Gratitude is good. Mostly. Good for your health and well-being and relationships… usually. But research finds that gratitude isn’t always good. Although appreciating what you have instead of lamenting what you have-not is generally good advice, it can backfire. How? Here are five instances when gratitude may be the wrong prescription.
1. Overdosing on gratitude. When it comes to keeping track of your gratitude, the adage “more is better” doesn’t necessarily apply. If you set too high of a goal for your gratitude, you may find yourself falling short, which paradoxically could leave you feeling less grateful and happy than if you hadn’t tracked your gratitude at all. In a study of gratitude journaling, people who tracked their gratitude once per week were happier after six weeks, whereas those who wrote tracked their gratitude three times per week were not. If you find yourself hesitating when putting pen to paper, you may begin to think your life isn’t that good or you don’t have that much to be grateful for. If that is the case, take a step back and focus on quality over quantity.
2. Focusing on feeling grateful for someone or something who isn’t worthy. If you are in a bad relationship with someone who is emotionally or physically abusing you—or who just can’t make you happy—gratitude may be the wrong choice. By focusing on all the ways you appreciate your partner, boss, or roommate, you may choose to stay where you are—when you should be finding a way to get out of an unhealthy situation. Account for the entire relationship, not just the good parts!
3. Using gratitude to avoid a serious problem. Gratitude helps you focus on what is important instead of getting caught up in the little annoyances of everyday life. However, not all problems are little annoyances, and focusing your attention on things you appreciate may provide only temporary relief from serious problems. In cases like these, a negative emotion like anger may actually be more constructive. In one study of romantic couples, expressing anger was more beneficial than being positive, when discussing a severe problem—because the anger helped them address and resolve the issue rather than sweeping it under the rug.
4. Downplaying your own successes through excessive gratitude. After something good happens to you, you will only benefit from thinking about and thanking the people who helped make it possible. But of equal importance is acknowledging your own role in the process. If you are someone who focuses on thanking everyone else, downplaying your own hard work and talent to a fault, you may be hiding low self-esteem behind your gratitude. Don’t let gratitude get in the way of appropriately taking credit for your own part in success.
5. Mistaking gratitude for indebtedness. Gratitude is the positive emotion you feel when someone else helps you out. Indebtedness, on the other hand, generally leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth—someone helped you and now you owe them. If you mistake feelings of gratitude for indebtedness, you may find yourself working hard to repay a favor not to express your appreciation but to take the weight of a debt off your shoulders. In close relationships, this need to repay tit-for-tat can actually lead to negative feelings between partners. Repaying someone who matters to you too quickly may be a sign that you don’t want a close relationship.
Have you had other experiences where feeling grateful led you down the wrong path?