What is gratitude? Or more importantly, why is gratitude so important to implement in your everyday life and how can you implement gratitude effectively?
According to psychology today gratitude is “an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for example, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants.” The article goes on to explain what gratitude is linked to: higher levels of energy, optimism and empathy. On one hand, this makes complete sense to us, so much so that it seems too obvious a subject to further investigate. If you’re happy with what you have, then you’re of course going to be more energetic and optimistic. But what about that last point, that an ability to show gratitude is linked with an ability to feel empathy?
Recently interest in gratitude has become a trend both in psychology and the general population’s interest in the pursuit of happiness. What makes gratitude so interesting though, is not the obvious benefit that are mentioned above, but rather the less explored aspect of it. Empathy is what makes gratitude so beneficial, but it is also what makes it so difficult. And it is difficult isn’t it? When talking about gratitude, it seems so rare to talk about the struggles of gratitude, because there is such a positive association with being grateful that acknowledging gratitude as being hard would almost seem like admitting to a shameful character flaw. Gratitude is something often thought of as “natural”, a human quality that occurs in “normal” individuals without any form of conscious thought or practice to develop it. Thinking of gratitude as a inherent human quality as opposed to a skill to be developed and harnessed leads to individuals thinking they have no control over their amount of gratitude. Obviously, if we embrace this kind of flawed thinking we begin to stagnate because if we don’t believe in progress it then becomes impossible to achieve.
So first thing is first: gratitude is not inherent. If it was mankind would be a very different animal, likely more advanced than we could ever imagine. Also, raising children would probably be a hell of a lot easier if gratitude was an inherent human quality possessed from the time one leaves the womb. What is inherent is our ability to feel and develop gratitude as a skill. All humans with a fairly normal psyche can develop an ability for gratitude. The only people who don’t have that ability are those who fall well outside of the natural human psyche, namely individuals like sociopaths who have an inability to feel empathy. The good thing is anyone who falls into that category also doesn’t typically have the ability to develop an interest in human emotions like gratitude, so by virtue of you reading this article, you can safely assume you have everything you need to become a more thankful person.
In order to become more adept at experiencing gratitude, you need to think outside of yourself. Though you will be thinking of what in your own life you should be thankful of, you can only be thankful for things by way of comparison. Now, this might seem a little contradictory, but stick with me.
What are some common things to be thankful for? I am thankful for my family.
Why? Because they give me things that increase my levels of happiness and my overall wellbeing. My family gives me monetary support as well as emotional support. Now that I’ve identified some reasons I am thankful for my family, I’m going to want to expand on those as much as possible.
Every single month my family pays for every basic necessity I have, despite the fact I have passed an age when they are legally bound to do so. Furthermore, they aren’t only concerned with my survival, but they want me to flourish and be comfortable. They don’t simply pay for the cheapest apartment or even college, they were willing to take into account my comfort and needs when it comes to things that will affect me. As I grow older I try to become more independent, but even still the physical evidence of their support and love will stay with me throughout my life. My apartment is decorated by paintings, rugs and lamps taken from my house. Though we already owned these things and my mother was more than happy to let me have them, they are still gifts more numerous and extravagant than many impoverished people could hope to receive in a life time.
They are dedicated to my personal development in ways that would have been unimaginable to most people a hundred years ago. I have well over a hundred books in this apartment, and the vast majority of my library is left at home in my childhood bedroom that my parents still have waiting for me whenever I want to visit. I have craft supplies from various projects and hobbies, I could spend hours upon hours creating art projects with the supplies I have now and art isn’t even a particular hobby of mine. I have my laptop, which I bought with my “own money”, but even this wouldn’t have been possible if my parents hadn’t let me use the money I earned growing up for things other than necessities. They worked to raise a child able to get a job, helped me fill out my job applications, drove me to my interviews and then gave me a job so I could work. Part of this is the happy side effects of having a privileged birth: of being born in the right place at the right time to the right family. Another part of it, though, is simply their dedication to raising me. There are plenty of parents that actively discourage their children from college, that don’t have the desire to help their child succeed even if they have the time, even parents that think being an absentee parent is a good quality and not a bad one.
As you can see gratitude is a skill set that can be developed in a very socratic way, by asking questions to dig deeper. When I say “I’m thankful for my family” I feel almost nothing. Of course I’m thankful for them but I need to dig deeper to start to experience gratitude as an emotion. When I get to the end and I’ve taken the time to think of all the multitude of ways in which my family has benefited me I have been able to induce that feeling of gratitude in myself. Also, along the way I’ve reminded myself that these blessing are to some extent unique to me. Doing this mental exercise regularly will help me to identify the advantages that my unique blessings give me, and therefore the disadvantages others suffer from a lack of these blessings. This is where your ability to empathize starts to develop, which further increases your ability to engage with others in a meaningful and productive way.
We’re taught the value of modesty from a young age, especially girls. No one wants to come across as arrogant or self-aggrandizing. But we can’t let an endeavor for modesty to let us shrink our lives into something they aren’t, to let us become ungrateful for what we have. The truth is the vast majority of us have so much beauty and love to celebrate, even those of us who struggle with all the negatives of life. Celebrating your life is different from being an egotistical manic. It’s giving thanks to your situation, to your fortunes. Arguably, it would be even more disrespectful to not acknowledge these, to be blind to your own privileges. And when we start to develop our ability to feel gratitude, we find that it wasn’t the negatives of our lives that were inhibiting our ability to feel joy, but rather our tendency towards ignoring the positives.
So let us walk forward with a little bit more gratitude in our lives every day, if just for the sake of being a little bit more at peace in this tumultuous world.