I have a love/hate relationship with gratitude. It’s the raison d’etre of my favorite holiday. It’s 1/3 of Ann Lamott’s foolproof trinity of prayers. And, research shows that it can do all kinds of things for you.
It makes you happier, boosting positive emotions like joy, pleasure, and optimism. It strengthens your immune system and lowers your blood pressure. It helps you sleep better. It makes you resilient in the face of trauma. And it also makes you more compassionate. (Ask a scientist!)
There’s no doubt about it. Gratitude is awesome. It’s life changing. It’s magic, if you ask Rhonda Byrne. And yet, every November 1st, I brace myself for the month-long onslaught of hash-tagged blessings — the cornucopia of humble-brags disguised as heartfelt expressions of thankfulness.
Don’t get me wrong. Over the past six months I’ve worked hard to develop a gratitude “practice.” I write a gratitude list every morning while I drink my coffee. And every night before I go to sleep, I think back over my day, pick the best thing that happened, and say “thank you.”
Actively cultivating an “attitude of gratitude,” is nothing new. Over 400 years ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola came up with he called the daily examen. This daily practice of prayerful mindfulness includes reviewing the events of your day with gratitude. The Buddhist practice of Naikan asks us to reflect on the past 24 hours of our lives and ask ourselves these three questions:
What have I received? What have I given? What difficulties have I caused?
Notice what’s missing? Neither one of these practices includes a step that says, “Tell everybody around you what you’re grateful for.” They’re deeply personal contemplative practices. They’re not about making sure everybody else knows how thankful you are. They’re about making sure that you see all that you have to be thankful for.
Gratitude has become a spectator sport. And November is its month in the social media spotlight. But I suppose I should be thankful. Come December it will be replaced by the just-plain-creepy Elf on a Shelf.