3 Ways Gratitude Gets Misused & What to Do Instead!

Woman with Her Pet DogYou'd have to be a hermit not to have heard about the life-enhancing properties of gratitude! There are countless spiritual leaders out there who recommend gratitude and talk about how it's changed their lives. Oprah keeps a Gratitude Journal listing at least 5 things a day she is grateful for, and swears that the more she is grateful, the more good keeps coming into her life.

I believe gratitude is beautiful and a wonderful spiritual practice. However, over and over again I see gratitude being misused - to our own and our client's detriment. Please read and share what you think in the comments at the bottom of this article!

Here are 3 Ways Gratitude Gets Misused (and What to Do Instead):

1. Gratitude is Not a Cure-All!

Many people see gratitude as a kind of "magic" solution that will change the way they think and fix what is "wrong" with themselves and their lives. "Here's the answer to all your problems, disappointments and challenges: Just be grateful!"

But there is no quick fix to feeling happy or satisfied. Gratitude is just one component of many that we use to create a more fulfilled life.

For example, gratitude alone won't help when life gets tough. People betray or let us down, we have financial difficulties, challenges with our children, the illness and death of loved ones.

Gratitude is just one of many tools available to help us through - but it's not necessarily the first or the best one we could use.

2. The Second Arrow

All too often when I read about gratitude it reads like a 'should'. There are millions of people starving somewhere right now - so we SHOULDN'T feel bad. We SHOULD look at everything we have to be thankful for and feel grateful instead.

But telling ourselves we SHOULD feel grateful when we already feel bad is what Buddhism calls "the second arrow". The first arrow hurts. But then we fire a second arrow by judging, criticising or "shoulding" on ourselves - and make ourselves feel even worse.

Gratitude is a beautiful thing. But when we judge ourselves for what we're actually feeling we make our lives much harder.

3. Gratitude as a Band-Aid

I've seen people repeatedly go straight for the gratitude when something challenging happens, using it to avoid what they really feel.

This forced gratitude makes things worse when we ignore the painful messages about what's not working for us and what went wrong. Without this information how can we move forwards? How will we know what to change? How can we ask for help?

"I'm so glad I broke my leg and lost my job, now I get to meet new people and try something different!" This viewpoint, whilst it can be helpful also neatly sidesteps the anger, disappointment, discomfort, fear and uncertainty someone may be feeling.

When gratitude stops us short of acknowledging how we really feel, it prevents us from seeking help and comfort, making changes and taking action. AND because those difficult feelings are not acknowledged and dispersed, they eat away at us, undermining our ability to feel good.

Gratitude is a Feeling, NOT just an Attitude!

Gratitude is not an attitude, but a feeling of thankfulness that arises naturally when our thoughts settle enough for us to see the truth of things. But if we're busy stuffing down how disappointed, hurt, upset or angry we are - the feeling of gratitude is going to find it hard to break through all those other swirling emotions.

Instead we can cultivate and practice looking for things to be thankful or grateful for - so that it becomes a way of approaching life.

Which Kind of Gratitude Are You Experiencing?

  1. REAL Gratitude arises naturally when we truly feel thankful and appreciate what is going on in our lives. I'm sure you can think of a time when a feeling of thankfulness and gratitude washed over you and how wonderful it felt. When we feel TRULY grateful we feel light and spacious and wonderful inside - it's authentic, satisfying, enlivening, calming even joyful. And THAT'S what we want.
  2. LOGICAL Gratitude is "thought" gratitude. We see the truth of it, it makes sense, we get how lucky we are - but we just don't FEEL it. When used as a cure-all or band-aid logical gratitude leaves us feeling empty.

What To Do Instead:

Cultivate Authentic Gratitude

Like any emotion, gratitude can't be forced. What we CAN do is cultivate our minds so that we create an environment where gratitude is more likely to arise.

Practicing gratitude helps create a HABIT where we focus on the positive in life - and this is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Many studies have now proven that gratitude makes us happier and healthier.

But let's stop pretending that everything's OK when it's not. When difficult things happen, let's not just stick a smile on it and say, "Thank-you" when really we're miserable. When horrible things happen, when people do us DISfavours - I am not grateful for these (at the time). It's only when I've soothed my feelings and had a chance to process them that I can see the silver lining - the learning or good that came out of a difficult time.

What About Keeping A Gratitude Journal?

If people want to keep a gratitude journal - I say go for it - enjoy it! But, ONLY record things you TRULY feel grateful for. Don't record "Shoulds". Don't FORCE yourself to be (intellectually) grateful for something that you're not. Take the time to find things you're authentically grateful for and - with practice - over time you'll probably find the things you are grateful for expand and increase.

Coaching Tip: If people struggle with a gratitude journal, I recommend starting each entry with a list of things you're unhappy about. Once it's acknowledged and out of your system, move onto the grateful part. You'll probably be able to genuinely find the things to be grateful for in your first list - but this time it will move you forwards...

Let's Get REAL and Be Authentically Grateful!

When we focus on being truly grateful for our life and what we have in THIS moment instead of wishing things were different, we will be happier. But let's not force ourselves to feel gratitude before we're ready. Gratitude is not a universal solution for our spiritual growth and "balm" for all our suffering.

Forcing gratitude when we haven't first acknowledged what we really feel prevents us from dealing with the source of the problem - and it makes it much harder to feel that wonderful true gratitude. And when we AVOID our difficult feelings - we also leave a festering wound underneath.

By all means let's focus on what's great in our lives, rather than what is terrible. Let's keep gratitude journals and say positive affirmations. But let's be sure our clients acknowledge what they're REALLY feeling before we ask them what they're grateful or thankful for.

When we recognize that gratitude is a feeling - and can't be forced, then we can create the circumstances that provide a clear space from which REAL gratitude can arise.

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  1. Maureen

    Hi Emma,

    This is so true and made me feel so good! I get sick of all that "just be grateful" stuff as there are times I am genuinely I do not feel grateful and trying to force it makes it so much worse and if I just accept that the situation is so dire I can be mean spirited and selfish enough to wallow in it for awhile I will normally see the gratitude after this period. Much better than forcing it and lying to myself.

    Thank you so much for your wonderful tools and as reasonably new coach I really appreciate them as they are so "normal" and not full of pie in the sky stuff or so rigid no human could live by them.


    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Maureen, Thank-you for taking the time to comment! And I'm so glad you found the article helpful. I think we all want to avoid feeling yucky, and "gratitude" sometimes gives us a nice "out". But as you have discovered, acceptance helps us heal and move on! I think gratitude usually naturally follows once we're out of the worst of a bad situation.

      And thank-you for sharing your thoughts on our tools - it's great to hear you like and find them helpful and practical! Warmly, Emma-Louise

  2. Morana

    Dear Emma,

    Thank you for this wonderful reflective article about relationship with gratitude. I completely resonate with your saying that the feeling of gratitude naturally unfolds and comes from the deeper realm of grater wisdom from within and it's often misused. Rather to express it rarely from the heart than often and when is "appropriate". There's no room for shoulds and musts when it comes to deeply sensed gratitude.

    Thanks again for a such beautiful topic and words.

    Warm regards,


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