How to Make a Gratitude Practice That Doesn’t Feel Like Toxic PositivityStop looking at the bright side.
If you’ve ever thumbed through a self-help book or if your eyeballs contributed to the 3.3 billion views of “gratitude” videos on TikTok, you know everyone is out here giving a TED Talk on the benefits of feeling grateful, aka practicing gratitude. It makes you feel better about your life! Makes you more optimistic! It chills you out! You get it. The hype is coming in hot. But, in my experience, practicing this mental fitness tip has been a bit of a flop.
Seriously, I have given it my best. Countless times I’ve written, “I’m grateful for my supportive family, my amazing friends, this beautiful apartment, living close to the beach…” But whenever I pause to read back everything I truly am thankful for, I never feel any better.
Actually, most of the time, I feel worse. I mean, if I have all these awesome things, why am I still sad? When I take an inventory of everything I have to be appreciative of, I end up feeling guilty and ashamed for being depressed despite all of the things I have going for me. Listen, I know mental illness doesn’t actually care about where I live or who I’m friends with, but my lists just glare back at me saying, “Look on the bright side! Look at what you have! It could be sooo much worse!” Which, yeah, is not super helpful.
But there’s tons of research making the case for the mental health benefits of gratitude. A 2019 Brazilian study of about 1,000 people suggests that writing in a gratitude journal reduced depression symptoms and increased participants' overall happiness and life satisfaction. And one systematic review of research found that frequently writing gratitude lists helped some study participants improve their stress and depression.
So, why doesn’t my gratitude practice yield those same results? Turns out, I’ve been doing toxic positivity instead of gratitude this whole time. Just a quick recap on toxic positivity, in case you missed it: Toxic positivity basically says you shouldn’t feel bad––that you should always look on the bright side. “It almost gaslights you into believing a different reality instead of validating the truth of what you're experiencing in a moment,” adds licensed psychologist Justin Puder, PhD.
With toxic positivity, you’re living in a fantasy, curating a chronically upbeat attitude that ultimately invalidates any negative emotions and difficult experiences you might face, explains clinical psychologist Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD. It’s like being late on all your bills while holding a smile on your face like everything is fine. So it makes sense why people like me are struggling to use gratitude as a tool to boost our mental health.
While thinking about what we have to be grateful for amid our daily challenges can become a slippery slope to toxic positivity, it doesn’t have to be like that. If you’ve been trying to cash in on some of those benefits by journaling your thanks, typing it in your Notes app, recording a voice memo, or just saying it in your head and you still feel stuck, here’s how to cultivate a routine that actually works.
1. Be for real for a sec.
Unlike toxic positivity, gratitude is all about being appreciative of the good things in your life, being present, mindful, and grounded in reality, Dr. Rubenstein says. So while it can help you see the light, that’s not all you have to see.
If that’s what you're going for, it could definitely be holding you back. “A lot of people think, Well, I can't have a gratitude practice if I'm in a bad mood, but that's definitely not true,” Dr. Puder says. “We can get curious about what we're feeling emotionally and still make room for a gratitude practice. They can coexist.” Nice, right?
To make sure your approach doesn’t veer into ~good vibes only~ territory, think of giving thanks like a two-step process, Dr. Puder says. First, take some time to notice (or write or say out loud) what’s going on in your mind at the moment. Let yourself feel any unpleasant emotions without judgment. Then, only after you’ve reflected on those, take time to note what you’re grateful for, keeping in mind that this can be anything—people, places, things, or situations, no matter how big or small. Yup, spotting a cute dog on your sluggish silly little walk counts.
By acknowledging the negative and the positive, you’ll be reminded that both things can occur at the same time, Dr. Puder says.
2. Set an intention.
Sure, tapping into your grateful feelings is generally beneficial, but you might get more out of it if you have a reason for doing it. By setting an intention, you’ll be more likely to stick with the practice, and you can check in as you go along to see if you’re meeting your goals. Plus, when the point isn’t just about ignoring all the bad stuff in your life, it can take some pressure off.
Obviously, your master plan shouldn’t be something like, “Help me forget about the bad moments,” Dr. Rubenstein says. Rather, you can aim for an intention more along the lines of learning to be present with all of your emotions. She says you can think about the metaphor of using a highlighter to highlight the positive moments amidst the darker moments, acknowledging that there are both.
3. If you don’t have something positive to say, switch up your approach.
One thing toxic positivity doesn’t make room for is neutrality. That's a huge problem because sometimes all you can muster up is an “I guess it’s cool that I showed up to work today.” Going into your gratitude plan, know that you don’t have to only celebrate the absolutely amazing things in your life—especially if you’re feeling really down.
Depression, for example, can make it hard to see the good in life, and trying only to write down positive things when you’re feeling this way can create a false sense of appreciation, resulting in feelings of guilt, shame, or hurt, or like you’re phoning it in, Dr. Rubenstein says. You know, all the things you’re trying to avoid by doing this.
Because nobody can tell you what you should or shouldn’t feel thankful for, see if you can embrace thinking about neutral things when you’re struggling to see the positives, Dr. Rubenstein adds. It can be as simple as a cozy blanket and a cup of tea. That can help if you don’t feel like saying you’re grateful for something “bigger” or if, for whatever reason, you feel guilt creeping up as you list more significant things.
One thing that helps me is saying things like, “I had a panic attack today, and it was scary, but I’m glad I got through it and it’s over.” Bam!
4. Spell it out.
Toxic positivity tends to lack specificity, so to make this gratitude thing really worth it, it can help to get really granular about the things you’re calling out.
If broad items on your list, like “family” or “friends” aren’t making you feel less stressed or depressed, dig deeper into why you appreciate a person, place, or thing to help evoke more feelings of gratefulness. “If you're grateful for your family, who specifically in your family? How does that person make you feel? How have you been connecting with that person more recently?” Dr. Puder says. “Specificity colors your life in a way that allows you to fully embrace and feel it.”
On that note, you can also do this when addressing any crappy emotions before getting into what you’re thankful for. Instead of just saying, “I’m sad,” try to pinpoint what’s behind the sadness, which can help you learn more about yourself in the process.
5. Trust the process.
A gratitude practice is, um, a practice, which means it takes work and doesn’t always feel great when you do it. On the other hand, toxic positivity tends to manifest in off-the-cuff remarks and feels like something you should just inherently get.
When you flex your thankful muscles on a regular basis, you might find that feeling comes up more naturally, Dr. Puder says. So start out with trying gratitude once a week or every few days for one month and see how your routine changes as you progress, he suggests. You might even work up to making this part of your daily routine. That said, it’s OK to embrace a little trial-and-error to find a cadence that doesn’t leave you feeling like this is a chore.
To keep your expectations manageable, Dr. Rubenstein suggests telling yourself that you’re doing this as an experiment to simply see what happens and to become more present with all aspects of your reality—the negative and the positive.
6. Reach out for support when you need it.
Not to dunk on toxic positivity one last time (though, yeah, I totally am), but that perspective doesn’t usually leave room for exploring your feelings in any other setting. If you’re struggling with this gratitude thing or can’t seem to find anything to smile about after a couple of weeks, you can always reach out to a mental health pro or a primary care doc for extra help.
The bottom line: Leave toxic positivity pressure at the door by acknowledging all your emotions and not trying to force the negative out of your life. Then, a healthy gratitude practice can follow.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.