What is the deal with gratitude?



I’m reviving an article I wrote a while back. Why? Cause I am lazy mostly. But also, this is a good time of the year for reflection and gratitude is a good vehicle for reflection. In fact, the counselling team have used the pin board at the service to start the process of reflecting on what they are grateful for in 2019. If you’re at the Health Service any time soon, pop in and have a look. 

What is gratitude?

Gratitude is the conscious appreciation for the good things that happen in life.

It is both an emotional state, that is experienced in response to something good happening, but also an orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world.

Commonly gratitude is discussed in relation to someone doing something nice for us. This could include giving us advice, a gift, a donation, emotional support or encouragement, money, assistance, a sought-after item, or experience. Gratitude is felt most strongly when the person has made an effort to do something nice for us, that made our lives better, that we didn’t necessarily deserve or earn, but they did willingly and happily.

But gratitude is not always in response to the actions of an individual towards us.

  • It might be in response to the good service from a company or organisation
  • It might be in response to feeling like we got something nice from a non-human (e.g. pet, god, universe, nature)
  • It might arise from an appreciation of what you have or own (“I am grateful for the nice stuff I have”)
  • It might arise from feelings of awe when encountering something beautiful (e.g. “I just saw an amazing sunset”)
  • It might be a gratefulness for the present moment (“I am happy to be here right now, where I am”)
  • It might be from contemplating that life is short, and appreciating the experiences you have had (e.g. “I’ve had the chance to do lots of interesting stuff in my life”)
  • It might be thankfulness of what you have in comparison to others (“I am very lucky. A lot of people have it far worse than me”)
  • It might arise from the feeling of being part of something bigger (e.g. a spiritual awakening)

People with a grateful orientation have the ability to notice, appreciate and savour the elements of their life. They are mindful of how fortunate they are and how it could be otherwise.

Gratitude can also be considered a behaviour, and not just an emotional state. For example, saying “thank-you” is a simple behaviour that demonstrates your appreciation of something that someone has done for you.

I read one article that said gratitude is “an antidote to insatiable yearnings”, meaning we are so often caught up in what we want next, that we don’t always take the time to be grateful for the things we have now. Gratitude is a willingness to take stock of the positive unearned things that have enhanced our lives.

Gratitude is also considered a type of social glue that helps bind us all together in a positive and proactive way. If I am nice to you, you feel grateful, you thank me, and then we both are more likely to do nice things for each other, but also other people.

Although it is only in recent times that researchers have become interested again in gratitude, it is an emotion that has long been recognised as important, and there are variations of it across most cultures, meaning most people can connect with the basic concept.


Why would you want to cultivate gratitude in your life?

Because it feels good. Gratitude is associated with a range of positive emotions: contentment, satisfaction, happiness, pride, hope, admiration, respect, trust, regard, thankfulness, joy, contentment, comfort, harmony.

Individuals who practice gratitude report greater positive affect (see above) and less negative affect (e.g. depression, anxiety, resentment, envy, worry, body dissatisfaction)

Gratitude helps in your social life. It strengthens social bonds, makes you feel loved and cared for, and promotes the exchange of kindness between you and others. It moves you towards people, rather than away. It strengthens your relationships; makes them more considerate and kind.

Gratitude is also associated with a greater sense of meaning and purpose: self-worth, expansion of self, sense of spirituality. It provides a buffer against stressful events.

There is even preliminary evidence that practising gratitude can have positive impacts on your physical health; calming the nervous system, better sleep, encouraging more physical activity.

And if all those benefits to you are irrelevant, remember that cultivating gratitude in your own life benefits others. When you recognise someone’s gift to you and say thank you, you enhance their self-esteem and self-worth. You also increase the likelihood that they will do nice things for other people, hence kindness ripples through the community.


Can gratitude be cultivated?

Yep. Here are some ways to do it.

  1. Gratitude lists. Each day, at the end of the day, write a list of the 6 things that you are grateful for that day. You can keep doing this for however long you want. The more you practice it, the more natural it will feel and the longer lasting and stronger the benefits might be. It might be the beginning of a regular process of journalling, in which you start with the things that you are grateful for.
  2. Grateful contemplation. This is a good one to use when you might just need a mood boost. Take 5 minutes to recall an event or person in your life, for which you are very grateful. Think it through in detail. For example, if you are remembering a friend that you really cared about, and who cared about you, try to remember specific times with them and play them out in your head. Note the feelings of thankfulness that arise as you remember how lucky you were to have that person (or that experience) in your life.
  3. Gratitude behaviours. These can be pretty potent ways of cultivating gratitude. The basic idea is that you identify someone who has done (or is doing) something nice for you and write them a letter, outlining what they have done for you, how it is helped, and how grateful you are for what they’ve done. You then deliver that letter, in writing, or in person, or simply read the letter to them, the next time you see them. There are variants on this process, but the main idea is that you go out of your way to express gratitude to someone who has helped you.
  4. Meditation. There is some evidence that regular meditation can lead to the emergence of thoughts and feelings that are more compassionate and grateful/thankful in nature.


Is gratitude a miracle cure?

Nope. None of the psychological tools that I discuss in the blog are a ‘fix-all” for what ails you. I see them as more like pieces of a puzzle. The more you get, the clearer the picture of life gets.


How can I be grateful if my life is shit?

This is a good question.

There are two answers I have to this question.

  1. Is your life truly shit? Are there absolutely no good things about your life? During tough times, it is common to start seeing everything in black and white terms (“everything is crap”) whereas in reality, there are still good things happening, it is just that you have ceased to see them. Gratitude exercises can help recalibrate your attention to be more realistic. Gratitude is not just pithy positive thinking. Gratitude is a feeling that arises when you make an concerted effort to connect with the good things that you do have. It doesn’t negate the negatives or pretend they aren’t there. It simply requires you to acknowledge that there are likely positive things that are happening to you as well. It should be noted that studies of gratitude are not just done with generally healthy people. They are done with people across the range from high to low functioning. Even in individuals who are quite ill, gratitude exercises can still help.
  2. If you are in a very difficult period in your life, gratitude might not be the best initial strategy to help lift you out. Help seeking is more appropriate. Reaching out to get assistance to modify the things in your life that aren’t working. A good place to start is the many phone and chat services that you can access here in Australia.


Are there any downsides to cultivating more gratitude?

There are a few. They are fairly minor though.

Sometimes reflecting on nice things that people have done for us makes us feel indebted to them (requiring that we return the favour). Feelings of indebtness are typically described as unpleasant. This appears to be related to whether we attribute someone’s kindness towards us as altruistic (i.e. not requiring reciprocation) or more conditional (i.e. expecting favour to be returned).

People who find expressing emotions to others might find gratitude more difficult to cultivate. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but it might mean you don’t get the same benefits from doing so.

When we think about the things we are grateful for, it can also highlight the things that aren’t working so well in our life. This can cause a bit of a mixed emotional reaction. In this case, try problem-solving the things that aren’t going quite right, whilst continuing to practice being grateful for the things that are.


Where to read more

I suggest this paper. It’s a formal academic paper, so it might be a bit heavy going for those who’ve not been exposed to mental health literature.

If you are after some articles on gratitude that are a little easier to read – try these.

If you are after some more exercises that can build gratitude, try these.

Reachout also recommend this mobile phone application for keeping a gratitude journal.


Got questions?

Email me on gareth.furber@flinders.edu.au

Posted in
Life Skills Mental Fitness Mental Health Psychological Tools Resilience Well-being

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