3 Ways To Overcome Gratitude Fatigue, From A Psychologist

Psychologist By Charles Garfield, Ph.D.
Psychologist
Charles Garfield, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, and the founder of the Shanti Project. He has worked as a clinical professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California School of Medicine at San Francisco (UCSF) for nearly four decades.
Young black woman journalling at her desk

When your life is not going as planned, and you face a myriad of challenges, it is tempting to allow your mind to focus on the negative. Whether your career is stalling, your love life is on the rocks, or your health is not what it used to be, the problems you contend with tend to overshadow the blessings you might take for granted. And because this tendency to focus on the negative is something a vast majority struggle with, many self-help gurus and counselors recommend keeping a gratitude journal.

This is good advice. The simple act of jotting down a few things you are grateful for each day can powerfully elevate your mood and increase your sense of well-being. It can help you shift your focus from everything that's going wrong to all that you have going for you, and this usually leads to the realization that you have a lot more to be thankful for than you previously realized.

Because the practice is so transformative, many commit to it, rarely skipping a day. However, while this might sustain some during challenging times, for others, it leads to a hollow routine that no longer brings delight and appreciation.

This is a sign of gratitude fatigue: Your brain adapts to the positive feelings that your gratitude practice creates, resulting in less powerful feelings over time. But researchers like Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D.—whose studies on the benefits of gratitude helped launch the phenomenon of gratitude journaling—claim there are simple ways to bring your experience of gratitude alive again. If you've been dealing with gratitude fatigue lately, here are a few ways to overcome it:

1. Write a gratitude list just a couple of times a week instead of every day—and go a little deeper when you do.

One of Emmons' studies found that gratitude fatigue set in quickly when people dutifully made daily lists. Less frequent lists written with intention produced more positive results. When you take it at a slower pace, it is easier to summon, record, and savor the details that made something feel like a blessing.

A friend told me recently about a weed she had been watching in a planter on her patio. She felt guilty for not pulling it up, but she liked the jagged shape of the leaves and let it be. Finally, she decided to take control of things and get it out of there, but as she was reaching in to remove it, she noticed pale purple tufts she hadn't seen before—flowers!—and she recognized the scent of lavender. In the middle of a tough year, when it did not feel like an exaggeration to say that survival sometimes felt like a struggle, something beautiful and hardy had grown from seed without her help. Such a small thing, but it felt like a victory for life itself—a gift.

Detailing all her feelings as she wrote about it—rather than just jotting down, "noticed lavender growing in the planter"—energized her and allowed her to soak in her genuine feelings of gratitude.

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2. Trace a "chain of benevolence" in your life instead.

Gratitude starts simply by paying attention to what is arriving in your life every day. When it is challenging to see that goodness glimmering through the stresses you face, it can help to take a more panoramic view.

Try looking back through your life and following a chain of benevolence that led to something significant. Perhaps you wouldn't have your current job without the recommendation of a kind acquaintance; maybe you wouldn't have met your partner if not for the matchmaking savvy of your former co-worker; or maybe you wouldn't have found a cure for your ailment if not for a doctor committed to researching every possible remedy. When you look closely at the events in your life, you will notice countless acts of benevolence that led to the good things you cherish.

A comparative religions scholar named Frederic Streng once wrote that gratitude comes as people realize that they are connected to one another "in a mysterious and miraculous way" and sense that much of the good that comes to them occurs because of this connection. It sounds abstract until you begin counting the many small, benevolent acts that have so often come together, almost invisibly, to bring you the gifts of a lifetime.   

3. In difficult times especially, pause to notice the small moments that give you a genuine sense of joy and relief.

If journaling them at the end of the day isn't working for you, gratitude can always be practiced in the actual moment the experience is happening. It might be a sense of reconnection during a long phone call with an old friend, the way a TikTok video makes you snort with laughter, or the unfettered joy your cat expresses as you pet him behind his ear. Sometimes these are the gifts that get you through the day. When you notice these moments, pause and savor them with gratitude right then and there.

During hard times, it is often challenging to focus on the positive. And when forced, positivity and gratitude only seem to highlight the negative aspects you are trying not to concentrate on. But if you choose to observe as your day unfolds—rather than force a thankful heart onto your day—you will discover that you can feel grateful without trying. All that is required is an open mind and an open heart.

A wise 18th-century Frenchman named Jean Massieu described gratitude as "the memory of the heart," which means that all you need to do is tune in to experience it. Look up, breathe, and take in the life around you. The more you remember to look, the more you will notice and become grateful again for the benevolence that surrounds you.

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