According to several studies, practicing gratitude is proven to be associated with greater happiness. I'm a big proponent of practicing gratitude as a tool for transforming the lives of my clients.
And yet, I often wonder if there is a dark side to the quest for feeling grateful; that people subconsciously feel guilty for wanting more than what they have, thereby encouraging them to tolerate mediocre circumstances and a lack of fulfillment.
Clients often tell me, "I know I should be grateful to have X, Y, or Z, but I feel like there is more out there in the world for me." After a few moments of silence, they usually add, “But I’m grateful for what I have, so I guess I’m okay with how things are.”
How I Encountered the Dark Side of Gratitude
I personally faced this dilemma when I wanted to resign from my position as a private banker, advising wealthy commercial real estate families in New York City. After two decades in this role, I had recently developed a sense of ennui and a nagging feeling that there was more for me to do.
Acknowledging these feelings made me feel guilty and ungrateful. So many people would have loved to have had my job. Who was I to want more than this shiny role? My parents were both refugees who worked hard to give me access to the life I had. I didn’t even know what more I was looking for.
Yet despite many meditations, yoga practices, and new business wins, I still felt like there was something else for me to do with my life. I eventually chose to listen to these feelings, take a leap of faith, and resign from my job. My only plan was to take one year off to re-inspire myself by traveling, writing, and seeing if life would lead me to the more before my time was up. And I’m so glad I did.
How to Work With the Dark Side of Gratitude
It’s difficult to trust our feelings when we’ve been trained to think pragmatically. I’ve learned that our nagging desires often speak in voices that originate from two sources: ego and intuition. They are frequently in conflict.
Observe the Source
Our ego is externally focused. Its nature is to always desire more or better. Our social conditioning also supports this behavior. Ego usually speaks to us in the form of a thought that is usually accompanied by a “should.” More often than not, ego is our dominant voice, and we follow it.
Intuition comes from a deeper part of us that knows what is best for us on our own unique journey and tends to be purpose-driven. We each have a different purpose for our lives, but practical concerns, fears, or past traumas may encourage us to conform. Our intuition refocuses us. It speaks in the form of a spontaneous feeling, knowing, or “Eureka!” moment that I refer to as a “hit.” Try to listen to it instead of second-guessing yourself.
Identify the Voice
Trust your body. If you are having thoughts of how your life should be, comparing yourself to others, or feeling fearful of falling behind, it’s likely that your ego is speaking to you. If you’re feeling a seed of excitement about the prospect of a change, it’s likely that your intuition is speaking.
Human beings have a negativity bias that dates back to cave-person times—we are wired to avoid danger in order to stay alive. Convincing ourselves that we should be grateful with “what is” and feeling guilty for wanting more keeps us safe from failure. Your ego wants you to survive, while your intuition wants you to thrive.
Transmute the Dark Side
When I was faced with the desire to leave my job for something different, I meditated on my guilt and perceived lack of gratitude countless times, each time asking myself, “If I don’t take a leap of faith and blow up my comfortable situation, will I regret living safely when I’m on my deathbed?”
These meditations did not offer me an easy way out of my dilemma, but rather showed me how deeply I craved a new experience.
It is only by going within that we can more clearly hear the voice of our intuition. My experience taught me that embracing the following values can help to transmute the dark side of gratitude:
Quality of life. The quality of our lives is more important than the quantity of material possessions in it.
Fulfillment. The more each individual thrives, the healthier the collective becomes. By increasing our own quality of life, we inspire those around us to do the same.
Inspiration. Remind yourself that tolerating an uninspired life is more frightening than failure.
Gratitude is a powerful transformational force, but it is not meant to encourage complacency. We can simultaneously be grateful for “what is” and aspire for more. And if we learn to trust our intuitive voice, we will see that aspirational gratitude can create breakthroughs.
Enjoy these four meditations for gratitude.