Gratitude Fatigue: Is Your Daily Practice Working Against You?

Glad Doggett

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The positive psychology movement of the 90’s opened the door to the power of beginning a daily gratitude practice, and ever since coaches and happiness experts have recommended a quotidian exercise in acknowledging your blessings.

Gratitude is touted as the surest way to find meaning and deep satisfaction in your life.

Oprah Winfrey sealed the deal and made gratitude practices go mainstream when she lauded the power creating a daily gratitude journal.

Not much has changed in the gratitude movement in the past 30 years. Gratitude journals are still the №1 tool of life coaches and positive psychology experts. Practically every self-improvement post you read sings the praises of committing yourself to writing down your gratitudes every day.

There’s a good reason why: Clinical trials indicate that a regular practice can have lasting effects: Sustained gratitude lowers blood pressure, improves immune function, and promotes happiness and well-being. All good, all needed.

The trouble with setting up a daily journaling ritual, however, is that it’s easy to pontificate on your blessings when things are going well. Gratitude is easy life is good and all you see are the desert flowers all around you.

But, what about bad, somber days? What about days when everything feels like it’s going wrong? As I write this, we still neck deep in the Covid-19 Pandemic. It’s been almost a year and the numbers of sick and dying continue to rise. Record numbers of people are out of work, businesses are closing, people are dying from hurricanes, and it’s hard to imagine a future without masks, political strife, and hate in the streets. On days like today, when doom and gloom take center stage, the last thing I can conjure is a quick list of my gratitudes.

I fell out of synch with my gratitude ritual when I couldn’t find a glimmer of light in the darkest days. The pressure to find something to celebrate every day made me feel bitter and frustrated. Daily journaling started feeling fake and forced, and quickly became a hollow, ineffective exercise in futility. What started as a positive activity to boost my mood had become another obligation, another must-do to check off the list. Another thing to berate myself about because I wasn’t getting it right.

What I needed was a new way; I didn’t want to totally give up my practice altogether. Rather, I wanted permission to alter it. I needed a new entry point into it.

The truth is, I know from firsthand experience how powerful gratitude journaling can be. It’s practically a foolproof way to get out of a rut and rewire how you think. My practice literally helped me shut down the mean girl voice in my head. I am a believer in the power, I was just tired. I needed a break from my daily ritual so I could get a clearer perspective and appreciate all the blessings in my life.

I started looking for a new way to practice gratitude, one that fits my tendency to be a rule breaker and never do things the way I’m told I’m supposed to do them. (Ok, I admit it! I am kind of a rebel when it comes to following conventional wisdom. I like doing things my own way, in my own time. Thank you very much.)

My search for a new gratitude practice led me to some interesting discoveries. I learned that gratitude is like a muscle. Working it consistently makes it stronger — yes — but like an overworked muscle, it needs time to rest. Overuse can do more harm than good. Overworking can lead to a strained, tired practice that no longer gives you the positive vibes you’ve come to expect.

The reason the euphoria doesn’t last forever is because your brain adapts over time to the positive outcomes your practice initially creates, which results in less powerful feelings. Again, like muscles, to get more out of your practice, you have to occasionally switch things up.

I also learned that I’m not the only one who suffers from gratitude fatigue. According to Robert A. Emmons, author of the book Gratitude Works! daily journaling may cause gratitude to become “untethered from its moral moorings, and collectively we are worse off because of it.” Over-practicing can become discouraging, and induce feelings of meaninglessness and futility.

To sustain a daily gratitude practice, you must use mental discipline and effort. Forcing yourself to consciously reflect, contemplate, and sum up your day every single day so you can find meaning and positivity is work, especially on days when everything seems to be going wrong.

While evidence shows that cultivating a daily practice helps people flourish, it also shows that it can be difficult to sustain because the choice of gratitude rarely comes without effort. And most of us are averse to effort, let’s be honest.

Emmons points out that a regular gratitude practice cannot be accomplished in a passive state of mind. “You have to remember to remember to be grateful.”

But on days like today, after getting off the phone with my mom who just told me she tested positive for Covid-19, gratitude is hard to come by. I am certain I don’t have the mental fortitude in this moment to muster up a list of all that’s wonderful in the world. My fatigue and frustration pushed me to find a new way to practice gratitude, one I could sustain, no matter what the world around me is doing.

