"Stop pitying yourself, people have it worse, you should be grateful." You've probably heard this before, and it's some of the most cliché, unhelpful advice around. When gratitude is inspired by guilt, obligation, or shame, that's not gratitude at all. True gratitude is a practical tool that serves a number of purposes beyond the after school special fluff of being thankful for what you have.
How to Harness Gratitude
On a basic level, gratitude is just being satisfied and appreciative of what you have. It's easy to say you're grateful and remind yourself to be grateful when you're feeling a little spoiled. Embracing gratitude as a feeling, however, is a different story. That's what makes it a powerful tool, not just a nice habit. And the good news is, it's an easy enough tool to use.
A regular gratitude session is an easy way to get started. This just involves sitting down and making a list of things you're grateful for. Leaving notes for your future self is another fun option, and so is simply writing down a list of things you're grateful for.
Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons recommends a strategy, too. It might help to remember the bad. Interestingly, we have a tendency to be less grateful when times are good, because we start thinking we're invulnerable. We get used to life being a ball, and we come to expect it. To combat this, he suggests:
Try this little exercise. First, think about one of the unhappiest events you have experienced. How often do you find yourself thinking about this event today? Does the contrast with the present make you feel grateful and pleased? Do you realise your current life situation is not as bad as it could be? Try to realise and appreciate just how much better your life is now. The point is not to ignore or forget the past but to develop a fruitful frame of reference in the present from which to view experiences and events.
Starting a gratitude journal can be useful, but to go along with Emmons' suggestion, you might even consider starting a "how far I've come" journal, in which you remember and write about unhappy times in your past and how you've overcome them. Of course, revisiting old wounds can also be damaging, so you want to be mindful of that, too.
And speaking of mindfulness, getting yourself out of autopilot and being present in the moment is key to feeling grateful, because you take time to tune into your life and be a little more aware.
Once you start embracing gratitude, a healthy dose of it can make your relationships better, make you feel more in control, and even get you through tough times.
Gratitude Makes You Resilient
In one of the most widely cited studies on gratitude, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Emmons found that when people kept a gratitude journal, they were happier.
To test this, researchers simply asked subjects to record events of their day, and one group of participants was told to make a list of ways in which their life was better than most people's — basically, a gratitude list. No judgement, no shame, just an objective list of reasons why their life might be awesome.
Here's what the study concluded:
...participants in the gratitude condition reported considerably more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt more connected with others than did participants in the control condition. Therefore, it appears that participation in the gratitude condition led to substantial and consistent improvements in people's assessments of the global well-being.
It's kind of obvious, really (why wouldn't you feel happier when thinking about happy things?) but the key words here are "substantial and consistent." It seems happiness sticks over time.
What's even more impressive, though, is how this is even true when your life really sucks.
At one of my lowest points in life, I embraced gratitude as a defence mechanism. I was alone, broke, and I'd just gone through some unsettling trauma. At the time, it didn't seem like life could get much worse, but I got tired of feeling sad all the time. I wanted to feel something else. I started looking for things in my life to be happy about, because I was tired of being down.
I didn't know it at the time, but research shows this can help you bounce back from trauma. A study in the Journal of Social Psychology found that positive emotions, including gratitude, actually helped people better cope after the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. The study reported:
Mediational analyses showed that positive emotions experienced in the wake of the attacks — gratitude, interest, love, and so forth — fully accounted for the relations between (a) precrisis resilience and later development of depressive symptoms and (b) precrisis resilience and postcrisis growth in psychological resources. Findings suggest that positive emotions in the aftermath of crises buffer resilient people against depression and fuel thriving, consistent with the broaden-and-build theory.
If, at that low point in my life, someone would have told me "hey, just be grateful for what you have!" I would have wanted to kick them in the kneecaps. It's the equivalent of telling someone to just suck it up and deal — not helpful. You don't process your pain at all with that strategy. However, because I approached gratitude as a coping mechanism, rather than a forced sentiment, it was actually useful.
Like the study says, gratitude was the perfect buffer. It won't fix the aftermath of a tragedy, but it can be a helpful way to cope.
Gratitude Improves Your Relationships
When I'm feeling stressed and angry, I'm not a cool person. Like a lot of people, I have a tendency to take my shitty feelings out on people around me. It's not an attractive quality, but the good news is, it works the other way around, too. When you're feeling thankful and appreciative, you have a tendency to be kinder and more empathic to people.
A recent study on gratitude found as much. Researchers from the University of Georgia interviewed couples about how happy they were in their marriage. They found that expressing gratitude was a consistent predictor of happiness.
They studied 468 couples, asking them about their communication styles, financial issues, and how often they expressed gratitude. According to the study, couples who were likely to show their appreciation were more likely to power through obstacles that bring a lot of relationships down: money issues, for example. The study's lead author said:
It goes to show the power of 'thank you.' Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes.
It makes sense. When you're feeling grateful, you're in a better emotional state. You've slowed down to enjoy the moment and be a little more mindful of it. That gives you the breathing room to open yourself up to others and try to understand them a little more.
Gratitude Makes You Feel More in Control
When I shifted my own perspective and started actively embracing gratitude by focusing on the things in my life that I actually enjoyed, I was surprised at just how big of a difference that could make. I felt in control of my emotions, rather than overwhelmed by them.
It worked the same way with my finances. A lot of personal finance is focused on what you don't have. Think about it. We're always progressing, moving forward, making goals, trying to get more. And that's cool, because that's how stuff gets done, but it has a drawback that's worth thinking about: it suggests what you have now is not good enough, and that may not be true.
That's why it took a while to get my finances straight. A few years ago, I totally drained my savings because of a dumb mistake. I had to rebuild, but rebuilding seemed overwhelming, and I was scared of being broke for the rest of my life. It may be a legitimate fear, but after soaking in some real personal finance advice, I learned to get over that fear.
As I saved, I started to be more conscious about the things I did have instead of the things I didn't, and I started to think about what could be instead of what wasn't. I invested, I focused on ways to earn more money. And then, a funny thing happened: my finances started to get better. It wasn't because of some positive thinking Law of Attraction stuff, either. It was because gratitude made me feel more in control, and feeling in control is essential to getting your money right. There's nothing wrong with striving for more, but, ironically, trying to find ways in which your life is ok right now seems to make it easier to strive for more.
In a recent TED talk, psychologist Guy Winch pointed out how we tend to beat ourselves up when we get rejected or make a mistake. It's a useless habit that often only makes things worse. One suggestion he made was to be more impartial about analysing your mistakes so you don't make them again. But he also suggested gratitude: instead of focusing on why you got turned down, think about the ways in which life is still good. This puts you back in the driver's seat.
For example, when I was laid off, I was naturally depressed and angry and confused. Even when I got a new job, I still felt like I was worthless somehow. But when I finally accepted that these things happen — people lose their jobs every day — I realised even when shit happens, I have a lot in my life to be happy about. I have a cool apartment. I love my significant other and my cats. My family is always there for me. Those things still existed even without my job, and that was a big wake up call. Gratitude gave me a better sense of reality: I was no longer defined by a job, and I felt in control.
Ultimately, gratitude works best when you reframe the way you think about it. It's not some old, boring ethical obligation stemming from shame and guilt. It's a lot better than that: it's finding legitimate reasons to get up every morning and tackle the day with fervour, and embracing it can cause a surprising, powerful chain of events in your life.
This article has been updated since its original publication