I have become weary the last few years of any program for joy, happiness or positivity that excludes negative emotions. Yes, negativity with no gratitude can be unhealthy, but it is not a life affirming action to banish grumbling, negativity and complaining and try to replace them with positive and happy emotions. It is like trying to create a day that has no night, or a baby that never cries. At its best it is unsustainable. And at its worst it is toxic. Gratitude that cannot hold the difficult emotions and moments of life is what I call toxic gratitude.
Toxic gratitude is like candy. It is sweet. It looks sweet to others, too. But too much of it will make us sick. We need Brussel sprouts and spinach and apples, too. No, leafy vegetables are not as aesthetically pleasing. They do not have shiny wrappers, and they are vulnerable to bugs and worms. But they are a healthy, vital part of being human. If we try to hide our dark thoughts and emotions behind shiny wrappers, we will end up damaged indeed.
Because I want to live a joyful life and know that science has proven that gratitude is a key component, I have been searching out programs for gratitude that hold space for all of my feelings and can support my wholeness. I have found two.
The first I encountered while taking James Baraz’s course, Awakening Joy. It is highlighted in this seven minute video clip entitled, “Confessions of a Jewish Mother: How My Son Ruined My Life!”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRbL46mWx9w. In this hilarious clip, Selma Baraz shares a story about a practice that her son James taught her at age 90. Selma, a Jewish mother of three, was very adept at “kvetching” (complaining or chronic grumbling). She complained about just about everything all the time. The little “mantra” that her son James taught her was to add the phrase, “And my life is truly very blessed” to the end of each complaint. That is it. It is that simple. And it changed (or “ruined”) her life—it made her happy.
I have adopted this technique myself, and it is one of my favorites. It is especially fabulous one week out of every month when my brain turns into a litany of complaints. The worst thing I can do for my happiness when my brain has turned dark is to tell myself that I shouldn’t be feeling this way. The most life affirming thing I can do is to add, “and my life is truly very blessed” to each complaint. Not to negate the complaint—I can hold the space for a complaint. But I add the phrase to affirm the truth: my life is truly very blessed. Go ahead and try it now. Say something that really bothers you out loud...and then add "and my life is truly blessed." If you tried it, how do you feel?
The second life transforming gratitude practice that I have developed is a journaling exercise that I complete first thing every morning. This practice is inspired by Melody Beattie’s book, Create Miracles in Forty Days. Each morning, after taking a moment to write down my dreams and goals, I turn on my computer, open my E-mail, and I write the following at the top of the blank page: Today I am grateful that…. For the next ten minutes, I write down every feeling, life circumstance and thought that I am absolutely not grateful for.
Here are some sample prompts.Today I am grateful to be fully human, fully alive.
Today I am grateful that…
I dream of….
I feel sad that…
I feel angry that…
I feel afraid that…
I feel grateful that….
I pause often as I journal to feel my feet, breathe, and allow the feelings to wash over me.
This daily “gratitude” journaling is helping me gradually learn to turn toward rather than away from difficult feelings, life situations and thoughts. It is a practice of allowing all of my thoughts, feelings, life circumstances, and reactions to come into the sunlight of awareness. And the practice of turning toward all of our feelings and experiences with kindness and curiosity is at the heart of mindful awareness and awakening true joy.
It is important to note that neither of these practices are designed to supplant negativity by producing “feelings” of gratitude (what I call toxic gratitude). But rather these practices are designed to help us over time learn to embrace the wholeness of our humanity so that we may know in our hearts the blessing that it is to be fully human, to be fully alive in this day.