Our failed gratitude practice

I wanted to bring peace and happiness to our family, but my forced exercise brought arguments and irritation

Published November 28, 2013 5:00PM (EST)

     (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=629407'>Yuri_Arcurs</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(Yuri_Arcurs via iStock)

Our gratitude exercise began at the dinner table one night. I asked each family member to share something they were grateful for each day. But at first, there were blank stares. “I don’t get it,” said my 7-year-old. His big sister simply rolled her eyes. My husband lamely offered: “I am grateful that Mommy is grateful."

OK, it was a start.

I’d taken a workshop with a gratitude guru and came home inspired. The tension at home had become so extreme that the kids were even naming it. With DEFCON alert at Level 1, nuclear war was imminent. Something needed to change. This idea was worth a try.

Gratitude has become a big industry. People keep gratitude journals, post daily gratitude lists on Facebook. (There are even gratitude gurus.) In the race to ease the distraction and stress and excess of modern life, “gratitude” has become the hip new lifestyle enhancement. There’s even science behind it. As John Tierney wrote in the New York Times in 2011, “Cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.” So I decided to bring it into our family routine.

We were rigorous in our Gratitude Practice for a few days, but we started slacking off a bit soon after. Sometimes, authentic offerings were easy to share. “I’m grateful we had a delicious dinner.” “I’m grateful we have a weekend coming.” But many days, finding something to appreciate felt like a burden. You can only say “I’m glad I have a job” so often. Our gratitude was becoming a source of agitation, demanded through gritted teeth, and responded to with avoidance and shallow breaths. “You kids are not taking gratitude seriously,” I told them. “We’re not leaving the table until you share what you’re grateful for, you hear?”

Dinner began to feel more like a dental extraction. When I would ask for their lists, the kids would start giggling and hitting each other instead, until my husband growled, “Stop laughing and tell us what you are grateful for.” Our surly teenager said, “I am grateful for homework, NOT.” Then she started lecturing us on how annoying we were being.

So much for bringing joy, thankfulness and health into our home.

The more we practiced gratitude, the harder it got to feel any.  After months the only emotion I had fed was irritation. One night my son’s grateful statement was, “I’m glad that Dad was not grumpy today.” Another night my daughter said, “You guys don’t know what real gratitude is because you take it so seriously.” Gratitude hadn’t transformed us into enriched sages, but cynical, embittered wretches. How did we go so wrong?

I went to brunch with my dearest friend at, ironically enough, the Cafe Gratitude, a vegan Los Angeles restaurant. Our ethereal waitress floated toward our table and asked, “Would you like to hear the question of the day? It is: ‘What is perfect for you?’”

A bit pretentious, but these are the flourishes you sign on for when you eat at a place called Cafe Gratitude. I’d been trying to understand my family’s flame-out that day, though, and I decided to use the question as an opportunity to reflect. That’s when that old cliché popped into my head: Practice makes perfect. I understood that a true practice of gratitude requires more than a statement made under duress. Perhaps we needed more practice at fine-tuning the effort. Forced gratitude doesn’t work, but maybe there was a way to see the actual blessings in our life with a fresh perspective.

At the end of my meal, I told the waitress, “I am perfect in my flaws.” A cop-out perhaps, but also true. And I wondered: Might I be able to consider the actual struggles in our family gratitude practice as their own form of flawed perfection? Being able to laugh, play, struggle and fail -- these are all things I am deeply grateful for.

Later that evening we were at the table again. This time, I didn’t invite any sharing. I didn’t push the kids. I didn’t bring up the G-word at all. Instead, I bit my tongue. Surprisingly, without prompting, my teenage daughter shared a story from her day at school. Her English teacher had taught her about Freud and Jung and she wanted to learn more. My son told us that he knew the answer in a science quiz that no one else knew. In the absence of subjecting them to an inquisition, authentic sharing took place and with it came a freedom from tension I hadn’t experienced at that table in a long time. I smiled. Then, I took a deep breath and enjoyed my own private thoughts of gratitude. But this time, I kept them to myself.

By Gabrielle Kaufman

Gabrielle Kaufman is a Los Angeles based psychotherapist, dance/movement therapist, educator and mom.

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