Continuing on our journey through Brene Brown’s guideposts for wholehearted living from her book “The Gifts of Imperfection“, for the month of January we move on to guidepost four: “Cultivating Gratitude & Joy”.
What strikes me initially about joy and gratitude is that both of these are often thought of as emotions. We might say, “I feel grateful” or “I was overcome with joy”. And indeed, we can feel these things. The difficulty with emotions, however, is that we often have little control over how we feel. We have the ability to choose how we respond to our emotions, but our emotions in and of themselves often arise within us whether we want them to or not. Thus, the idea of “cultivating” something we have no control over seems futile.
To thank, rejoice, or express gratitude, however, are actions; they are ways of choosing to practice joy or gratitude. Thus, joy and gratitude become something we can indeed “cultivate”. As Brene Brown discusses her research on this topic, she comes back to the word “practice” again and again. The research indicates that the Wholehearted have regular gratitude and joy practices. To me, a practice denotes intention, time, and energy.
Wondering where to start? The research also indicates that more than joy begets gratitude, gratitude actually begets joy. Thus, by focusing on intentionally cultivating gratitude, people experience more joy.
If these concepts are new to you, you may question what a gratitude practice even looks like. It could be sharing something you appreciated about your day before starting a family dinner, doing a nightly journal reflection on three things you are grateful for, or spending regular meditation or prayer time in gratitude. These ideas are amidst countless others. Gratitude can help broaden our perspective and shift our mood or energy. That being said, it is important to remember that being grateful doesn’t disqualify or invalidate our very real suffering. The goal is not to numb or block our pain by focusing on gratitude; instead, the invitation is to try to hold both gratitude and our other realities simultaneously.
Brene also admits how extremely vulnerable joy can feel and acknowledges how scary vulnerability can be. Unfortunately, this fear of vulnerability often steals are joy. What happens is that we catch ourselves in a moment of joy and automatically our thoughts turn to the worst-case scenario of losing that which brings us joy, thus, we may begin to tell ourselves that it is better not to be joyful in the first place. I often have clients align with some version of “it is better to live disappointed than to be disappointed”. Living disappointed or in constant preparation for the other shoe to drop, however, cheats us from those things in our lives that we really do appreciate and enjoy.
Learning how to tolerate our vulnerability and accept the uncertainties inherent in being loved and loving others, is our pathway towards cultivating more joy. Thus, doing the hard work of our earlier guideposts around cultivating authenticity and self-compassion may very well lend themselves to being able to lean into joy. And if we don’t know how to do these things on our own, that is the blessing of the therapeutic process itself… having someone to guide us on the journey.
This January, let us all commit to stepping into vulnerability by practicing joy and gratitude at home, at work, at school, and in the community. Thank you each for the ways in which you already contribute to the peaceful, empowering, compassionate atmosphere that is Water’s Edge!
Nikki Holm, MA, Chaplain