Wanting more does not equal ungratefulness.
A phrase that often follows someone’s longing for something beyond their reach is “But I should be grateful for what I have.” This can turn into a thought cycle that leads to stagnation.
Tell me if this sounds familiar:
You feel bored and resentful because you sense there is more out there for you, and it feels like you are settling. Then before you can act on it, you feel guilty because you remember all the people with less than you. So, you take stock of all the things you are grateful for. And that feels good, until you get distracted by the sneaking feeling that maybe there is more out there for you and perhaps you are settling.
There is a lot to unpack here, but let’s start by establishing that gratitude and aspiration are not mutually exclusive. Wanting more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, or a fancier lifestyle doesn’t make you Gordon Gekko. You can be grateful for what you have AND want more for yourself. When balanced properly, these two forces can spiral up, instead of down.
All the resources you are grateful for—stable housing, money, time, education, friends, job security, good health—give you the foundation and energy to strive for more. When you are appreciative for the financial stability and professional experience your current job offers, it can serve as a fuel for pursuing a more meaningful career.
Next, I would argue that obligatory gratitude is not true gratitude. It’s like when a parent tells their child to apologize to their friend for taking their toy without asking.
“Say you’re sorry.” “I’m sooorryyyy.”
Doesn’t quit ring true, does it?
When we feel truly grateful it’s warm and expansive and lifts us up. Obligatory gratitude feels like a heavy blanket we throw over ourselves in hopes of smothering our actual emotions. It’s successful for a while until these feelings come creeping out at a later time...probably unexpectedly and usually inappropriately. But just like a parent forcing an apology out of their child so they learn to take responsibility for their actions, forcing ourselves to look for things in our present lives to be grateful for can train us to practice feeling gratitude regardless of those around us who have more or less than us.
Which brings us to the ugly world of comparisons. For anyone on social media (or just functioning out in the world) it’s easy to measure our success and shape our goals based on who we see around us. Left unchecked or unexamined, this can lead to all kinds of problems.
When we compare up, it can exasperate our feelings of having “settled for less.” When we compare down, it can demotivate us with obligatory gratitude. Not only that, comparing ourselves to other can give us a skewed understanding of what we really want for ourselves. So, what do you do if you are in the “I want more, but I should be grateful” spiral? Feel your feelings. They are yours. They are real. Honor them as they are without trying to squash or minimize them. At the beginning of the pandemic many people were saying they should be grateful they are still working and are not sick. But inside they were aching for all the things they didn’t have. A woman told me she and her husband would take themselves out to a fancy restaurant once a year for her birthday but that year they couldn’t. It was just one more tradition that she had to give up, and she was grieving. Yes, she had plenty to be grateful for, but first, she needed to acknowledge that she was sad for what she was missing. Both are equally valid. Be thoughtful about comparing yourself to others. On the podcast Hidden Brain, Psychologist Keith Payne of University of North Carolina argues that judging yourself based on others isn’t necessarily bad if it is done wisely. Thinking about people who have much less can boost our confidence about how much we have accomplished. Thinking about people who have much more can inspire and motivate us to go after bigger goals. Practice true gratitude even if it’s for the small things. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage inspired me and Andrew to do our “3 things” every night. We each say three things we are grateful for. We've been doing this for a couple of years, and I really make an effort to pick things I’m actually and honestly grateful for that day. If it’s been a long tough week, and I’m cranky and tired, my three things might be: 1) my bed, 2) my dog (the good one), and 3) the roof over my head. I say things that feel true even if they are “small.” Recently we started adding a fourth thing that we don’t currently have, but we say we are grateful for it as if we do. Next time you find yourself longing for something, and you feel inclined to say, “But I should be grateful for...” stop and try something new. Allow your real feelings to surface, be conscious of to whom you are comparing yourself, and find little things you can be truly grateful for.