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Gratitude vs. Acknowledgement: Is being grateful enough?

Gratitude seems to be all the rage at the moment. And with good reason! According to many studies in the field of positive psychology, gratitude is consistently shown to be associated with higher levels of happiness and wellbeing. These studies showed that people who practised gratitude on a regular basis exercised more, reported feeling better about their lives and were healthier overall than those who focused on the negative aspects of their lives. Gratitude is a positive practice for healthy people and can help us to reframe negative situations into positives. Due to these promising research outcomes, gratitude as a form of self-help and even a therapeutic technique has become increasingly popular. Well-meaning people will tell someone whose worries and problems seem insurmountable that if they just practice gratitude, they will feel better. If gratitude is so beneficial, then surely it should be a great treatment for depression or anxiety, right? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Studies have shown that gratitude is not effective as a treatment for anxiety or depression.

To illustrate this point, I want you to imagine you are going through something really difficult. Let's say a relationship break up or a job loss. Imagine you are telling someone close to you about what you are going through and their response is, "well at least you still have a home, and your family, why not focus on what you have to be grateful for?". Although this is well-meaning and the sentiment might be true, you would likely feel quite deflated and invalidated in how you are feeling. Most of the time, when we are going through a hard time, the number one thing that we need is to be heard and to have our feelings validated. We may then be able to focus on something positive, but it is only helpful once we feel empathised with.

For many of us, 2020 has thrown life-altering changes at us. One of the most difficult things about the year has been the constant uncertainty of what will happen next. Gratitude has been touted as a coping mechanism for riding the wave of the pandemic. However, for some people, this may feel like an inadequate solution to grief or loss. If we tell ourselves that we should just focus on the things we have to be grateful for, we run the risk of pushing away our feelings of grief and loss, and not processing them properly. This can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

So, how do we practice gratitude, but also take the time to acknowledge the other side? The answer is balance. Make time to think about the things you are grateful for. But also make time to acknowledge the things that are hard. Try not to label either of these things as good or bad, but just accept that they are what they are. Try not to get caught in a negative thought loop of ruminating over the negatives, but also try not to get caught chasing the next positive. Acceptance that things just are is finding the middle ground and accepting the duality of the difficult times.

Things are hard right now, AND I'm really happy that I still have a job and a roof over my head.

I'm really worried about the state of the world, AND I feel happy that I can take my dog for a walk around the block. Etc.

This doesn't mean that we should throw gratitude away! In healthy people, it is an excellent way to keep focused on what is important. It can help us break out of negative thought patterns and it can also help us to become more accepting of what we have. The trap to avoid is any thought pattern with the world "should".

I still have more in my life than many people do so I should be happy.

You should focus on all the spare time you have now rather than complaining about losing your job.

If we can try our best to avoid "shoulds", then we can start to find the middle ground between gratitude and acknowledgement.

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