How to Stop Forcing Gratitude and Start Feeling It…

Our generous friends invite my partner and me to stay at their lake home every Thanksgiving when they leave to visit family on the East Coast, and for seven precious days I drink cup after cup of hot tea while curled up on the couch with a cozy blanket, watching the spectacle of the lake as it changes.

A hawk on the prowl. The wind dancing across the water. Ducks and geese coming and going. Otters skittering across the ice. The shifting reflections of trees and clouds and sky. It’s better than any show I can find on TV.

Yesterday, we returned to our own home, which, beautiful as it is, comes with no lake view. Instead, it has a to-do list as long as my arm. All I can see when I look around are potential chores, both inside and out. Leaves to be raked. Clothes to be washed. A door in need of repair. An empty refrigerator in need of filling. I could be sad. Wistful even. Dissatisfied with my current reality. Or I could focus instead on feeling grateful for the time I had at the lake house. As the saying goes, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

But I have a confession to make during this holiday season of thanksgiving. I really dislike our culture’s one-sided view of gratitude. I cringe at the thought of making a daily gratitude list and bristle at the idea that I should feel grateful for the good things in my life. And most of all, I don’t like the reputation gratitude has garnered as the cure for what ails us, because sometimes trying to force it upon ourselves only creates more problems.

Ten years ago when I first developed anxiety, I tried to establish a gratitude practice. Every night, I wrote down a list of all my blessings, which always included my caring husband, great job, wonderful family, and a beautiful home. And every single night I stared at that list waiting for the feeling of gratitude to wash over me, but all I felt was…nothing.

At that point my inner critic assumed I had two problems to fix: I was anxious and I was ungrateful, too. But something inside me wasn’t buying it. Instead of trying to continue to make myself feel grateful, I intuitively decided to scrap the whole idea and explore other options. To this day, I have no interest in making a gratitude list.

People who know me now may be surprised to read this. For all the world, I appear to be someone who excels at cultivating gratitude, because I am genuinely grateful every day. In fact, my gratitude is so intertwined with who I am, it’s almost like breathing, but I didn’t get to this point through concerted effort. I got here by no longer forcing myself to feel what I thought I should feel.

Gratitude, as I have come to know it, is completely unconditional.

It isn’t reserved for the “good” things that happen to us. It comes from inside us and flows limitlessly out into the world when we remove the layers of assumption, judgment, and expectation we place upon it. It also isn’t intended to help us stay positive in the midst of hard times. Instead, unconditional gratitude lifts us above our black and white perspective of the world and allows us to discover that it’s possible to be grateful for everything in life.

That’s right. All of it.

When I stopped trying to force myself to feel a certain way about my positive circumstances, I realized I was most organically appreciative of the challenges I faced. Like my anxiety. And my fears. My failures, too. Every single one of these experiences has taught me more about myself than the supposed “good” things that have happened to me in my life. For that wisdom, I am eternally grateful.

Unconditional gratitude acknowledges that we can’t know at this point in time how an experience will shape us in the future. The good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly as we see it in this moment. Who knows what it will eventually become.

Unconditional gratitude also allows us to look back with nostalgia at our past experiences without also comparing them to the present moment. No one moment is better or worse than the next, regardless of how we judge it based on what we know right now. Sometimes there is a lake view and sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes there are chores and sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes there is failure. Or happiness. Or grief. Or laughter. Or anger. And sometimes there isn’t. Like the surface of the water, what we experience is always changing and that makes it precious in its own right.   

Unconditional gratitude has helped me to realize that the lake house doesn’t create my feelings of peaceful contentment. They originate inside me and I can tap into them in a thousand different unexpected ways when I drop my assumptions about what should evoke them.

I woke up to no lake view this morning and found peace by finishing up the last of the yard tasks before the snow starts flying tonight. I discovered contentment while helping my partner repair our front door. And I felt effortlessly grateful for all of it. For the air in my lungs and the dirt on my kitchen floor. For the home cooked meal we pieced together with what we found in the fridge and for the opportunity to go grocery shopping tomorrow. Gratitude isn’t an attitude we cultivate. It’s who we are as humans when we experience life without comparing it to what we think it should be.

The first step is to remove the conditions from your concept of gratitude. The second step is to live. And the third step is to observe what flows from inside you out into the world.

What does unconditional gratitude look and feel like for you?