I’m terrible at gratitude.
How bad am I? I’m so bad at gratitude that most days, I don’t notice the sunlight on the leaves of the Berkeley oaks as I ride my bike down the street. I forget to be thankful for the guy who hand-brews that delicious cup of coffee I drink mid-way through every weekday morning. I don’t even know the dude’s name!
I usually take for granted that I have legs to walk on, eyes to see with, arms I can use to hug my son. I forget my son! Well, I don’t actually forget about him, at least as a physical presence; I generally remember to pick him up from school and feed him dinner. But as I face the quotidian slings and arrows of parenthood, I forget all the time how much he’s changed my life for the better.
Gratitude (and its sibling, appreciation) is the mental tool we use to remind ourselves of the good stuff. It’s a lens that helps us to see the things that don’t make it onto our lists of problems to be solved. It’s a spotlight that we shine on the people who give us the good things in life. It’s a bright red paintbrush we apply to otherwise-invisible blessings, like clean streets or health or enough food to eat.
Gratitude is the mental tool we use to remind ourselves of the good stuff.
Gratitude doesn’t make problems and threats disappear. We can lose jobs, we can be attacked on the street, we can get sick. I’ve experienced all of those things. I remember those harrowing times at unexpected moments: My heart beats faster, my throat constricts. My body wants to hit something or run away, one or the other. But there’s nothing to hit, nowhere to run. The threats are indeed real, but at that moment, they exist only in memory or imagination. I am the threat; it is me who is wearing myself out with worry.
That’s when I need to turn on the gratitude. If I do that enough, suggests the psychological research, gratitude might just become a habit. What will that mean for me? It means, according to the research, that I increase my chances of psychologically surviving hard times, that I stand a chance to be happier in the good times. I’m not ignoring the threats; I’m appreciating the resources and people that might help me face those threats.
If you’re already one of those highly grateful people, stop reading this article — you don’t need it. Instead, you should read Amie Gordon’s “Five Ways Giving Thanks Can Backfire.” But if you’re more like me, then here are some tips for how you and I can become one of those fantastically grateful people.
Gratitude increases your chances of psychologically surviving hard times.
1. Once in a while, they think about death and loss
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I’m not just being perverse—contemplating endings really does make you more grateful for the life you currently have, according to several studies.
For example, when Araceli Friasa and colleagues asked people to visualize their own deaths, their gratitude measurably increased. Similarly, when Minkyung Koo and colleagues asked people to envision the sudden disappearance of their romantic partners from their lives, they became more grateful to their partners. The same goes for imagining that some positive event, like a job promotion, never happened.
This isn’t just theoretical: When you find yourself taking a good thing for granted, try giving it up for a little while. Researchers Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth Dunn had 55 people eat a piece of chocolate—and then the researchers told some of those people to resist chocolate for a week and others to binge on chocolate if they wanted. They left a third group to their own devices.
Guess who ended up happiest, according to self-reports? The people who abstained from chocolate. And who were the least happy? The people who binged. That’s the power of gratitude!
2. They take the time to smell the roses
And they also smell the coffee, the bread baking in the oven, the aroma of a new car—whatever gives them pleasure.
Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant finds that makes them stickier in your brain, and increases their benefits to your psyche—and the key, he argues, is expressing gratitude for the experience. That’s one of the ways appreciation and gratitude go hand in hand.
You might also consider adding some little ritual to how you experience the pleasures of the body: A study published this year in finds that rituals like prayer or even just shaking a sugar packet “make people pay more attention to food, and paying attention makes food taste better,” as Emily Nauman reports in her article about the research.
Well, we humans are astoundingly adaptive creatures, and we will adapt . When we do, their subjective value starts to drop; we start to take them for granted. That’s the point at which we might give them up for a while—be it chocolate, sex, or even something like sunlight—and then take the time to really savor them when we allow them back into our lives.
That goes for people, too, and that goes back to the first habit: If you’re taking someone for granted, take a step back—and imagine your life without them. Then try savoring their presence, just like you would a rose. Or a new car. Whatever! The point is, absence may just make the heart grow grateful.
If you’re taking someone for granted, imagine your life without them.
3. They take the good things as gifts, not birthrights
What’s the opposite of gratitude? Entitlement—the attitude that people owe you something just because you’re so very special.
“In all its manifestations, a preoccupation with the self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel that we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to feel thankful,” writes Robert Emmons, co-director of the GGSC’s Gratitude project. “Counting blessings will be ineffective because grievances will always outnumber gifts.”
The antidote to entitlement, argues Emmons, is to see that we did not create ourselves—we were created, if not by evolution, then by God; or if not by God, then by our parents. Likewise, we are never truly self-sufficient. Humans need other people to grow our food and heal our injuries; we need love, and for that, we need family, partners, friends, and pets.
“Seeing with grateful eyes requires that we see the web of interconnection in which we alternate between being givers and receivers,” writes Emmons. “The humble person says that life is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed.”
The web of interconnection in which we alternate between being givers and receivers.
4. They’re grateful to people, not just things
At the start of this piece, I mentioned gratitude for sunlight and trees. That’s great for me—and it may have good effects, like leading me to think about my impact on the environment—but the trees just don’t care. Likewise, the sun doesn’t know I exist; that big ball of flaming gas isn’t even aware of its own existence, as far as we know. My gratitude doesn’t make it burn any brighter.
That’s not true of people — people will glow in gratitude. Saying thanks to my son might make him happier and it can strengthen our emotional bond. Thanking the guy who makes my coffee can strengthen social bonds—in part by deepening our understanding of how we’re interconnected with other people.
My colleague Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the GGSC’s science director and another co-director of our Expanding Gratitude project, puts it this way:
"Experiences that heighten meaningful connections with others—like noticing how another person has helped you, acknowledging the effort it took, and savoring how you benefitted from it—engage biological systems for trust and affection, alongside circuits for pleasure and reward. This provides a synergistic and enduring boost to the positive experience. By saying ‘thank you’ to a person, your brain registers that something good has happened and that you are more richly enmeshed in a meaningful social community."
By saying ‘thank you’ to a person, your brain registers that something good has happened.