It’s become a popular notion that every experience, negative or positive, is something to be grateful for, but has adopting an attitude of eternal gratitude made us forget how to say “no thank you” when we should? In this season of being thankful, remembering we don’t have to accept every “gift” that comes along may be one of the most important lessons we can learn.
Gratitude is a beautiful thing. It’s also a healthy thing, and research has found people who live with an attitude of thankfulness may be healthier and experience less depression than their ungrateful counterparts. Being grateful for the good things, the simple things, the things that come by fortune and the things we work hard for is an effective way to live joyfully and, some say, create more abundance in our lives.
But can we be too grateful? It turns out, we can. Believing we should feel grateful for everything that comes our way, even the difficult things, can illicit feelings of guilt when we want something more—or something else—and encourage complacency in unhealthy relationships and careers. As an extreme example, let’s say you work for an abusive boss who belittles your performance, passes you over for promotions you deserve and sabotages your success at every turn. But instead of confronting your boss, speaking to his/her supervisor or searching for a new job, you focus only on the good things at work—the things you believe you should be grateful for.
As a practice, gratitude is only helpful if we’re willing to be honest about our needs and goals. It’s also important to separate the experience from the lesson gained. People who’ve suffered a serious illness are often excellent role models for this skill. No one says “I’m grateful to have cancer” and then makes no effort to treat it or has no goal to live longer. But cancer patients often express how grateful they are for the wisdom gained because of being ill, such as a deeper appreciation for their family or learning to live in the moment.
Being ungrateful for unpleasant things, like an abusive boss or unfulfilling relationship, doesn’t make us ingrates. It makes us human. To use the extreme example again, the purpose of a gratitude practice is not to settle for a dead-end job where you are treated poorly because you’re “thankful to have a job when so many people are unemployed.” The purpose is to live a more joyful, compassionate life. And that is something to be very, very thankful for.