Why we need gratitude more than ever.
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Throughout the internet, it seems like even more people than usual are writing about gratitude this Thanksgiving. Most are puzzling about what there is to be grateful for during this horrific pandemic. People the world over are grappling with the shutdown of businesses and schools, the recommendations of quarantine and facemasks, the reality of job loss, not to mention this debilitating virus and the looming possibility of death.
It’s challenging to be grateful when faced with these hardships on a daily basis. But feeling gratitude is important for our mental health. It goes beyond what we were taught as kids: be polite and say thank you. The Oxford dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” In psychology, there is a growing body of research into the area of gratitude. Early findings suggest that gratitude is more than simply an interpersonal appreciation of someone’s help. Rather, it is a life orientation, a worldview whereby feelings of gratitude stem from noticing and appreciating the positive things in life (Wood et al., 2010).
Here are some reasons that being grateful is in our interest:
Gratitude helps keep life in balance. Psychologists have determined that human beings have a built-in negative bias. In other words, negative incidents tend to have a greater impact on the human brain than positive ones. Presently, there is a magnitude of negative incidents effecting our lives and demanding our attention, often overwhelming us. While it is not wise to deny life’s hardships, they must be kept in perspective by acknowledging the positive aspects of life as well. Paying attention to what you are grateful for will help to ensure that positive incidents also significantly impact your brain.
Gratitude encourages self-awareness. In order to realize what you’re grateful for, you need to think about what has personal meaning to you. This requires that you slow down and tune into yourself. You need to stop comparing yourself to others and what they have in their lives. You need to disregard any expectations that you think you should be living up to. You need to pause and ask yourself: What has meaning to me? What, in my view, has brought me pleasure and joy? These are often challenging questions to answer and can lead to surprising self-reflection.
Gratitude inspires self-acceptance: Gratitude is about the here and now. It’s not related to your goals or aspirations. This is a chance to put all of that aside and take a break from striving and achieving. It’s an opportunity to be satisfied with who you are and how your life is right now. It’s a time to ask: In what ways am I good enough? What do I like about myself? In what ways do I enjoy being me?
Gratitude interrupts your critical inner voice: The critical inner voice is the part of us that is turned against ourself. It is the defended, negative side of our personality that is opposed to our ongoing development. The voice consists of the negative thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that oppose our best interests and diminish our self-esteem.
Acknowledging what you are grateful goes directly against the voice. Focusing on the positive circumstances and personal interactions that are enhancing your life weakens the voice’s attacks on you. It defuses the angry and cynical attitudes toward others and the negative, pessimistic picture of the world that the critical inner voice promotes.
Gratitude counteracts victimization: Being grateful for what you are getting takes the focus away from what you are not getting. It interrupts victimized thinking with its emphasis on being entitled and wronged. Feeling victimized means being stuck in a mindset of feeling cheated and disappointed. It means being caught up in blaming and feeling powerless. Gratitude interrupts this destructive outlook and cultivates an appreciation of life. With this shift in perspective, you are no longer perpetually dissatisfied; instead your life feels enriched and satisfying. As Willie Nelson said, “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”
Gratitude promotes vulnerability: The highly personal nature of gratitude allows for vulnerability. Acknowledging what has particular meaning to you can leave you feeling open and emotionally exposed. This can be especially true when you share these feeling with someone you feel grateful toward. Being vulnerable often has a negative connotation and is associated with being weak and defenseless. In reality, it is a strength and a positive quality. Sociologist Brené Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feelings are weakness” (Brown 2012, 33).
Gratitude nurtures love: Being mindful of what you are grateful for enables you to see and appreciate your partner’s unique traits and the qualities that they brings to your relationship. It encourages you to stop fixating on what should be and acknowledge what is. Becoming aware of the benefits that you have received from your partner will result in you feeling loved and cared about (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Feelings of intimacy and closeness will be enhanced by your perception of your partner’s responsiveness to your wishes and needs (Algoe, Gable and Maisel, 2010).
Just as gratitude inspires self-awareness and self-acceptance, it inspires those same attitudes toward your partner. Focusing on your partner’s positive qualities will also make you more attuned to your partner’s needs and wishes (Algoe et al., 2010). One study by Kubacka, Finkenauer, Rusbult and Keijsers (as cited in Nicholson, 2011) showed that a spouse responding to their partner leads to feelings of gratitude. This gratitude then motivates the partner to behave in a similar, responsive way. The reciprocal behavior of the partner then fosters more gratitude in the spouse. This results in the development of a positive cycle with an increase in both gratitude and caring behavior for both spouses (Nicholson, 2011).
Gratitude fosters happiness: It should be obvious by now that feeling gratitude will make your life happier and more meaningful. It will positively alter your attitude toward yourself and your view of the world you live in. It will not eliminate unhappiness, but it will help stop you from causing yourself unnecessary pain. And it will help you establish a life with a healthy balance of positive and negative influences. In the words of Abraham Maslow, “The most fortunate are those who have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.”
Most of the research about gratitude supports an association between gratitude and a person’s overall sense of well-being. Consider, the benefits of gratitude that have been discussed here. Self-awareness, self-acceptance and vulnerability leave you more self-compassionate and open to love. Countering your critical inner voice makes you less susceptible to its negative influence on your attitudes toward yourself, your partner and your relationship. Rejecting a victimized orientation opens your eyes to what you are being given.
The field of psychology offers a broader definition of gratitude as being the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself as well as a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation. Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized this when he famously advised, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”