Rainier Behavioral Health

Gratitude: What is it, what are the benefits, how can you get it?

"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others" (Cicero)

"Act with kindness but do not expect gratitude" (Confucius)

Gratitude is a most misunderstood concept. It can provide numerous mental, even physical, health benefits. But most people don't practice it and some even think it's unnecessary and unhelpful. "I shouldn't have to be grateful," they may think. "I'm only getting what I deserve and I really deserve more. Other people should be grateful to me."

What is gratitude and why is it so difficult to express? It is an acknowledgement of the goodness in your life. It is also a recognition that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside of yourself. To that extent it is unearned or undeserved merit. To really express gratitude it is helpful to adopt the attitude of wanting what you have rather than having what you want. In a culture where a strong tacit message is, "You deserve it!" it can be difficult to feel gratitude. It is much easier and less countercultural to feel non-gratitude (failing to recognize the benefit) or even ingratitude (finding fault with the benefit). Ask yourself: How often have you ignored another person (a spouse, parent, or friend) who gave you a benefit or a compliment (non-gratitude) or even questioned their motives in doing so (ingratitude)? And what has been the result?

Gratitude is really more of a choice and an action than a feeling. While we may indeed feel grateful, we will enhance it if we choose to act gratefully. Furthermore, it will benefit you more than the person to whom you express gratitude and it will enhance your relationship with that person. You will feel better and your wellbeing and relationships will improve. Who would not want that? But like everything else in life you must work at it. Fortunately, the more you do the easier it will get.

What can gratitude do for you? It can reduce depression and increase pleasant memories. It can reduce what has been called "the poverty of affluence." It can strengthen your relationships with others. People who keep "gratitude journals" report feeling more connected to others. It can improve your marriages and other intimate relationships by increasing the "positivity ratio," the ratio of positive to negative messages we give our partners. Good relationships have a ratio as high as 5:1 while distressed relationships have a ratio as low as .7. Some relationships are even in negative territory where there are more negative than positive messages given.

There are several obstacles to expressing gratitude, however. One is "negativity bias;" the human tendency to respond negatively to significant events. Another is narcissism, or excessive self-regard; sometimes expressed as, "Thank God I'm not a sinner like everyone else!" A third is adaptation; "It's just my due; I deserve it." While a new car or a new spouse may make us feel better about ourselves for a while, the feeling will not last. We adapt quickly to what we have and then want more. And sometimes expressing gratitude just feels like too much work!

What can you do to express more gratitude in your life? Here's how.

  1. Keep a Gratitude Journal; a list of all the things for which you are grateful. Be specific; don't just say, 'I'm grateful for my spouse." Update it regularly. If you always write the same things it will become stale and you will likely quit. Think about it before writing.
  2. Write a Gratitude Letter to someone who has provided you with something important in your life. It is not necessary that the other person even know what they have provided. Simply tell them in your own words how they have been important to you. It might be a professor, a parent, an intimate partner, a friend, a co-worker. Do it now before they die because many people have regretted not doing this while they still could. You may even wish to bring the letter to them and discuss it. And be prepared for a powerful experience.
  3. Ask yourself several questions:
    1. "What have I received from ... ?" (Recognize all the gifts we have received from others).
    2. "What have I given to ... ?" (Focus on the gifts you give to others).
    3. "What troubles and difficulties have I caused ... ? (Acknowledge how we cause pain and suffering in the lives of others).
    4. "What advantages have I been given in life" (Recognize your gifts).
    5. "Which allies and supporters have helped me get where I am?" (Recognize your dependence on others).
    6. "What do I take for granted in life?" (Recognize what you normally don't see).

If you do at least some of these activities you will begin to cultivate a habit of gratitude in your life. You will begin to develop and exercise your gratitude muscles. And like everything else it becomes easier with practice. If you want to explore this further, please see a licensed mental health provider.

E. Thomas Dowd, Ph.D., ABPP
Licensed Psychologist

Board Certified in Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology


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