Gratitude for the Ungrateful: 5 Ways to Flex Your Gratitude Muscle and Experience More Joy

October 29, 2018


Ok, I’m going to admit something that isn’t so becoming of a health coach: I struggle with gratitude. It’s something that has eluded me my entire life, stemming from early childhood, a lot of physical and emotional challenges, and the fact that I’m Jewish. Jews don’t do gratitude – we kvetch. It’s in our DNA. And I used this as an excuse for the longest time, defending the fact that it’s OK to be dissatisfied or to complain, and that it’s inauthentic to always think everything is coming up roses.

But I think I missed the point a little (or a lot) and didn’t quite know what gratitude really was.

So, I decided to read up on it, immersed myself in lots of Brené Brown (her work on foreboding joy was absolutely game-changing for me), checked out the research on gratitude (and it is impressive – practicing gratitude can improve sleep, relationships, immunity, overall happiness, reduce depression and anxiety, decrease pain)…it’s powerful stuff that I wanted in on.


What exactly is gratitude?

It turns out that as an emotion or a psychological entity, gratitude can be a bit hard to pin down. Similar to appreciation or thankfulness, it’s something felt on a deeper level that can contribute to long-lasting positivity. But it’s more than just someone doing something nice for you without asking. As defined by the smart folks at Harvard Medical School, gratitude is:


 “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power” 


Another perspective on gratitude comes from Robert Emmons, a leading psychology and gratitude:


“[gratitude] has been conceptualized as an emotion, a virtue, a moral sentiment, a motive, a coping response, a skill, and an attitude. It is all of these and more. Minimally, gratitude is an emotional response to a gift. It is the appreciation felt after one has been the beneficiary of an altruistic act” (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000).


So, I decided to redefine and explore five aspects of gratitude, what they consist of, what they feel like, and then try to find ways to increase these habitual responses and attitudes in our daily lives.

  1. Gratitude = Appreciation. This is probably the part of gratitude that most people think of when they hear the word. A stranger does something kind out of the goodness of their heart. You board the city bus with your small, screaming child, struggling to hold her hand and carry your packages, when you realize that your bus pass has expired and you have no change. The bus driver stares you down and you contemplate joining your small child and just starting to sob, when a passenger reaches into their wallet and pays for your fare. The feeling you experience that moment is gratitude! And once they see your reaction, they will experience gratitude as well. That's one of the nice synchronicities about this emotion. 

  2. Gratitude = Self-Love. Most of us spend our time focused on the thing(s) we don’t like about

    ourselves - our nose, the too-wide curve of our hips, the fact that we aren’t where we want to be in our lives. Maybe you are struggling with chronic pain or illness and it feels like your body has betrayed you? But what if you could change your perspective and focus on all the things your body is doing right? The fact that your heart beats every day, your lungs breathe, and your legs propel you forward (I realize this may not be the case for everyone, but if it is for you, how lucky should that feel?). What if you could look in the mirror and find something you love about yourself? When you make it through a workout, hit the yoga mat, run 5 miles, and truly thank your body for all it has accomplished and does for you every single day, that’s gratitude.

  3. Gratitude = Challenging. It can be easy to experience gratitude when someone pays for our latte, helps us move, brings wine to a dinner party, or takes out the garbage, but it’s not as easy (ok, it’s REALLY insanely difficult) to muster feelings of gratitude when things are not going well – when your child is screaming because it’s the wrong cup and you cut the toast in squares instead of triangles, your puppy refuses to pee outside but leaves you a “present” in the guest room, or if the doctor tells you it’s not life-threatening but you need surgery. That’s when your gratitude muscle is stretched to its limit. How do we take a challenging situation and see the positive aspects? That our child is learning and growing and needs our love and support? That we have an adorable furball to enrich our lives? That having a diagnosis and a treatment and will experience wellness is a gift? Paradoxically, people in the most difficult situations often express the most gratitude (I always think of Helen Keller), so it can't all be situational. I think it’s about checking our knee-jerk reaction, experiencing the difficult feelings, letting them out in a productive way by ourselves (go do some deep breathing, punch a pillow, scream into the void in your car, cry for a while and then shake it off), then allowing ourselves a different perspective. Human beings are pretty much the only species who gets to decide how they feel, gets to decide what to believe is true, and then shape emotional responses as a result. Why not choose something positive?

