and will be even more grateful if you leave me a comment telling me about something you have felt pressured to feel grateful about, but really don’t.

See? I told you it was good. Tim is a life coach, by the way, and he has his own blog at A Daring Adventure. He also wrote a book, Aligning With Your Core Values, that I highly recommend.

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  1. Jb says:

    Hot tomatoes. Very funny. I appreciated this post and think exploring the inbetween states – I am grateful for X, but X happens to come with Y and Y tends to suck. Gratitude in pieces? Or parts?
    Also would love to hear more about how to not acquire the stuff we think will make us happy – and I mean furniture, tvs, toys, clothes…. That can be a challenge for me to stay clear about how to spend money (on travel!).

    • Tim Brownson says:


      When you buy something like a new piece of furniture you activate the part of your brain called the nucleus accumbens which is the pleasure center of the brain.

      You get a dopamine hit which makes you feel good (cocaine does the same thing) for a short period. After a while though you go through hedonic adaption and the pleasure the piece of furniture gave you starts to dissipate.

      That’s when your brain craves another hit so you buy something else and the cycle is repeated.

      Travel isn’t tactile, you can’t take it home with you and look at it or stroke it (not suggesting you stroke your furniture, but ya know). As such it can seem less appealing.

      Probably the easiest way to deal with this without going into techniques that are too complicated to explain in a blog comment is to simply prioritize, but do it on paper not in your head. Also invoke a cooling off period and commit to not buying on impulse or better still, not going shopping unless something on your priority list is at the top.

      Hope that helps.
      Tim Brownson’s most recent post: The Most Important Book Written This Decade

  2. Alex says:

    My job. That’s the Big One right now. We’ve had a lot of layoffs recently, and most of us have our jobs back now. One of my favorite coworkers is still unemployed.

    I feel sick because I think I “should” be grateful to have this job. The truth is that the 8 weeks I had off were some of the best weeks of my life, and I occasionally (but not seriously!) think of driving into oncoming traffic on my way in to work in the mornings because I hate it there so much …

    Great article, as usual! Nice reminder to ease up on myself a bit. :)

  3. Li-ling says:

    I liked this one Tim. Certainly a perspective that not many people realise or accept although it is very true. It’s similar to being told as a child, ‘You should be grateful you have food to eat, when there are starving African children out there’. There’s just no correlation as you say, no one else is living my life and hating these peas :)

    In the end, it really is about being true to ourselves, and doing what ever it is that makes us feel good (about ourselves) and if this means not being grateful for peas, that is fine too.

    Many thanks for sharing this.
    Li-ling’s most recent post: Choose to be happy

  4. Susan says:

    This article is exactly what I needed to see, thank you for writing it. You put into words what I feel but have trouble expressing. What I’m having difficulty with is the use of gratitude to silence someone. If every word coming out of your mouth is not surrounded by sparkly stars and little rainbows, you are complaining and that is absolutely unacceptable. So, it’s one or the other where I live. We do not have sheltered bus stops here, so in bad (windy, cold, hot) Texas weather it’s very difficult for those waiting for the bus which is more often late rather than on time. Don’t speak up to anyone who has the power to fix things, they don’t want to hear it. Instead, we are supposed to be grateful that there is a bench and and bus. Grrrrrrr.

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