In the past year I’ve seen multiple articles posted on social media about the importance of having gratitude if you want to be happy. Most self-help books would probably say the exact same thing; after all, it really seems obvious that gratitude is important for happiness.
At the same time, for me and probably others, the idea of being told to be grateful can sometimes be grating. I mean, isn’t it true that some days truly are just bad days? Or even whole years (overall at least)? Should we force our brain as best we can to actually think it was a good day (or year) somehow? Doesn’t that become disturbingly reminiscent of something like “double-thinking” in Orwell’s 1984?
I think it comes down to the strong conviction that I never want to pretend something was good that was actually bad. I don’t want to pretend my day was good if it was, by most standards, bad. I don’t want to come home from, say, being fired from my job and spilling coffee on myself, and then pretend that my afternoon was nice. There is something inherently sick about that sort of thinking that we all feel deep down inside—pretending that things are better than they are. Voltaire even famously mocked this sort of thinking in his book Candide, giving a satire of the Leibniz’s conception that this is the best of all possible worlds (a view which Leibniz held for very specific philosophical reasons).
This leaves us in a bit of a quandary. We all know people who constantly self-victimize and believe things are way worse off than they actually are; all of us have done the same probably more than a few times. Humans have a terrible habit of making mountains out of molehills and even thinking, very sincerely, that their whole day has been a “bad” day because of what, from a more objective standpoint, was a very superficial problem. There clearly are times when we really do need to remember to be grateful and to make sure that we’re not seeing only the bad and not the good. To make matters worse, it’s been scientifically proven that we can legitimately mis-remember the past, including remembering terrible things happening that either weren’t nearly as bad we believe or didn’t even happen at all.
These two aspects: 1) not wanting to call something good that’s actually bad or evil and 2) knowing that human beings often skew the interpretation of their own state as worse off than it is, have been a puzzle for me for quite some time now. How do you resolve that? How do you be grateful and be as happy as you can but without pretending that reality is something that it’s not?
A Potential Solution
I recently read The Time Paradox, a fascinating book by two Stanford psychologists about our conception of time in our lives, and sure enough they talked about the importance of gratitude with respect to happiness. One of the suggested exercises for improving your happiness was to start a gratitude list every night where you write three things down that you were grateful for during the day. I followed it pretty faithfully for at least a month and I have to say, it really did improve my overall outlook on things.
During the course of the exercise, it started to dawn on me a possible solution of the “problem of gratitude,” as I’ll call it. First off, what you don’t do at the end of the day is pretend your day was a good day when it was really a bad day (though of course it’s vitally important to have a healthy dose of skepticism about your own judgement about that sort of thing anyway). Instead, you exercise the power you have to focus on the good of the day and not spend a single unnecessary mental cycle on the bad, though fully accepting the reality of both.
(You might need to process the bad, of course, to learn from it or grieve, but there is no need to dwell on it.)
Doing this is fully in tune with reality, but it allows the bad stuff in your day to have as little power over you as possible. It also helps correct any skewing you really are doing towards the bad and instead brings your perception of things back in favor of the good.
The same thing goes for looking back on our lives. There are dark periods in our past that will ultimately never seem like anything other than dark, honestly. But even those periods can be reclaimed to some degree by simply not dwelling on the darkness but instead remembering the good things, few as they may be, during that time and letting your mind rest on that.
On a final note, I’d like to note that Christians in particular can be guilty of Candide-ism (after all, Voltaire was attacking a form of Christian thought in his day). This is ironic, however, considering that Christianity at its foundation strongly affirms the existence of true, utter evil and the urgency that God has to stomp it out of existence. In the Christian worldview, evil and darkness really are evil and darkness—not something that’s merely a human conception and probably doesn’t exist metaphysically. As the Brene Brown1
clip explains below, Jesus wept when Lazarus died. He didn’t say, “Oh it’s actually great that Lazarus died so that better things can happen as a result. So…. rejoice!”
So feel free to have a sucky day today, but at the end of the day do your best to reflect only on the good and let the bad that happened—that yes, really happened and, yes, really sucked—have as little control over you and do as little damage as possible.
1 I randomly came across the above clip on a Christian blog, but I had previously seen Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability, which I recommend as well.