Are you practicing Gratitude...or Optimism?

 I think that sometimes we get so caught up in the ‘positivity’ movement that we become cold and insensitive to the true meaning and power of gratitude.

Gratitude is not the same thing as optimism.

Let’s take an example: you’ve had a long day at work, and your body is aching. Your work is overdue, your family is angry at you for various reasons, and you feel lonely.

Optimism might have you saying: ‘hey! Look on the bright side: at least you have a job. Unlike your neighbour, at least you have a family and aren’t completely isolated. How cam you complain about being tired when you have a fully-functioning body? At least you don’t have cancer like other people!’. 

This, my friends, is toxic positivity. Why ‘toxic’? In that moment, you don’t need a ‘cheerleader’. You don’t need to negate your emotions of distress, frustration, and sadness. You don’t need to focus on everything good in your life in order to ignore the difficult parts.

Enter gratitude.

In this situation, gratitude might have you saying: ‘this day was really hard, and I am exhausted. I am thankful for my job, but today was a long day. Of course, I love my family and am lucky to have them, but right now, I need to put in some boundaries because I feel overwhelmed. I might not have it as bad as other people, but today, my body is super tired and that is difficult for me’.

See the difference?

Gratitude takes a realistic look at everything in life: it makes no comparisons. Gratitude is not focussing on everything that is lovely in order to ignore the tough moments. Gratitude is about seeing the balance in life: that there is pain, but there is also joy.

Gratitude is not about comparing what you have (or don’t have) to others in order to feel better about your situation. It is about understanding that each person’s life is unique, and that each person experiences pain and suffering - as well as joy and success - in different ways. Comparisons here are irrelevant, as they only serve to deepen our pains.

Gratitude is not about listing off all the wonderful things in your life so that you can feel better in the moment about a tough experience. Gratitude is acknowledging a difficult experience and having self-compassion for yourself. It is about realizing that this moment is very hard on you - and you simultaneously have resources to help you cope with it. It is about realizing that you have had difficult times before, and have overcome them. It is not about trying to nit-pick a silver lining about every situation; it is realizing that life is a series of ups and downs. This ebb and flow is part of everyone’s life.

When we focus on gratitude, rather than optimism, we develop resilience. We are better able to handle the challenges that come our way because we are not denying our emotions or experiences. We focus on our internal locus of control, rather than on the external events around us. We make space for difficult emotions, accepting that these are part of the human experience. We also make time for self-care and joy, knowing that we are blessed in many ways. We can look at each situation not through a lens of disgust or despair, nor one of ignorant optimism; rather, we can view life through a balanced lens that sees a spectrum of emotions and experiences. Nothing is black and white - including our emotions and lives.

Today, choose gratitude over optimism. Choose to acknowledge your emotions about a situation, and to stop the comparison trap. Choose to remember that you have many things in your life that will help you overcome the tough moments. Choose to allow yourself to feel all your emotions, knowing that this is part of our human experience. Choose to accept your experience, knowing that remaining open to the ups and downs of life allows us to fully engage in what is meaningful to us. Choose to follow your values, and avoid judging a situation in the heat of the moment when emotions are high. Choose to live life, embracing the ebbs and flows…knowing that this means you are fully present. 

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