Gratitude Doesn’t Guarantee Happiness — But Something More
With so much focus on the benefits of gratitude, it can sometimes feel like there are more people selling the concept (books, lectures, journals, retreats, pithy framed sayings) than living it. But gratitude is not something you buy over the counter and never feel negative, sad or anxious again. Real gratitude is steeped in a deep sense of humility and often involves learning to become better at receiving (and recognizing) help from others.
Gratitude stems from interdependence
Unlike self-affirming mantras or forced “positive thinking,” feeling grateful requires you to recognize the role others play in your well-being. And that can be hard; even scary.
“Based on my research, I’ve come to define gratitude as a specific way of thinking about receiving a benefit and giving credit to others beside oneself for that benefit,” says gratitude researcher, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and founding editor of The Journal of Positive Psychology, Robert Emmons, Ph.D. You must recognize your dependence on and interdependence with others to experience gratitude even if feeling indebted in that way can be uncomfortable.
Gratitude helps you accentuate the positive
While gratitude goes beyond positive thinking, it helps magnify the good stuff in relation to the difficult stuff. “The data bear this out,” Emmons says. “When people are grateful, they aren’t necessarily free of negative emotions — we don’t find that they necessarily have less anxiety or less tension or less unhappiness. Practicing gratitude magnifies positive feelings more than it reduces negative feelings.”
Gratitude can even require facing difficult, painful emotions while still recognizing your power and responsibility to make the best of them, as well as expressing appreciation for others who help along the way. You feel the hard things. But you dwell more on the moments of joy, reprieve and support.
Gratitude can be a strong motivator
People sometimes worry that feeling grateful in less-than-ideal circumstances will lead to a sense of complacency or even laziness. Again, Emmons’s research refutes this idea. “People are actually more successful at attaining their goals if they are also keeping a gratitude journal,” he reports. His research has found that people keeping a gratitude journal actually worked harder and exerted more effort toward achieving their goals than a control group. And yet, they were not easily satisfied with their progress.
“In general, gratitude leads to action. It is a motivating emotion and trait,” Emmons clarifies. “It doesn’t lead to inactivity but rather to more vigorous pursuit of activity.”
Gratitude can be counter-intuitive
While human beings can be tempted to take credit for things that go well and blame others when they don’t, gratitude flips that script. We may acknowledge our own contribution to a good outcome, but in gratitude we also widen the circle to include others who helped make success possible.
The experience of feeling grateful also runs counter to a common need to feel in control. “When situations are uncontrollable there can be a surrender that takes place that can set the stage for the experience of gratitude,” Emmons says.
Obstacles to gratitude
Despite all the plusses to cultivating a sense of gratitude, it’s not easy and you may need to address some common roadblocks on the way. These include:
- Pervasive negativity and complaining. It’s easier, and perhaps human nature, to focus on something that’s not going well or to feeling deprived in some way. Gratitude requires the opposite perspective.
- A sense of entitlement. If you feel you deserve everything, it’s hard to feel grateful for what you already have or for unexpected gifts.
- Suffering and extreme challenge. Especially trying times can, of course, make it more difficult to feel grateful, at least in the moment. However, such experiences often cultivate gratitude. In a study conducted by psychology professor at Eastern Washington University, Philip Watkins, Ph.D, people asked to recall a time they were victimized, betrayed or hurt in a significant way reported feeling a greater sense of closure and less unpleasant emotions after writing about the experience from a grateful perspective.
- Envy, materialism and narcissism. Called the “thieves of thankfulness,” some personality factors make it especially hard to feel grateful by focusing your thoughts on what is lacking. Watkins and others have even found that these traits can cause feelings of gratitude to degrade over time. A focus on material wealth, wanting what others have or believing you are more worthy than others makes it harder to feel grateful.
Practicing gratitude cannot make you feel happy all the time or remove challenges from your personal and professional life; it can do something better. Research consistently shows gratitude can help increase feelings of satisfaction and joy; boost immune function and lower blood pressure; and promote professional success by generating better workplace relationships, enhancing leadership capabilities and increasing the sense of meaning from work.