11/24/2014 08:41 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

5 Myths of a Thankful Life

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>Every November I take on a gratitude challenge to help me practice being thankful in a deeper way. In one blog post I explored the three challenges that hold us back from living a more grateful life. Many of the comments that article generated explained how some people were unconvinced that we should live gratefully or happy every single day anyway. What fascinates me, after all the research I've done about creating happiness, is how similar the reasoning and excuses for avoiding either of them are. That led me come up with the more common myths that exist for happiness -- and observe how those same myths apply to living thankfully 365.

Here are five myths that both happiness and a thankful life share:

1. If you go around being thankful all the time people will see you as a Pollyanna at best, or a fool at worst. Remember Pollyanna? Over 50 years ago this Disney movie showed up in theaters and we are still using her as an archetype of infectious optimism. Throughout the years people have portrayed Pollyanna as a caricature of someone who is overly optimistic and silly when other reactions were called for. But on closer inspection, Pollyanna never ignored nor denied it when bad things happened, she just didn't dwell there. Instead she looked for the good and stayed grateful for the things she could control.

It's possible that people might see an overly grateful person as a fool, but I think the joke is on them. Just like with happiness, grateful people are more easily able to look beyond any tragedy or sadness they encounter and return to an awareness of the good in their lives. They, like Pollyanna, don't deny it when bad things happen, they just don't allow it to devastate them.

2. Gratitude will make you complacent, passive and eliminate incentives. Many people are convinced that the best way to be motivated is to be deeply unhappy and driven. Think of the struggling artist or the workaholic businesswoman. Unfortunately, scientific studies now prove that unhappy and driven people are so miserable and depressed that they ignore opportunities and possibilities that are right in front of them. Or worse yet, they medicate their unhappiness by drowning it in one form of addiction or another.

Studies now show that grateful and happy people are more creative, energized, productive, able to think more deeply and are generally more satisfied with their life. If you want to get something done, don't hire an unhappy depressed person. Hire a person who is both optimistic and grateful for the opportunity that each day brings to create something amazing.

3. It is impossible to be grateful in the midst of suffering.
While some believe this to be true, the opposite is often our experience. Face it -- the longer anyone lives the more likely it is that we will face disappointment and challenges. Yet once we've lived through hard times -- and watched others we admire do the same -- we can arrive at a place where we know that no matter how bad it gets it seldom lasts. If fact, if you look for it you will often find benefits like: a) you'll discover who your true friends are; b) you'll discover your own resilience; c) you'll discover that most of the time bad things lead to positive change and personal growth.

Another side to this is that many of us think we will be seen as insensitive if we don't get sad and unhappy when the situation is clearly negative. But as Barry Neil Kaufman of The Option Institute says, "Commiserating just supports and amplifies misery. Happiness (and Gratitude) might, in fact, be the most sensitive and useful tool with which to assist someone we love through a difficult circumstance." Of course I'm not suggesting we ever attempt to make light of someone's pain. But remember, like Pollyanna, gratitude is not about denying that bad situations occur. It is however, an ever aware and constant focus that good exists.

4. Too much gratitude shows weakness.
While living thankfully does ask us to be more open and vulnerable, author Brene Brown Ph.D. says that such actions are actually some of the most heroic things we can do. Expressing gratitude requires a person to be open and vulnerable and risk being truly seen by others. It asks us to admit what is most important to us to others without holding back for fear of being taken advantage of. It requires us to be truthful and authentic and that takes enormous courage. As Brene Brown says, "We simply cannot know joy without embracing vulnerability -- and the way to that is to focus on gratitude, not fear."

5. Gratitude, (like happiness) is something you can use up... there is only so much to go around. This one might sound silly on the surface, but if you think about it we all know people who are downright stingy about their joy and their gratitude. It's as though they are afraid that by sharing it and living it, they would run out. I've written before about the insidious belief in scarcity and not-enoughness that runs through our culture and I believe it extends to gratitude as well. Instead of seeing gratitude, like love, as something that the more you give the more you have, it is almost like some people believe that it carries too high a cost to squander.

Until I began to compare thankfulness to happiness I never realized how closely related the two topics were. But like Brene Brown concludes when talking about people who thrive in the world, "Gratitude is the cornerstone of Wholehearted Living." On the surface, it's easy to take the action of being thankful for granted and assume that we are doing everything we can to experience it. But until we challenge ourselves to unravel some of the thoughts, doubts and prejudices around the topic, we may not be fully enjoying the many benefits that a gratitude practice can deliver.

Kathy Gottberg believes in living healthy, authentic, fearless and SMART. Follow her journey at SMART Living

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