When I first started hearing about the benefits of gratitude from the world of positive psychology, I resisted. In my childhood home, gratitude was spoken about in the same breath with “selfish” and “myopic.” Gratitude was a “should,” like those apologies I faked. Insisting I feel gratitude for what I had when I wanted more was manipulative and resulted in me questioning my confidence, dreams and ambition. Who would want that?
I was also worried that there was an inevitable progression from gratitude to contentment and from contentment to laziness and complacency. I’m not alone in this thinking. It’s ubiquitous in our culture. You need only look at those around you (probably sitting close by) who have difficulty acknowledging their strengths or achievements for fear they won’t want to improve if not found lacking. This stems partly from a variety of societal influences (Judeo-Christian guilt, Calvinist ideas of moral living, Freudian distrust of our powerful unconscious desires, etc.) which evoke a lack of trust in ourselves, a version of fear.
When, I recommend gratitude practice for clients and practice it on my own, this is not the type of gratitude I mean.
For gratitude to be positive, it’s important to look at motivation for wanting “more.” At the risk of over simplifying, there are generally two types of motivation.
One type has an edge. It has a grasping driven quality lacking joy; be more, get more, do more, have more than someone else! This type of motivation is often about the lack of belief in ones own worth. It’s driven by “I’m not good enough.” The “more” that gets generated from this source often doesn’t satisfy in any meaningful way and requires constant feeding to stave of feelings of emptiness. And, it also gives desire for “more” a bad name, because it breeds greed and the lack of empathy that goes with it.
Wanting more is fundamental to the human condition. In its purest form it’s the desire to express creation by blooming; by metaphorically and literally planting seeds to create more of what we love. It is recognition that life is always moving forward. Moving forward means “more” is coming. Until we are no longer breathing,there’s a “next.” If we believe this inclination for more is something bad, something about which we should feel guilt or shame,then we shut down our life force.
More can come about because we recognize that a new expression is needed. Perhaps a truer manifestation of who we are now as we continue to grow. It could be in the areas of how we work; a refined definition of purpose; a change in life balance; the desire for a new skill or, the way we are in our relationships (to name just some). This fresh something is what comes from connection to our innate creative nature as members of a generative universe.
So where does gratitude come into all this? Harvard Psychologist, Daniel Goleman, reminds us that gratitude requires awareness, recognition and acknowledgment. If someone gives us flowers, we must first be aware that we received something, recognize that it came from this other person who was thinking of us, and then acknowledge to them that we appreciate their gift. If you give something to me, I see it, I feel it in my heart, and I give back to you by acknowledging your gift. We can be grateful to people. And, we can open our awareness to the small and large everyday gifts that are always around us. When notice those and acknowledge them, we can reach a levels of joy that’s often described as, spiritual.
Gratitude and the desire for “more,” are sister lakes watered by the same spring. When we drink in the gifts around us, we become more aware of the unique gifts we bring to, and receive from, the larger whole. As we create ourselves we find more, we want more, we want to give more, we desire to make more so we feel our impact on the world in whatever ways that has meaning for us. Feeling gratitude for what we do have gives us access to the joy and grounding for that expression.