It’s probably not what you think. 

My parents came of age on South Dakota homesteads during The Great Depression. Rounding up cattle to be shot and buried before they starved. Picking up bones of dead animals to be sold by the ton. They were steel-forged in the heat of the Dirty Thirties. 

They married in 1939 and knew the poverty of living in a campground with two small children in a teardrop trailer. Their third child was born while they were holed up in a box car. The fourth as my father headed off to be a soldier in Germany, where he was promptly wounded.

When I (their ninth child) was growing up, my father purchased powdered milk and blocks of salty butter and cans of oily peanut butter stamped NOT TO BE SOLD OR EXCHANGED from families off the reservation to supplement our food supply. My mom met any whining with the stoic, “Think of the starving children in India.” 

The “attitude of gratitude” was baked into me.

And it’s been reinforced by decades of yoga practice. In yoga, gratitude is related to samtosha, one of the five niyamas, or restraints.  Samtosha is the antidote for desire, the restraint on our attachment to certain outcomes and our frustration and anger when they don’t happen. 

If you want to be happy, the first step is gratitude.

But . . . here’s my problem with gratitude. 

It’s not second nature to me. It’s first nature. 

When I was diagnosed with giant cell arteritis, an autoimmune disease, my first response was to think it could be worse. So what, I told myself, a friend recently died for sixteen-seconds before being resuscitated and having a pacemaker installed. Many have worse conditions. 

When I cancelled yet another trip, this time to Left Coast Crime, my first mystery conference in three years, I told myself at least I live in Santa Cruz, such a beautiful location in which to be confined.

When I saw Rodney Crowell was performing at our local Rio Theater, a concert that I would have loved to attend but which was not safe for me, I immediately reminded myself of the great luxury I have to listen to him at home through Martin Logan speakers.

“You,” I lecture myself, “are not fleeing your home in the dead of winter with bombs dropping around you. You are not living in a Syrian refugee camp. You are not a Uyghur rounded-up into a concentration camp.” 

But I’ve come to realize this reflex in me is so automatic that I step right over my disappointment. I treat myself like the neglected child I was 65 years ago with no one to acknowledge that even if people are starving elsewhere in the world, commodity cheese tastes like rubber bands.

My little self bathing in a cow trough.

I’m not suggesting it’s good to wallow in self-pity, only that it’s not “bad” to feel a little sorry for one’s self. To short shrift any feeling is to lop off feeling. Stoicism can be useful, but it shrinks us. What good is it to have a full heart if our heart is a shriveled prune?

The first step to happiness, then, is not to jump to gratitude, but to open our hearts. To ourselves. To acknowledge all our feelings, including sadness.