For my gratitude practice to continue, I first had to identify the barriers that have distanced me from it. I named the reasons why I was pissed at my practice, and then developed new strategies to overcome the barriers I named.

The fix didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of trial and error, and copious amounts of grumbling. But finally, I made a list. Below are strategies that came out of my search. I tried each one and they actually worked. Maybe one will work for you, too.

Sometimes less is more. To avoid gratitude fatigue, I gave myself permission to journal only a couple days a week rather than every day. What a relief. I no longer felt the pressure to perform on bad days, and I let myself off the hook when I simply couldn’t do it. Now, when I choose to write in my journal, I give it my full focus and effort. “Occasional journaling boosts well-being more than the regular practice of counting blessings,” Emmons says.

Flip your practice on its head. Rather than only writing about my wins and successes, I started remembering ways I had overcome loss, failures, and how I refused to stay down after I’d fallen. One of my entries focused on an epiphany I had after I was fired from a job. The shame I felt from being fired fueled by drive to start my own copy writing business. It was eye-opening to review the situation from a different lens. That bad experience actually led to many positives changes that would probably not have happened if I hadn’t gotten fired in the first place.

Emmons says a reversal of fortune — a redemptive twist in your life when a difficult challenge was conquered — primes the pump of gratitude. “Recall a breakthrough you had in what was once an insurmountable problem and be grateful for the breakthrough,” he suggests.

Imagine what it would feel like to lose one of your blessings. Emmons suggests that thinking about the absence of something you appreciate or someone you love produces more gratitude and happiness than imagining its presence. For example, what would your life be like if you hadn’t met your best friend, gotten the new job, or gone out on that blind date with the person who ended up becoming the love of your life?

Go deeper rather than broader. If you want more ROI from your gratitude practice, you have to get into the minutia; you have to go deeper not wider. Rather than merely writing a list of three trite gratitudes and signing off, I slowed down and elaborated on one significant gratitude. Then, I drilled down and listed three specific reasons I am grateful for it. My writing became more methodical and detailed. I was particular about every word I used. Details in your gratitudes equal bigger dividends.

Put a positive spin on past “negative” events. Life coach Martha Beck often says, “Change your story, change your life.” She recommends a practice where you backtrack through your life’s narrative and ascribe a new meaning to experiences you’ve always labeled as negative.

Charles Garfield, Ph.D., calls this exercise “creating a chain of benevolence” in your life.

Try looking back through your life and following a chain of benevolence that led to something significant. Perhaps you wouldn’t have your current job without the recommendation of a kind acquaintance; maybe you wouldn’t have met your partner if not for the matchmaking savvy of your former co-worker; or maybe you wouldn’t have found a cure for your ailment if not for a doctor committed to researching every possible remedy. When you look closely at the events in your life, you will notice countless acts of benevolence that led to the good things you cherish,”Garfield says.

My chain of benevolence helped me acknowledge that events from the past that seemed bad on the surface weren’t always bad in the long run. They were pivot points along my path that helped me become who I am today.

Experiment with new techniques. When writing in my journal became boring and stale, I experimented with fresh, creative alternatives. One of my favorites was using my phone’s speech-recognition app and recording my gratitudes in the memo pad. This article lists several other unique ways to engage with a regular gratitude practice.

Be aware and present to blessings in the moment. Instead of limiting my gratitudes to a specific pre-scheduled time of the day, I started acknowledging them immediately. In the moment celebrations became the norm whenever a little surprise or an unexpected blessing popped into my day. A wave of thanks would wash over me and I’d wink at the Universe for sending me unforeseen gifts.

Ultimately, I made up with my gratitude practice, but it looks totally different than the tired one I was devoted to for so long. Some of the new strategies stuck, others I released with love. The bottomline is, to rekindle the fire that your gratitude practice ignites in your soul, you have to first admit when your old practice no longer serves you. Then, spend a little time figuring what does work for you.

Give yourself permission to customize a gratitude ritual that makes you feel inspired and open to the goodness coming your way. There is no wrong way to celebrate your blessings.

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Glad Doggett is a freelance writer from Louisville, Kentucky.

Louisville, KY
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