To be grateful when life is beating you down and you really don’t feel like it feels incongruent. How can you get aligned and feel grateful from your heart?
How to be grateful when you don’t feel it
Our natural negativity bias can get in the way of gratitude. Especially if you’re a person who looks at the world with a mindset of “how can I makes it better?” That impulse to fix and improve presupposes that there is something wrong.
And then sometimes life is just hard. You’re in a season of winter when everything is a struggle and you feel like life has let you down.
Does Daily Gratitude Practice Work?
Some people are skeptical of a daily gratitude practice. I was one of them. On January 1, 2014, I decided to test the theory that writing down my gratitude each day would make me happier. I haven’t skipped a day since. Almost 4 years later, I can say with 100% certainty that this practice does shift things over time.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s especially hard when you are going through a rough patch. And I know a thing or two about that. This entire year has been one giant “rough patch” for me. And I can tell you that it’s a testament to the power of my gratitude practice (and my other daily rituals) that I’m here today. In moments when I was on the ledge, they pulled me through.
If you’re a certain type of person, it can feel incongruent to list things you’re grateful for when you don’t feel grateful.
So, how do you tap into gratitude even when you don’t feel grateful?
3 Things that Block Us From Feeling Gratitude
First, it helps to understand what blocks us from gratitude. There are many things that close us to gratitude. Here are my top three:
Whether we compare ourselves to others or even to previous versions of ourselves, comparison blocks us from feeling grateful for who we are, where we are and what we have.
(2) Vision: seeing how things could be
When you have a big vision of what something can be or look like, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of “what’s missing.” This makes it hard to feel grateful.
When we approach life with expectations, we set ourselves up to resist what is. And this resistance blocks us from gratitude. Expectations are often the biggest block to our ability to feel gratitude. One of my favorite quotes on this is from Tony Robbins:
To change your life, trade your expectations for appreciation. — Tony Robbins
Action: Check your blocks
When you don’t feel grateful, check if you’re stuck in one of these areas. Are you comparing yourself to someone else, or to a previous version of yourself? Are you focused on how things could be? Or do you have an expectation of how something or someone should act, or how life should treat you?
Take it Further: Prompts to Focus Your Gratitude
The question “what are you grateful for” can feel too big to elicit meaningful responses. What often keeps us stuck is that we seek the big moments. But it’s the little things that make life meaningful. Just like with celebrating wins, the big things are in the little things.
To better tap into gratitude, especially when you’re not feeling it, it can help to reframe the topic to focus on more discrete areas.
I have pages and pages of these prompts, but here are a few of my favorites to help you find gratitude even when you’re going through a rough time. These are all in the area of expectations.
(1) What are you taking for granted?
Start with things in life that you tend to take for granted. Taking things for granted is part of expectations — we simply expect those things to work because that’s status quo. Often we don’t appreciate those things until we experience life without them.
The Most Basic Example: Waking Up
On January 10, 2015, my expectations around this seemingly simple act changed forever. In the middle of the night, I awoke to find myself on the floor. I managed to get back into bed before I felt the blood on the back of my head. Throughout the night, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, I wondered if I would wake up the next morning.
Spoiler: I survived.
I had gotten up during the night and fainted; I fell to the hardwood floor and hit my head. I spent months recovering from a TBI (traumatic brain injury), but I was able to move and walk. Today, almost three years later, I sometimes experience temporary vision loss when I spend too much time in front of screens, but I am lucky. I could have snapped my neck.
This occurred in the middle of a 20-month period where I lost two friends who died in their sleep. One of the most important lessons I learned in that year and a half was never to take waking up for granted. Every day since that experience I express my gratitude for the fact that I woke up and can stand on my own two feet. Such a simple thing that I had previously taken for granted.
What do you take for granted that you can be grateful for?
(2) Support: Who showed up for you?
It’s hard to feel grateful when you feel unsupported by life. When it feels like everything is going wrong, like life is letting you down, it is easy to see the people who aren’t showing up for you. Often, they are the people closest to us, and we expect those people to have our back, or act a certain way. When they don’t, we feel betrayed and disappointed. This blocks our ability to feel gratitude.
