The Blog of Jon Guerrera

Thoughts about health, goals, and anything else I'm nerding out to.

When a Gratitude Journal Fails: Searching for Happiness in the Face of Suffering

In your first few minutes of reading about positive psychology, you'll likely come across the recommendation to start a gratitude journal.

There's strong research demonstrating the power of gratitude. Anyone serious about improving his or her happiness should be looking into ways to express more gratitude throughout the day.

However, like anything that deals with emotions, gratitude can be tricky. When I started out, I would write three things I was grateful for each morning. I'd express gratitude for my youth, my relatively good health, the health of my friends and family, the ability to afford things that make me happy, and more.

After a few weeks, it dawned on me: I had an easier time seeing the positive in my day. For me that's huge, and all it took was a few minutes each morning. Talk about a win!

However, things took a turn for the worse...

Gratitude isn't perfect

A few months ago, I was diagnosed with a frustrating, chronic ailment in my foot. This condition usually affects people in their middle age and beyond. I'm currently 26. A quick Google search about the pain associated with the condition scared me shitless.

I think it's normal to be angry and frustrated when your health declines suddenly and for reasons outside of your control. However, here's what did not feel normal: for some reason, every time I would do my gratitude exercise after my diagnosis, I would feel worse.

Huh? Wasn't my gratitude journal supposed to make me noticeably happier? Why was it making me feel worse?

Gratitude and attachment

After a lot of introspection, I found the answer: although I was grateful for the good things in my life, I was also attached to them. And the thought of losing the mobility that comes along with youth caused me a lot of mental anguish.

Doing my gratitude journal each morning was just a reminder that a part of my health, my youth, my ability to enjoy things in life was being ripped away from me. I used to use my mobility as something to be grateful for. And now it was being taken from me.

I've come to the conclusion that gratitude is less effective in the face of tragedy, unless you actively cultivate non-attachment as well.

At this point, you might be thinking I jumped straight into Zen Buddhism to rid myself of all my wants and desires. Unfortunately, Zen doesn't work well for my annoyingly active monkey brain. Meditation is a useful technique, but I've found a set of techniques that are more effective (for me) for reducing attachment...

Stoicism

Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded in Greece in the 3rd century BC. Unlike the philosophy we learn about in school today, Stoicism is immensely practical for daily life.

In particular, one technique of the Stoics works amazingly well for me: negative visualization.

Negative visualization is the art of envisioning circumstances significantly worse than yours, allowing you to contrast them together to show you how much you still have available to you.

For example, I have a toe injury that may or may not ever resolve. That sucks. But, instead of meandering aimlessly in my misery when I think about my condition, what if I dedicated a few minutes to vividly imagining what it would be like if I instead had just been in a serious car accident that paralyzed me from the waist down. While imagining this, I might ask myself:

How would my day look without fully functioning legs?

How long would it take me to put on pants, shoes, and socks?

How much effort would it take to run basic errands?

How many activities would I be unable to partake in with my friends?

How much residual pain from the accident would I have to endure each day?

This may sound like a depressing exercise, but it's quite the opposite. It's sobering.

Here's the key: Wallowing in misery causes tunnel vision; we can no longer place our situation in the proper perspective because we're so zoomed in on our circumstances. It's almost like we're drunk on self pity.

Negative visualization is what sobers us up, giving us a hefty dose of perspective as to what we still have available to us in life that others may not.

I find this perspective crucial for working on my attachments.

First, I'll think about losing something I'm attached to – let's say my youth – and wait until I feel resistance and a desire to hold onto it.

Then, I'll spend a few minutes using negative visualization to imagine those who have lost significantly more than just their youth, perhaps even imagining myself in that group (which improve my empathy for that group too).

Finally, now with improved perspective, I'll dwell on the silver lining of my particular condition. For example, my foot injury has taught me the value of joint warmups, stretching, physical therapy, and more. If I hadn't learned this now, a nastier back or knee problem might've popped up in a few years.

The takeaways from this post

  • Gratitude journals are fantastic. Please start one.
  • At the same time, be mindful of your attachments. Odds are, you're attached to at least one thing you've expressed gratitude for.
  • Use techniques for detaching, whether it be meditation or Stoic practices such as negative visualization.

Looking to explore these topics further?

Here are two resources I'd recommend if this post piqued your curiosity:

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