Forcing Gratitude Isn’t Good For Mental Health
Letting ourselves feel the negative emotions and validating them is critical
“Be more grateful” is advice we hear all the time when we go through times of hardship and adversity. Gratitude is echoed through both secular and religious circles, and preaching gratitude often comes with good intentions and positive research. According to Harvard Health Publishing, gratitude helps people connect with something larger than themselves and is consistently associated with happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, and build stronger relationships.
During a time of a pandemic that has killed over 263,000 Americans, I’ve heard people tell others, with good intention, that being grateful for what we have in health and having jobs, and simply being alive, is good for us. For those of us that haven’t contracted COVID, we should be grateful we don’t haven’t gotten it. For those of us who haven’t lost a family member, we should be grateful our families have largely stayed safe.
However, there’s a difference between having and expressing gratitude and forcing gratitude. According to Therese Borchard at Psych Central, forced and faked gratitude does not help with depression and anxiety. Borchard stresses that being guilted into feeling grateful doesn’t help much either.
Alfie Kohn at Psychology Today notes that gratitude is often oversold, and people who don’t express gratitude or criticize the concept are often labeled “negative.” He lamented the “evangelical fervor” about gratitude and the harm it brings to people. The answer isn’t to be relentlessly negative, but it isn’t to be relentlessly positive either — but the message of gratitude evangelists is to be super positive, all the time, almost in a toxic way. In the words of Ashley Abramson in Forge:
“Toxic gratitude forces people to breeze past their pain in search of a silver lining, whether or not one exists.”
Often, forcing gratitude simply makes feelings that make people uncomfortable resurface. Forcing gratitude is often, in the words of Kelsey McLaughlin, a Minnesota-based marriage and family therapist, a “quick fix” that “put[s] a layer of frosting on a shit cake.” It’s a means of preventing us from authentically responding to life in a way that is natural.
So forcing gratitude isn’t the answer. A common practice is listing three things you’re grateful for which is backed by robust research. Comparing our struggles to others who have it worse, however, is a fine line. Pursuing gratitude is a shift from what’s lacking to what we have, and seeking out gratitude really does work — but it’s not a panacea. According to Daniel Chegg and Jennifer Cheavens in the Journal of Happiness Studies, well-being improvements with gratitude interventions are attributed to placebo effects. The authors concluded that gratitude doesn’t have an effect on depression and anxiety.
Sarah Bence on Healthline emphasizes that forcing gratitude led her to invalidate her emotions since it’s not a blanket cure for mental health issues. She started breaking up with her gratitude practice in her early 20s when she started experiencing chronic pain. She started to feel more pain gradually, until one day she realized “I have chronic pain now.”
How she coped with her chronic pain was her gratitude journal. Bence said:
“ I convinced myself that my health was relatively good, at least compared to others.”
She wasn’t able to do as much as she used to in terms of exercise. And every time she went to the doctor, she understated her pain. She kept using her gratitude journal, even though she suspected there was something bigger that probably needed investigating. She asked herself who she was to seek out medical help when other people had it much worse than her. Essentially, she didn’t think she deserved better health for herself when so many others were struggling.
Now, she regrets that thought process because Bence forcing herself to be grateful led her to not seek medical treatment.
When gratitude is used as a method of comparison, it’s too often a game of “someone has it worse than me” in a way that makes us dismiss our own pain and suffering. Bence urges the valuable message that just because we perceive other people having worse pain doesn’t mean we don’t need help. And the game of comparison is usually a race to the bottom because in no world does a game of “who suffers the most?” benefit anyone.
Bence cites the work of Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, a psychologist in Florida, who says:
“It’s important when practicing gratitude not to invalidate your feelings of stress…You can have both: a strong sense of gratitude along with feelings of sadness, confusion, or anxiety,”
Ultimately, Bence would seek medical care and be diagnosed with endometriosis, the source of her chronic pain. Her mental health improved after she stopped using gratitude to “negate my stress and worries,” and Bence’s story is a lesson: forcing gratitude as a means of denying our emotions and not giving us the license to feel harms us instead of helping us.
The biggest takeaway from Bence’s story as well as the literature is that forcing gratitude is not good for mental health. Ultimately Bence urges us to revamp our gratitude practice by embracing authenticity and not pretending we’re grateful, thinking little over big, validating emotions, and staying away from comparisons. And it’s also okay not to pursue a gratitude exercise if it’s harming our mental well-being and causing a lot of misery.
Gratitude has a lot of benefits and is a great spiritual and religious exercise. It has its time and place. But it’s not a heal-all salve all the time for every occasion — it’s not a simplistic solution. It’s okay not to be grateful if you don’t feel grateful, and balance and moderation are key, instead of bulldozing your way into spiritual nirvana and happiness.
Instead, according to Abramson, looking for emotional generosity and people who give us that listening ear without unsolicited advice is crucial. So at the end of the day, advice like “look on the bright side” or “be more grateful” is often unhelpful or counterintuitive — for both the listener and the afflicted.
Letting ourselves feel the negative emotions and validating them is critical to our mental health. And gratitude is best when it comes naturally, too.