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The True Science of Gratitude
Gratitude is essential for wellbeing, but the science and advice around it is murky. We’ll explore what really makes people grateful.
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A breakdown of a recent rucking challenge I did at GORUCK HQ.
November’s Ask Me Anything (feel free to respond to this email with a question you’d like me to answer).
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Today, we’re looking at gratitude. It’s linked to happiness, life satisfaction, and less anxiety and depression. It may even improve physical health.
But the science of gratitude is surprisingly murky—and some of the current recommendations to improve gratitude may be a waste of time.
Let’s analyze the science and come to some conclusions about how to actually be more grateful.
Pressed for time? Here’s a summary of today’s post:
Gratitude requires recognizing and appreciating the role of luck and freebies in life, but it’s not our default setting.
Gratitude comes from experience. Sacrifice, service, and going without seem to improve gratitude most. This idea is backed by modern neuroscience, ancient wisdom, and everyday experience.
Onward into the details …
Gratitude: important but elusive
Gratitude is hard for humans to experience.
Psychologists from Yale tell us that gratitude is critical for happiness. They point to research that finds grateful people tend to be happier.
This research also makes historical sense. Gratitude is in the texts of all major religions, and philosophers have long opined about its importance—Cicero said gratitude “is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues.”
We’ve even instituted a national holiday around being grateful: Thanksgiving.
Yet being grateful isn’t the default setting for humans. If it were, researchers, religions, and cultural holidays wouldn’t need to remind us to be grateful.
Humans are built to acquire. Once we get the thing we’re after, we get a brief hit of pleasure and quickly shift our focus to the next acquisition.
Consider the hedonic treadmill theory. The American Psychological Association explains it like this:
(P)ositive and negative events may produce short-term shifts in mood, but these shifts tend to erode in a relatively brief period of time. This process of adaptation is thought to be responsible for the persistence of mood states over time, often in the face of considerable efforts to change them
In other words, we adapt to our surroundings, and everything becomes “everyday” no matter how good we have it in the grand scheme of time and space.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is hard to define, but good definitions suggest that it’s a recognition of all the good stuff in our lives that came through no effort of our own.
We know gratitude is critical. But scientists don’t know entirely what it is.
A paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explained “Gratitude defies easy classification. It has been conceptualized as an emotion, an attitude, a moral virtue, a habit, a personality trait, or a coping response.”
A few descriptions helped me better understand it.
Researchers in the 1960s explained it as “The willingness to recognize the unearned increments of value in one’s experience.”
A decade later, another group of researchers explained it as “an estimate of gain coupled with the judgment that someone else is responsible for that gain. The benefit, gift, or personal gain might be material or nonmaterial (e.g., emotional or spiritual).”
Those two descriptions hit a critical condition of gratitude: You got something good thanks to no effort of your own.
So gratitude is a recognition and appreciation of the role of luck and freebies in life. Gratitude allows us to lift the veil and see how good we have it in the grand scheme of time and space.
How to be more grateful
Popular advice around being grateful has flaws.
So, how do we actually lift the veil, recognize our luck, and become more grateful?
This is where it gets complicated and convoluted.
Choose to be grateful.
Express public gratitude.
Be grateful for the useless things.
But, when put under pressure, some of this advice falls short. Let’s dive into it.
1. Can you “choose” to be grateful?
First, these stories say, we should just choose be grateful (this feels as useless as telling a drug addict to just choose not to do drugs, but I digress).
The researchers point to “gratitude journaling,” where we write down things we’re grateful for, as a way to choose to be grateful. The practice improved gratitude in a group of study participants.
But there was a critical catch to the findings. The study divided participants into three groups:
Gratitude journalers. These people wrote down what they were grateful for.
Annoyance journalers. These people wrote down stuff that annoyed them.
Daily event journalers. These people wrote down daily events.
The scientists found that, yes, gratitude journaling improved feelings of gratefulness. But gratitude also improved in the group who wrote the play-by-play of their days.
