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The Problem with Gratitude

People often tell me how helpful gratitude can be. “Name ten things you're grateful for each day.” Psychological research is showing that gratitude is not merely a positive emotion; it also improves your health. Otherwise, you may end up with a “victim mentality”. These people try to encourage me to write a Gratitude List every day.

Why do I resist so much? It certainly sounds like it should work. I don't mind the idea of becoming happier with my life by being grateful for things in my life. But somehow I find myself balking at the whole idea.

And then one day I remembered. Nearly forty years ago I was suicidal. I was in my late twenties and for some time things had not been going right in my life. I felt like things would never change. I was stuck in a deep rut and it was something I couldn't see being able to climb out of. To be honest, I didn't have the mental and psychological strength to climb up from the deep.

I don't remember if I told anybody I was suicidal. People could see I was pretty down, far down, very depressed and very withdrawn. I think there was one old family friend I told, but her reaction was the same as other people's. “You have so much to be thankful for.” And they began to list everything they thought was great about my life...my Gratitude List, I guess you could say.

The trouble was...it wasn't MY gratitude list. The major thing they all mentioned was my job. I was a GS-12 with the federal government, a responsible job, pretty high up in the civil service, the kind of job people my age, some eight years out of college, would envy me for. But that was one of the main things I was depressed about, suicidal about. I had had the job for years. I'd done it; it had gotten stale, the “same old” was the same old. My first little apartment years before, two blocks from the White House, across 16th Street from the Russian Embassy, was a studio looking out over a back alley. My next door neighbor was an old woman who had worked as a clerk at the IRS and lived in that tiny apartment looking out at that back alley for 35 years. All I could see ahead of me when I was so depressed was my own life dwindling into something like that elderly woman's life, stuck in the same boring job for the rest of my life, coming home to loneliness every day for the rest of my life. My clock was ticking...I thought I'd never marry, never become a mother..

The only thing my helpful friends did urging me to be grateful, pointing out what they thought were things I should be grateful for, was emphasize to me how hopeless my life was. I was stuck; nothing would ever change. Month after month, year after year, I would be stuck in that job I hated that they thought I should be so thankful for. I saw no way out...it would go on and on and I would end up an elderly spinster just like the woman who worked at the IRS for 35 years.

All “gratitude” did for me was compound the despair I felt. The bleakness of my future, as I saw it, was impossible to get past. I began thinking of ways to kill myself. I've never been much for taking pills (like they say most women are). It seems to me that's a way to ask for intervention. No, I was going to drive off a bridge. I had an obsession with Chain Bridge near Little Falls on the Potomac. The rocks below the bridge were going to take care of making sure I didn't survive.

I wasn't living near Chain Bridge any more, but that is where I was going to drive off. I never really considered anywhere else, so maybe that's why I'm still alive. Things got worse; I got more despondent; but I never did kill myself. I moved from one place to another and finally ended up in a boarding house because I was just too down to be with people. That's where I met my husband. After so many years of resenting “gratitude”, which never did me any good, I finally did have something to be grateful for. I became pregnant and soon quit the federal government for good, that job I couldn't get around to liking or feeling thankful for.

And the moral of this story? It's not that gratitude is worthless. It is that it may not be what someone needs and not letting yourself open up to the real feelings of someone who is down can end up pushing that person further down into depression and hopelessness

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