If we care to examine our lives closely, it’s very likely that we will find things to be thankful for. These could be small things, like gratitude that we have a roof over our head, or that we are able to keep an adorable cat in a rented apartment. Or it might be something on a larger scale – such as surviving a difficult operation, or recovery from addiction. The point is that we can find comfort, inspiration and strength in events, objects, people and relationships that we might overlook because we’re too busy, or too anxious about things that might go wrong.
Psychologists have been studying gratitude for a long time and even clinical trials and other such experiments have shown positive life benefits for people who habitually practice acknowledging things they can be grateful for. Researchers say that gratitude is often neglected and underestimated but its role in helping balance our emotions and mental wellbeing is now well understood.
Gratitude can also be understood from an ethical perspective alongside notions of duty and obligation. Duty and obligation are about our commitment to the wellbeing of others. In fact, being grateful for something, or for the actions of someone else, could be seen as an ethical obligation. Our signal of thankfulness may add to the sum total of that person’s happiness in that moment. We are taught from an early age to say “Please,” and “Thank you,” and that in itself is an act of gracefulness that also clearly expresses our gratitude for help we’ve been given or a service we’ve received. Not saying “Thank you” is considered to be rude. So, by learning to acknowledge and practice gratitude in your own life is not only a duty to those who help you, it can also be soothing to the soul, and it is a simple instance of politeness.
In his introduction to the 2004 book, The Psychology of Gratitude, Robert C. Solomon writes that gratitude is sometimes considered a “neglected emotion” because it is calm rather than passionate. Gratitude is often expressed quietly and privately; and it is not effusive or accompanied by larger-than-life physical gestures. However, gratitude is sincere (or at least it should be) and therefore cannot be reduced to a social performance.
Our neglect of gratitude also means that we may not actively work on cultivating it as a habit, as we would with, for example, honesty or a work ethic. We may hold gratitude as a virtue – its root in Aristotelean ethics – but it is often ignored when it comes to an audit of emotional wellbeing. Ironically though, as Robert Solomon points out, being ungrateful is widely recognised as a vice – a negative virtue.
Being ungrateful is a sign or symptom of lack of socialisation…evident in an inability to appreciate what others have done for [us], or, worse the grudging resentment of one’s own vulnerability and the refusal to admit one’s debt to others Robert Solomon, The Psychology of Gratitude
Most of us can easily recognise ungrateful people when we feel somebody should say “Thank you” to us for something we’ve done for, or given to, them; and fair enough. We like to be thanked and acknowledged. But too often we don’t offer gratitude for ourselves and ththe things we’ve achieved and we don’t show appreciation for what we have, rather than expressing our resentment at what we don’t yet have but desire.
It is the practice of gratitude in the small moments, and in response to small gestures and insignificant benefits, that is really beneficial to our mental and emotional wellbeing and which can provide inspirational insights that keep us grounded. Finding gratitude in our daily living also provides an underlying feeling of contentment and happiness. Being capable of expressing your gratitude to others, and for things you have or do for yourself, is not only an ethical virtue, it is “part and parcel of the good life,” according to Solomon.
Practicing gratitude makes us feel better about other people, but just as importantly, it helps us feel better about ourselves. Practicing gratitude is part of our self-care routine. If it’s not, it certainly should be. Robert Solomon provides us with a few clues as to the how and the why of being grateful and his observations are worth sharing.
- Gratitude is a “philosophical emotion” with a focus on “the bigger picture”.
- Gratitude in relationships (friendships or sexual partnerships) is not about being grateful for single acts or transactions but rather about being part of a “larger and ongoing relationship”.
- Being grateful for the kind or beneficial (to you) actions of a stranger is just as important as expressing gratitude in a relationship.
- Gratitude is universal – if you reflect on your life you will quickly uncover hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have had a positive impact on your life (teachers, nurses, bus drivers, shop assistants, work colleagues, etc.).
- Simply put, gratitude is “the return of good for good”.
- Being grateful for your own life is not a question of who you should be grateful to, but rather having an awareness of your life and having an ability to reflect on it.
This is an important point because we don’t want you to think that gratitude is only a religious sentiment directed at a deity (any God of your own choosing). Gratitude is an important virtue (and positive emotion) for theists and atheists alike. Gratitude is also universal because it is not about a focus on one object or person it should take in “the world as a whole,” according to Solomon.
Gratitude – sometimes called appreciation – is an emotion of the heart and according to anthropological psychology it is a positive feeling developed in response to others who have shown kindness to us. However, psychologists also recognise the long-term benefits we get when we express gratitude or show appreciation of ourselves and our own actions. Generating positive feeling toward yourself creates the optimum conditions for you to thrive. Rollin McCraty and Doc Childre write from the interdisciplinary perspective of anthropological psychology and they note that have an attitude of self-appreciation increases “buoyancy and vitality” and can invigorate you, even when you’re feeling “tired and drained”.
This is why we think learning to develop a habit of gratitude can help you, particularly in times when your mood is low, or you are anxious and stressed. You can download the FEEL Collaborative Survival Toolkit for Practicing the Art of Gratitude and introduce a little self-appreciation into your life.
Here’s a few tips to get you started. We cover this more thoroughly in the worksheet.
- Tell someone close to you how much you appreciate them.
- Tell your friends how much you value them.
- Acknowledge the work of a colleague.
- Avoid getting caught up in gossip about friends or colleagues.
- Commit to not complaining for a whole day.
- Remember to say please and thank you.
- Focus on your strengths, don’t dwell on mistakes.
Finally, remember that there are psychological benefits to practicing gratitude on a daily basis. You will also feel better physically. The Science of Gratitude tells us that people who are more appreciative of themselves and the people around them will sleep better, have a stronger immune system and better long-term heart health.
Now that’s something to be grateful for.
Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance Eckhart Tolle