The practice of gratitude in supporting mental health seems to be cropping up a lot lately on my feeds.

The Oxford languages definition of ‘gratitude’ is: 

‘The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.’

Having accepted this definition, the first question begs of me – to whom or what am I to be thankful and why?

There are many people of religious faith in the world who practice gratitude to God or Gods on a daily basis. Generally speaking, the practice of gratitude in that regard is a fundamental part of accepting divine enlightenment into one’s life. For many, without God, life would not exist, and naturally, people of faith give thanks for that in personal prayer and shared worship throughout their lives.

Whilst I myself don’t share the faith of the Abrahamic religions, I do have my own thoughts on spirituality, none of which however (perhaps unfortunately), afford me the benefit of a divine God or system of worship that demands gratitude of me. So, to whom then should I be grateful?

To whom should I be grateful, and why?

My mind is immediately drawn to parents. They teach us about gratitude.

Children of my generation were taught to be grateful for the food that was on the table.  They were taught to be grateful that their dad went out to work all the hours God had sent. They were taught to be grateful for beatings many received in order to save them from themselves. In fact, now I come to think of it, children of my generation were swift reminded of their inherent ungratefulness should they fail to eat the awful ‘Cod in Parsley Sauce’ that dad had worked all those hours to provide, or some other small misdemeanour deemed worthy of a tongue-lashing or clip around the ear.

You see, that’s the thing about being grateful – there’s always a threat behind it. For not being grateful is in itself ingratitude, and that carries all sorts of accusatory and negative connotations for those found wanting and ungrateful. You must be grateful, and you know it. Especially at this time of year…even if you wouldn’t be seen dead wearing the jumper that you’ve been given as a present. Many of us have been there, smiling falsely, cringing inside, gleefully pretending that we’re grateful for what we’ve received. Why? Well, sometimes we say we just don’t want to upset the person who, in fact, put very little thought into what they’ve just unloaded on you. More often than not though, it’s because we fear being seen as an ungrateful person.

Where does that come from?

The problem with gratitude

The problem with gratitude, is that for aeons it’s been used as a control mechanism. It still is, and no doubt it will be for aeons to come.

So now, moving into 2022, we are being told that we should practice gratitude in order to achieve good mental health.

For me that doesn’t add up. Why? Well, because it’s a concept based in the same trope that has hitherto controlled childhood, youth, and to some degree adult life. The guilt associated with being ungrateful is difficult for a child to bear. Let’s just pause for a minute and ponder this concept from the child’s point of view:

‘So, you’re telling me that I should be grateful that i’m here, that you feed and clothe me, and that your episodes of rage are for my own good, despite the fact that I am actually the probable result of your own irresponsibility?’

Think about that the next time you’re on the school run and watching some adult ranting at their clueless toddler for doings something that toddlers do. Maybe it’s just me, I’m not sure the logic of gratitude here is sound. I don’t think it’s something that would naturally occur to a toddler in such a situation were it not conditioned through fear to believe it should be grateful.

Is it so wrong to be ‘glad’?

But here’s a thing – is it so wrong to be ‘glad’ about something without having the insidious threat of gratitude and ingratitude lurking in the background? Here’s a definition of ‘gladness’ from

A feeling or state of well-being and contentment.’

You’ll note that there’s no hint of threat in there whatsoever. If you’re not ‘glad’ then it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. A far cry from being ungrateful. Gladness does have many antonyms, but none of them indicate anything negative about the inherent character of the individual who isn’t feeling glad. 

I think that’s wonderful.

It’s wonderful because it allows one to actually express the joy and contentment one feels, without feeling the tiniest bit of guilt about it. I think that there is freedom herein. So, if you’re practicing gratitude, ask yourself why? Where does it come from that the child inside you always has to be grateful?

Maybe it’s time to allow the inner child to simply be glad about something, and enjoy that moment for a while?

Posted by:Sean McCallum CTIRt CCt

Crisis Intervention & Trauma Consultant