When was the last time you had the thought, “I know I should be grateful for everything I have … so why do I still feel so unsatisfied?”
I’ve been hearing that question more and more over the past few years, especially since we’ve all been so inundated with information about the power of gratitude. Every personal-growth guru out there is preaching that the way to happiness is through gratitude for what you already have, and for good reason.
I’ve certainly kept my fair share of gratitude journals over the years, and I try (and mostly succeed) to focus more on what I’m thankful for than on what I wish would change.
Believe me, I’m as big of a proponent of gratitude as anyone — it really can transform your outlook on life. And most of us, particularly those of us living in first-world countries with ample food, water, shelter, safety, freedom, etc., have a lot to be grateful for.
But there’s a shadow side that can sometimes come with gratitude that most people aren’t talking about or even aware of.
WHEN GRATITUDE GOES BAD
Feeling like you “should” be grateful for everything in your life, especially when you consider how many people in the world have far less than you do, can cause you to neglect and feel guilty for your desires.
When you’re aware of how much you have going for you — your health, great friends, supportive family, decent job, a roof over your head — wanting something more or better can make you feel selfish and greedy.
I can’t tell you the number of clients who have told me, “I feel bad for not loving my job. There are a lot of great parts about it, and I know some people would kill for this job, but it just doesn’t do it for me. I feel guilty for wanting more than this.”
This guilt over wanting more than you have and trying to shame yourself into feeling grateful for things that don’t really light you up … well, I believe it’s created an epidemic of toleration (which Rachel wrote about last week).
Genuine gratitude is one of the most powerful forces out there, but it was never intended to shame you into settling for a career or life that’s “good enough.”
YOU CAN’T GET SICK ENOUGH TO HELP SOMEONE ELSE GET WELL
Most of us act like there is a finite amount of success, happiness, health, and wealth in the world.
I know, at least for me, when I’m considering everything I’m grateful for, I can’t help but compare my life to people who have far less than I do — people who are homeless, suffering from life-threatening illnesses, living in warzones, and going hungry.
When I think of everything I have compared to those people, I feel like, “Who am I to want more?? I already have WAY more than my fair share.”
The guilt makes me want to shut up, be grateful, and never ask for anything ever again. It even makes me wish I could give some of my happiness and health and success away to those who need it more than me.
But it doesn’t work like that, and in fact, that’s completely backward logic because these are not finite resources.
There’s not a pool of all of the available happiness or health in the world that all of us have to share. You can’t take “more than your fair share” because there’s an infinite amount that will never run out.
You being unhappy doesn’t help anyone else get happy. You being sick doesn’t help anyone else get well. You not pursuing your dream job doesn’t help anyone else find career satisfaction. You being poor doesn’t help anyone else have enough money.
IN FACT, THE OPPOSITE IS TRUE
The more you have, the more you have to give.
When you quit your job to pursue a career that lights you up, you open up a spot for someone who considers your current position their dream job.
When you’re happy and fulfilled, you radiate that out and naturally bring positivity to others who need a boost.
When you become successful, you gain the experience to mentor others along their own path to success.
When you’re healthy, you have the energy and vitality to help heal others.
When you’re prosperous, you can use your money and resources to give back to your community and support charities you believe in.
So by asking for more than you currently have, you’re not being selfish or greedy — you’re increasing your own quality of life so you can help others do the same.
GRATITUDE + DESIRE
Feeling grateful and having desires are not opposites. You can be grateful for what you have AND want more.
In fact, one without the other is pretty unhelpful. Gratitude without desire can lead to guilt and stagnation, and desire without gratitude can lead to chronic unhappiness. You need both.
So how can you find a balance between the two?
Feel gratitude for as much as you can be genuinely, truly thankful for. If you find yourself forcing gratitude about something when you don’t really feel it, that’s OK — it just means there’s a desire hidden under there that deserves your attention. Respect that and allow yourself to fully feel your desire so you can act on it.
Being grateful doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to want more. Gratitude + desire is the key to happiness.
Now tell me, have you felt guilty for not being “grateful enough” and for wanting more than you have? What do you think about this new perspective on gratitude? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts and personal experiences — I’d love to hear them!
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Kristen (+ Rachel)
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This post is so great, especially when put into the context of a job. I have always heard that phrase from my parents “you should be thankful to have a job,” but gratitude doesn’t have to equal settling or complacency. I think this is especially salient for millennials and a good way to check your perspective without compromising your ambition.
Thanks for the post and the healthy reminder!
Glad this hit home for you, Catie! Agreed — Millennials in particular struggle with this, since we’re constantly told to be grateful for what we have (especially since the job market was so bad for so long!). But gratitude doesn’t mean you give up wanting more! It can absolutely coexist with ambition.
Hi Kristen and Rachel, I always find myself feeling guilty for wanting more and I don’t even have much, just enough to get by. I always fuss at myself for this. Not only wanting more, but also feeling guilty about it. I’m that person who wants to help others and never charge a dime for doing it. If I have something I think someone else would enjoy or benefit from I want to just give it to them and ask for nothing in return, but I have bills to pay. I am realizing that this is more than likely the reason I am not running my own business. I’m not sure how to get past this. My passion is blessing and nurturing others and I just can’t seem to charge money for such a basic need. There is something much deeper here that I need to explore, but I just can’t seem to reach it. I would love to explain to someone what I am currently experiencing. I think once I can get that piece of the puzzle in the right place things will be at least a little clearer.
Cindy — This is SUCH a common struggle! You’re definitely not alone in feeling guilty for wanting more, while simultaneously wanting to help others and give away what you have. It can feel like a real internal battle!
I’m getting the sense that you might have a subconscious belief that you can either help yourself OR help others. One feels selfish, and the other feels selfless. But I want to challenge you to consider a third option: that you can help yourself AND others simultaneously. That’s a greatest win-win you can create! Think of it this way — if you put your needs/wants on the same priority level as other people’s (not above OR below, but on equal footing), how would your mindset and behavior change? If you nurtured yourself just as much as you nurtured others, what would change in your life? How much more at ease would you feel? How many more people could you positively impact? You deserve happiness, success, and support just as much as the people you feel called to serve do. When you treat yourself as deserving and worthy of that, you give other people permission to do the same for themselves.
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