Grateful for What? 3 Common Roadblocks to Gratitude and Tips to Overcome Them

November 23, 2021

“The more grateful I am, the more beauty I see”

 -Mary Davis

We’ve known for years –  intuitively, anecdotally, and now scientifically – that Gratitude is powerful; decreasing anxiety, depression, stress, and contributing to a general sense of well-being and happiness. This practice cuts across many cultural and faith traditions worldwide. If gratitude is so powerful, why is it then, that when it gets down to the nuts and bolts of it, we may have significant difficulty putting it into practice? 

While each person and their circumstances are different, we have seen 3 common barriers to the effective practice of gratitude: 

  1. Hedonic Adaptation: This positive psychology concept captures the general proclivity for humans to “adapt”, “habituate” or get used to things–essentially leading to a return of happiness levels prior to the activity or pleasure experienced. As it relates to gratitude, someone may have difficulty recognizing things to be grateful for because they no longer see it as special or notable. For example, I may enjoy running, yet have difficulty practicing gratitude for my ability to run or the experience of running. We may become desensitized and perhaps no longer notice or appreciate the good things in our lives.  Additionally, often ingrained in our culture is the idea of focusing on the next best thing vs. what we currently have. What in your life do you take for granted?

2. Negativity Bias-Researchers have repeatedly found that our brains are wired to notice and pay attention to the negative experiences vs. the positive ones. For example, one may easily remember and quickly recall all of the things that went wrong this season or year–yet struggle to identify the positive experiences of this year and what went well or right. We all likely know at least one person in our lives (this may even be you)  that tends to frequently complain about most things. This person is frequently the victim and falls into a chronic pattern of negative thinking.

3. Current Pain/Suffering–Has anyone ever said to you “you should be grateful” or “at least it’s not worse” when you were going through a painful or difficult experience. Statements such as these can be triggering and feel like a dismissal of one’s pain. Someone may think “How can I be grateful when I have lost someone I love?” “How can I be grateful when I am experiencing multiple losses socially, financially, physically, etc?” Or, when coming from a place of depression or despair, feel “I have nothing to be grateful for”.

Below are some tips and strategies to help you overcome these blocks:

  1. Intentionally notice the small moments that connect you to others and foster a sense of compassion. It is key that you actively attend to not only the major experiences but also to the small joys. Try this exercise: Imagine you’ve lost something or someone that you love. Notice the feelings that come up for you. How does this exercise change or impact your perspectives, emotions, and spirit?

2. Focus on the positive! Begin a practice of actively attending to the positive experiences in your life. A short-term project could be starting a gratitude journal and writing down 3 things you are grateful for each day. A longer-termed practice could be to create a gratitude jar and write down 1 thing you are grateful for on a slip of paper, drop it in the jar, and after a year (next November), open your jar, and review and remember all of the blessings you have been grateful for. You can also involve your family, friends, or loved ones by routinely sharing with one another you are grateful for. By doing these types of practices, we can actually rewire our brains!. The more we practice gratitude, the easier it becomes.

Practice Acceptance: Practice acknowledging and accepting your pain and suffering and recognize that you can approach gratitude while also experiencing mixed emotions (sadness, grief, anxiety, anger). By accepting those uncomfortable and painful emotions, it can give us space to also hold the elements of our experience or current circumstances that we are grateful for ( the ability to feel and feel alive, cherished moments of connection and love, our journey, and how far we have come, resilience or survival, time/memories with loved ones, or spiritual lessons). Give yourself permission to acknowledge your emotions, feel your emotions, and challenge yourself to identify at least 1 thing you are grateful for–even in the midst of your pain or suffering. If you find yourself struggling, that’s ok–you can also practice self-compassion in the moment and remind yourself that you can always try again at a different time.

While November is gratitude season, we know and understand that building a routine practice of gratitude is not always a walk in the park, however, it can certainly be a meaningful opportunity to build a new skill, expand and stretch outside of one’s comfort zone, and increase your overall well-being. Today, what are you grateful for?

*Please Note: The information provided on or through this website or blog is for educational and informational purposes only and solely as a self-help tool for your own use. Engaging with this material does not constitute a client/therapist relationship*

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