Based on those iffy findings, the scientists of the paper wrote that there is “some truth” to the idea that writing down what you’re grateful for can boost gratuity.
But, they pointed out, the effect was strongest compared to the group who was asked to write down their hassles.
2. The problem with publicly expressing gratitude
Second, the gratitude stories recommended that we express our gratitude publicly. It said we should “write two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do.”
This has been shown to improve gratitude in studies. But studies are short-term, and they aren’t the real world.
In the real world, this act would probably go well—for about a week.
It would make your spouse and mom happy on day one. It would make your father and daughter happy on day two. It would make your best friend and close uncle happy on day three. You’d feel some gratitude along the way.
Then, you’d start combing through your contact list. You’d send an email to that cousin you don’t talk to that often. To that one coworker who did you a favor that one time. To that neighbor who once put your dog out. To … you get the point.
Soon, the emails become uninvited and strange. You’re sending emails to random acquaintances just to send emails to supposedly improve your gratitude.
Yes, it might make you feel joyous and free to write a thankful email to someone you don’t know that well—but how will it make the other person feel to receive it? Maybe good. But also, maybe, completely awkward? Like you’re maybe being a bit too intimate? Like maybe you should be reported to HR?
A better path is to express gratuity for others when the moment calls for it—thanking your close loved ones and others when they’ve actually helped you.
Manufacturing these thanks so that you can feel better, however, might backfire.
3. Can you be grateful for useless things?
Third, the popular stories suggest we be grateful for useless things. “Small, useless things,” it explained. Stuff we usually take for granted, like fall air, hot water, a warm home, etc.
This feels like the stronger piece of advice in these stories. The advice is also backed by thousands of years of religious tradition.
But here’s the thing: We can’t truly realize how useful our “useless things” are until we no longer have them.
We need to go without to deeply feel how good it is to have.
Research suggests that times of relative deprivation—which is being deprived not of absolute needs like food or shelter, but of things that are necessary to maintain the quality of life considered “normal” in a given society—can improve feelings of gratefulness.
One psychologist explained it to me like this, “You should feel grateful you have bread and butter to eat,” he said. “Until you eat it every day. Then bread and butter becomes the everyday occurrence. And it’s at that point that you feel grateful for the odd roast beef sandwich. But if all the sudden you’re deprived of butter for a while, when you get butter back, you’ll be grateful for it.”
Again, the hedonic treadmill.
As I explained in my book Scarcity Brain, today, we have more of everything. This is all-encompassing. It applies to everything we’re built to crave for survival, but also much more. We have more food, stuff, information, influence, mind-altering substances and systems, and stimulation than ever. But also public services. Hot water, sanitation, education, sidewalks, healthcare, and so on.
The best path to gratitude, modern research and ancient wisdom suggests, is to occasionally force yourself into scarcity. This is why religions have practices like Lent and Ramadan.
Only when you go without can you realize how great it is to have and just how much of the modern world is undeniably amazing.
That might be time in the wilderness, totally removed from modern comforts. Or it could be picking a comfort or two and going without for awhile.
When we get those things back, we can truly experience how wonderful they are.
Gratitude comes from experience.
For example, the most grateful I’ve ever been for my wife, the firmest I’ve ever been in our relationship, is when I spent a month in the Alaskan wilderness away from her with limited contact. When I got home, I was ecstatic to see and spend time with her.
Upon getting home, I also experienced hot running water, ample food, a warm furnace, and much more anew. The first time hot running water touched my hands, I broke out in a grin for 20 minutes.
I still have moments where hot water hits my hands, and I grin and deeply appreciate it.
Occasional deprivation can make the ordinary feel extraordinary.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday—it allows us to gather and be grateful.
But how we live the other 364 days of the year often determines:
Overall gratuity and, in turn, our perspective on life.
How impactful Thanksgiving will be.
This year, see what you can go without. You can apply this logic to possessions, experiences, and how you use your time.
Going without might make you more grateful for Thanksgiving 2024.
Have fun, don’t die, be grateful.
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