  4. Gratitude = Synchronicity. More often than not, we exist in life with our head down, buried in text messages or social media, rushing, being late, stuck in traffic, annoyed, irritable and at odds with the world. But when we take a moment to stop, literally slow down and look around us, we may notice a Monarch butterfly flitting through the neighborhood, a hummingbird hovering on your back porch (this happened to me just the other day!), a particularly beautiful sunset, or really, just an ordinary sunset. Or the moon. Try looking up at the moon and not feeling gratitude and awe that we are here, specks in the cosmos, enjoying the view. When we allow ourselves to connect with the natural world, to truly appreciate where we are in this moment, it’s an incredible feeling. Even the Oregon rain can feel rejuvenating with the right mindset. And the right boots. 

  5. Gratitude = Abundance in Enough. As human beings it seems we are programmed to constantly be striving and suffering. We always want more, experiencing anguish for what we don’t have rather than acceptance and appreciation for what we do have. A favorite quote of mine is “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Boy, Theodore Roosevelt nailed that one. When we experience gratitude for what we have in our own lives rather than what we wish we had (or think we wish we had - this Buddhist parable is famous for undoing everything you thought you knew about what is “desirable” in life!) we find abundance in “enough.” We are more present in our own lives rather than past-regretting or future-pining.


What Gratitude Is Not

  • Payment for goods and services received - this is a business transaction.

  • Being happy only when good things happen - one of the most amazing things about gratitude is that it comes in handy when times are difficult and things can seem bleak. Some of the most grateful people have had the hardest lives, so it isn’t something that is just a product of environment or genetics.

  • An ingrained trait that can’t be developed. I truly believe some people are born with a strong gratitude gene just like others have a tendency towards neuroticism and anxiety (raises hand!!!). But that doesn’t mean it can’t be cultivated and developed over time and practice. Just like any other muscle, your gratitude pecs can be flexed and strengthened. Which brings us to…


How to Increase Your Gratitude Quotient


If I had a dollar every time people said to me “You are so lucky! You should be more grateful for what you have” when I was going through a very hard time, I’d be rich! It doesn’t help to TELL someone else to be more grateful without first acknowledging the pain they are experiencing. Once they have been heard and those real emotions have been expressed, it can be time to shift focus. But how? Here are some ideas:


Keep a Gratitude Journal: studies have shown that folks who write down three things they are grateful for before bed sleep better and are generally happier. Creating a tangible record of good things in your life that you may be overlooking can be very powerful. 


Try a Gratitude Jar: get a jar (any old Mason jar will do!) and place it somewhere you will see regularly. Add a pad of sticky notes or small pieces of paper and a pen. Every time you have a positive thought or experience, write it down and put it in the jar. At the end of the year, take the papers out and read them! It can be a really rewarding activity on New Year’s Eve!


Pay it Forward: Why not try a random act of kindness today? Compliment someone. Pay for the person’s latte in front of you (that’s literally paying it forward!). Offer to help a friend move. 


I’ll leave you with my gratitude story from this morning: I was headed off to my local cafe to get some work done on this very post (I realize the irony that I lost my sh*t while trying to write a gratitude piece). I got all the way there before realizing that I had forgotten my computer cord. My laptop is old, doesn’t hold charge, and I can’t really work without it. So, I had to head back home. I started to curse in my head - my daughter, my dog, my husband all for distracting me, but most of all myself for being forgetful when I used to have a photographic memory. I started to fall into that cycle of negative talk, self-flagellation and bitterness. Then I stopped myself. Breathe. Look around. It’s late October in Portland, OR and it’s SUNNY. Look up. Look down. I looked down and saw a pile of perfectly formed oak leaves that I had simply trampled on before on the exact same path in the opposite direction. I walked the same streets in my own footsteps and had a completely different experience. I picked up one of the leaves, held it, felt its thick, leathery quality in my palm, studied its perfect pointed peaks. And stopped worrying that I hadn’t started working yet. It could wait. My enjoyment of the world around me couldn’t. 



If you want to learn more and learn how to flex your gratitude muscle, come join my 5-Day Attitude of Gratitude Challenge that starts on November 18th! I promise it will be fun and not too daunting or demanding. We are all learning each and every day. Sign up here and be sure to follow along on Instagram and Facebook to join the conversation!

Dr. Zarya Rubin is an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and the founder of Wild Lilac Wellness. I help smart, burned out women recharge their batteries through clean eating and simple lifestyle swaps. Contact me today to reclaim your health!



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