Have you seen the commercial for the online therapy service that features “friends” offering “helpful advice”? In the commercial, a variety of people offer helpful suggestions for overcoming depression. Suggestions like “think about all the people that have it worse than you” or “you have so much to be happy for.” And sometimes, it can feel like people are pushing you to be happy and grateful as an alternative to really listening, or even encouraging you to get professional help when that’s what is really needed.
There’s a lot of research that shows feeling grateful and learning to actively practice gratitude can be effective ways to manage depression and anxiety. Learning to feel grateful and to sit with the hard feelings was really important for me personally. I strongly recommend it. But we also need to be a little thoughtful about gratitude.
Like the actors in that commercial, when we let gratitude become a cliché it loses all meaning. There are times when we just can’t feel grateful. And shouldn’t. When we’re being mistreated, or when we experience a loss, or when we’re struggling to keep afloat, it is not helpful for someone to say “you should be grateful, it could be so much worse.” It is not necessary or healthy to push sadness down or to pass up professional help and try to “think yourself happy.”
Having said that, however, there is a place for gratitude in everyone’s life. Not the toxic “it could be so much worse” or “someday you will see this as the best thing that ever happened to you” kind of gratitude. I’m talking about the gentle gratitude that surrounds us and lifts us up, sometimes without our even noticing it.
Like gratitude for the guy that let you into the stream of traffic, or gratitude for being the person that let someone else into traffic. Gratitude for hot drinks when we’re cold, a smile from a stranger, being able to hear children laugh, and getting the parking space close to the door.
That kind of gratitude is actually born of mindfulness. Of deciding each day to notice the small things and appreciate them. And then further deciding to let the small things be more important than the one big thing that really made you mad.
Seeing the small things can be hard. It is much easier to let the small good things be overshadowed by all our grievances, both real and imagined. And it is easy to let gratitude become a cliché we reach for to cover up a world of hurt and our own lack of empathy.
So today, of all days, take a moment to notice and be grateful for the small things. And acknowledge the hard things, too. Because life is complex and challenging, and beautiful.