“Count your blessings” is an age-old bromide. But now, rigorous research confirms it: Practicing gratitude cures much of what ails us. It helps us feel more positive, cope better with adversity, and even stay physically healthier. What’s more, it creates an upward spiral—more gratitude increases our satisfaction with life, and more satisfaction with life increases our gratitude.
Given these miraculous benefits, why aren’t we practicing gratitude 24-7?
In this seemingly endless swirl of dreadful world events, these messages to practice gratitude can feel like prescriptive pressure and may land with a thud on those of us who are languishing or in despair. One beleaguered woman put it this way: “I have a constant feeling of impending large-scale doom (the climate crisis, societal polarization, COVID), and as a parent of young kids and a daughter of aging parents, I feel that every moment is precious, and I must savor and be grateful for every single day. It’s an exhausting mindset!”
Like mindfulness and other similar wellness practices that are supposed to make us happier and healthier, gratitude can seem like one more “should” that is totally out of reach when we’re in the doldrums. Depending on the culture we grew up in, expressing gratitude may even make us feel more sad and guilty. For those of us languishers who can’t bear to be told one more time to count our blessings, is there anything of value here? What exactly does gratitude do for us?
Gratitude acts as a kind of course correction, easing us away from the dark paths to which our minds gravitate—minds that are built to see the glass as half empty. All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, have what’s called a negativity bias. We pay more attention to what is negative about any situation than to what is positive, we give the negative more weight, and we have better memory for negative events and feelings than for positive ones. The experience of a beautiful meal can be spoiled by a single persistent fly, a supervisor’s extensive praise can be drowned out by one criticism, and the memories of a great vacation can be overshadowed by a marital squabble on the last day. This tendency to focus on what is wrong can impact how we make decisions, and how motivated we are to take risks. Although the negativity bias may be corrected and even reversed as we grow older, it shapes our views of ourselves and the world around us for much of our lives.
Why would our minds do this to us? One theory is that our minds evolved to help us survive and reproduce, not to make us happy. As Daniel Kahneman points out in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, “This asymmetry between the power of positive and negative expectations or experiences has an evolutionary history. Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.” Those ancestors who were better at thinking about what could go wrong were more likely to pass on their genes. However, this advantage may leave us less able to appreciate all that is wonderful in the world.
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How does gratitude act as a corrective? By deliberately turning our attention to what we’re grateful for, we unhook from this emotional negativity. For example, when college students seeking mental health counseling were asked to write letters of gratitude once a week for three weeks and then were followed up three months later, they reported better mental health (less anxiety and depression) compared with their counterparts who wrote about stressful experiences. Those who wrote letters thanking others expressed fewer negative emotions than those writing about stressful experiences, and the difference in emotion expression accounted for some of the positive effects of gratitude on mental health in the study.
Gratitude is also a kind of social glue. When directed toward others, gratitude boosts feelings of connection and commitment in relationships, and in this way eases loneliness. Even for those who feel they have nothing to be grateful for, asking them to write down three things each day for which they’re grateful seems to create a process by which they start noticing positive aspects of their lives and their relationships that otherwise remain invisible.
When we’re lost in doldrums of apathy or anxiety, it’s hard to access the feeling of being grateful for anything. Trying to count blessings by calling to mind things we should appreciate can feel like an intellectual exercise with no emotional resonance. What then? One simple tactic is to simply wait. Give yourself time. Like the weather, our moods shift sooner or later. They may not shift from gloom to joy, but at least to a place of more emotional neutrality. And from this place, we’re more likely to be able to call to mind what sustains us in our lives. From there, it may be a shorter step to feeling genuine appreciation.
When you’re having trouble finding something to be grateful for, try a simple exercise known as counterfactual thinking. Psychologist Laura Kray and colleagues asked people to imagine what life would have been like if they had not met an important person or experienced a pivotal life event. What if you had never met your partner, your best friend, your mentor? These “what-if” thought experiments led people to greater awareness of what they were grateful for, and the benefits of the events and encounters that they had mentally erased from their life stories. This type of imaginative play can lead to a greater appreciation for the people and life situations that we take for granted and create a greater sense of meaning for ourselves.
That is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of reaching for gratitude: It can turn our usual views of ourselves and the world upside down. It can take what’s invisible in the background and bring it front and center. We take for granted the days when we are not sick or in pain, the nights when we have shelter from the rain, and the mornings we wake up again to life.
Mary Oliver put it vividly when she wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Her simple line of poetry startles us with the reminder that this is the only life we will ever have, that it is wild, and that it is precious. When encountered at the right moment, it can turn languishing on its head, yanking us back from our usual tendency to exist on autopilot and prompting us to feel more alive. It can infuse the air we breathe with a fresh awareness that takes our breath away.
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