Finding Gratitude When You Least Expect It
By: Laura Brenner, DDS
Which Came First – Gratitude or Success?
Chances are growing up you learned the more success you would have in life, the happier you would be. Somewhere along the way I believed that too, so I set my life up to create the ultimate happiness. I accumulated it all – the degrees, the friends, the husband, the home and the perfect dental career. Eventually I learned the joke was on me. I found myself living this successful life, but I was unhappy and I couldn’t feel grateful for all of the wonderful “things” I had.
It turns out, success does not create happiness or gratitude. It’s actually the other way around. Indeed, the happier we are in life, the more success we will have. The same goes for gratitude. Research in the field of Positive Psychology has uncovered that the more gratitude we have, the happier we will feel, which will lead to more success in life.
How did we get this so backwards?
During the ten years I spent in clinical practice, I tried everything to fix my problems. I went to therapy, read a ton of personal development and worked with a career coach. Ultimately, I came to understand that I was living my life in the wrong career. I felt a lot of shame about my response to practicing clinical dentistry. I felt like a failure, an imposter, and I believed something was wrong with me. I judged myself because I couldn’t feel grateful for achieving all that I had hoped. I began to question, “What was wrong with me?”
The idea that I had success, so I should feel happy and grateful for it didn’t work at all. That type of thinking kept pushing me further into the hole of discontentment and shame.
Our struggles create the gratitude.
Eventually my dissatisfaction drove me to examine the source of my unhappiness. The source was a constant feeling of anxiety, stress and even depression. I became so desperate for a way out of that pain, that it forced me to look for solutions. I didn’t know what else to do but quit. Yes, I actually left clinical dentistry. In doing so, a weight lifted off my shoulders, and I began to feel like myself again.
Gaining back my sense of self allowed me to crawl out of the hole I had dug for myself. It was then that I knew how gratitude felt. Feeling anxiety and depression showed me exactly what I didn’t want in life. Then having it disappear felt like the biggest gift! Even when life wasn’t picture-perfect, I still felt grateful to be free of the low-grade anxiety and depression I lived with for years. I never would have experienced feeling true gratitude, had I not been through the struggle.
We all have stories like that, and our stories only serve as a reminder that success doesn’t automatically grace us with gratitude. In a sense, gratitude can be something we’ve earned.
2020 may have been the most challenging time of your life. Whether you endured sickness and loss, you had to furlough your employees who depended on you, or you had to juggle it all while homeschooling your children; it was a tough year. If you’re struggling, I would never expect you to dig deep and truly feel your gratitude. In fact, I’d tell you, “Don’t be grateful.”
Don’t be grateful. We can’t fake it or force it or trick ourselves into feeling it. That stuff only makes us feel more guilty, as we end up judging ourselves as flawed and entitled.
Instead, be angry, sad, or frustrated with the experience you’re having. While you’re doing that, consider using your pain as a signal to get your attention. Let it help you decide what you do and don’t want in your life after the struggle passes. We can’t skip the struggles, so we may as well use them as tools or reminders.
You can use 2020 to teach you what you don’t want your life to look like. Eventually we either adapt to our challenges, or we get through them completely. Once we do that, then it becomes the time to practice gratitude.
I mentioned that we can’t fake gratitude. I believe that to be true. However, we can practice it. We can even feel thankful during our lowest of lows–as long as we don’t force it upon ourselves.
It starts with intention. Even if you don’t like the experience that is creating suffering for you, notice that there is one positive you can take from it—you will see what you don’t want!
From there, you can start a gratitude journal. One way to do it is to simply write down everything you are grateful for throughout the day.
Here’s another way to practice gratitude. I call it, “Top 3 Things.” Begin your day writing down three things for which you are grateful. They don’t have to be big things. It can be as simple as noticing that you didn’t have to hit snooze on your alarm clock this morning. As you go about your day, you’ll search for things to top the first three things you listed. You’ll spend the day searching for good stuff, constantly trying to one-up yourself in the process. By the end of the day, you’ll have the three best things that happened in your day.
Want to get your team involved? Hang a white board in the break room of your office. Make it everyone’s duty to write it on the board when something good happens. When you leave at the end of the day, the entire team can read it and acknowledge that it was a pretty good day. This can change the energy of the entire office!
Dr. Laura Brenner graduated from Baylor College of Dentistry in 2001 and moved to Denver to establish her dental roots. She worked in private practice for 10 years until she left clinical dentistry behind for good. As the author of the Lolabees blog and “10 Reasons Your Dentist Probably Hates You Too,” she began connecting with other dentists from around the world who wanted more from their careers. This work inspired her to become a Certified Professional Coach who is passionate about helping dentists find joy in their careers again.