Saying ‘No Thank You’ to Gratitude Practices

When popular spiritual practices just don’t work for you

Mar 19, 2019

Personal Growth Life Lessons Self-Awareness Gratitude Spirituality
two notebooks and a pen

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson

I must confess something. It may come as a shock to some. Dare I say it out loud? Here goes… gratitude practices don’t work for me. In fact, I don’t even like them. There, I said it. Anything from gratitude lists, gratitude journaling, gratitude meditations, you name it, I’ve tried it. Repeatedly. Over an extended period of time. And it just doesn’t work for me.

At first I started to think it’s me, I must be doing something wrong, I must be doing IT wrong. So I changed my approach, my method, and my timing. First thing in the morning, last thing before going to bed, spread sporadically throughout the day, only once a week. I even bought cute, new journals to inspire me, ones with quotations throughout. I practiced in different places — at coffee shops, in different corners of my home, at meetups, at work. All to no avail.

It all started with Oprah, as these things usually do. She could not stop talking about how much she loved keeping gratitude journals and how beneficial they were in her life and spiritual practice. She could not recommend it enough to her viewers. It inspired me to start my own practice.

It was uplifting at first, especially if I made it part of my New Year’s resolutions and began it at the start of a new year. But it always waned about two to three months in and I started losing interest. It turned into a chore, a thing to cross off my daily to-do list. Not just that, it had not made any difference in my life or in my outlook, as purported. And it left me feeling disappointed, guilty, and discouraged. Worse, it made me feel like I had somehow failed, spiritually speaking.

But I kept trying, despite the repeated “failures.” I was determined to get it right, whatever that meant. I wanted to see it make an impact in my life. To see what Oprah — and a whole lot of folks in the personal growth community — were talking about. Probably not the best attitude to practice with, but that’s where I was.

It’s not that I didn’t have much to be grateful for. I had plenty. The pages were not blank. The lists were lengthy at times. Some days I was grateful for the tiniest of things — air fresheners, stickers, a smile from a stranger, breathing. It’s not that I didn’t know how to do it, either, it’s just that it simply didn’t work for me.

I used to feel guilty and chide myself for the “results” of my practice. How could a gratitude practice lead to anything but a more deeply grateful attitude, and whatever other moral and soul benefits that come with it? Something was missing; something didn’t harmonize.

Or so I thought.

Today, I have left that mentality behind. I have come to accept that it’s just not for me, and that is OK. I think the bigger lesson in all of this for me was learning that personal growth is just that — personal. What works for others may not work for me or you. What works for Oprah may not be for me. Go figure.

We are each on our own individual paths, learning as we go. The whole of life is a colossal experiment, a playground on which we get to try all the rides and see which ones we like and want to ride again and which ones we want to avoid because they make us sick. We get to choose the self-care routines that feed our soul. We get to choose the practices that make us see the world a little bit more compassionately.

There is no shame in admitting that a very popular spiritual practice is not for you after trying it out.

It makes you no less spiritual. Find what works for you. Or invent your own practices. What I have started doing instead of gratitude journals is thinking of one person I can bless somehow in the upcoming week. Similar to a random act of kindness. Anything from paying for someone’s coffee, sending a thank you email or card, helping a family member in some way, or walking a neighbor’s dog. These are the things that lift my spirit and bring me joy. And they change my perspective on the people and the world around me and what I can contribute to it. And isn’t that the point of gratitude practices anyway?

It’s not what you do or even how you do it to get there. It’s that in the end, it leads to the same thing: personal growth. To us stretching beyond ourselves to make space for all of our emotions and experiences without resistance or judgment. Waking up each morning with an eagerness to contribute something that makes the places we inhabit a little bit kinder and more grace-filled than we found them.

Have you tried any practices and found they just don’t work for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.