We tend to feel unsupported when we feel unseen and unheard. Look beyond the people who did not show up, and consider who did show up for you. Who helped you feel seen and heard — even in small ways — during your day?
Here are five categories of people to consider:
(a) People in Your Life
- someone who called from out of the blue after a long absence from your life.
- a new friend
- an old friend
- someone who said the right thing at the right time
(b) Your Daily Interactions
- a stranger who held the door for you or gave you a glance and a smile
- someone who commented on something you wrote and published online and how it meant something to them
- someone who held space for you during a tough time
- the barista who made your coffee
- the checkout person who packed your bag at Whole Foods
(c) The People Behind the People
We are supported in so many ways by people we never see or meet. And yet, when they don’t show up, we notice. Periodically, when I arrive at the gym early in the morning, the gym isn’t open. Sometimes the receptionist is late or forgets to show up. I notice. I must go to another gym. So when she is there, I am grateful.
When the subway runs on time (or at all) I am grateful, because I know what it feels like when it doesn’t run.
As you reflect on your day, take each interaction a step deeper to consider who else played a part, even if you don’t know their names or didn’t see them.
- the person who showed up to work to open the coffee shop, or the gym, or the stores you stopped into on the way home
- the people who keep the traffic lights working
- the person who cleaned your office overnight while you went home to sleep
Warning: Beware of the Trap
For some of the people in categories b + c, you may think:
But those people aren’t showing up for me, they were just doing their job.
I want to point out that if you are thinking that, this is a perfect example of expectation blocking appreciation. Yes, they were doing their job, but how often do people not show up for their job? When they don’t, we are quick to complain. How quickly do you appreciate it when they do show up?
How do you know they didn’t come to work today specifically to support you? Even if they came to support others too, that doesn’t diminish how they supported you.
(d) The People Who YOU Served
One area we often overlook is how we helped others. Did you offer someone directions? Did you share wisdom with someone in need of it? Did you hold the door for someone?
We do these small acts for people because they make us feel good about ourselves. But you cannot hold the door for someone unless there is someone to walk through it.
Consider the people who you helped. They showed up so that you could help them. That counts.
I’ve maintained a daily gratitude practice since January 1, 2014. I regularly come up with 5–10 daily gratitudes. It was only this year, in the middle of year 4, that I realized I had never written a gratitude for myself. Not one. And yet I show up for myself all the time. I do things today that will help me tomorrow. I create ways to make my life easier. Gratitude toward yourself counts. Don’t forget it.
Some inquiries to guide you:
- How did you show up for yourself?
- What things did you do in the past that are benefiting you now?
- What did you do today that will benefit future you?
- How did you stand in your value?
- What commitments to yourself did you keep?
Note that this is different from acknowledging and celebrating your wins, which is focused only on today’s wins. By thanking your past self, you are reaching back to something you did previously and connecting it to the way it paid off today. This also signals to your subconscious the value of that prior behavior. By recognizing the reward, you reinforce the action and are more likely to engage in it again in the future.
Action: Reflect and Journal
Try adding these categories and prompts to your evening reflection ritual. As you journal your daily gratitude, notice the difference in how you feel when you consider these two categories: what you take for granted and who showed up to support you. (What? You don’t have a daily reflection ritual? Let’s fix that ASAP).
For me, these categories remove the perfunctory nature of the “checklist gratitude” and open me up to more heartfelt emotion.
When All Else Fails
I know well that sometimes life really just sucks. And as much as we may intellectually know that we “should” be grateful, we simply don’t want to be grateful. And if that’s where you are, that’s ok. Allow yourself to be there.
At the end of the day, it’s your choice.
And that, in itself, is something to be grateful for.
Thank you for reading this. Whether you’re a regular reader of my work or just meeting me for the first time, I want you to know how grateful I am for the opportunity to share some of my life lessons with you. I hope this has served you in a meaningful way.