"In all its manifestations, a preoccupation with the self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel that we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to feel thankful," writes Robert Emmons, co-director of the GGSC's Gratitude project. "Counting blessings will be ineffective because grievances will always outnumber gifts."
The antidote to entitlement, argues Emmons, is to see that we did not create ourselves--we were created, if not by evolution, then by God; or if not by God, then by our parents. Likewise, we are never truly self-sufficient. Humans need other people to grow our food and heal our injuries; we need love, and for that we need family, partners, friends, and pets.
"Seeing with grateful eyes requires that we see the web of interconnection in which we alternate between being givers and receivers," writes Emmons. "The humble person says that life is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed."4. They're grateful to people, not just things
That's not true of people--people will glow in gratitude. Saying thanks to my son might make him happier and it can strengthen our emotional bond. Thanking the guy who makes my coffee can strengthen social bonds--in part by deepening our understanding of how we're interconnected with other people.
My colleague Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the GGSC's science director and another co-director of our Expanding Gratitude project, puts it this way:
Experiences that heighten meaningful connections with others--like noticing how another person has helped you, acknowledging the effort it took, and savoring how you benefitted from it--engage biological systems for trust and affection, alongside circuits for pleasure and reward. This provides a synergistic and enduring boost to the positive experience. Saying "thank you' to a person, your brain registers that something good has happened and that you are more richly enmeshed in a meaningful social community.5. They mention the pancakes
The reason for this is pretty simple: It makes the expression of gratitude feel more authentic, for it reveals that the thanker was genuinely paying attention and isn't just going through the motions. The richest thank you's will acknowledge intentions ("the pancakes you make when you see I'm hungry") and costs ("you massage my feet after work even when you're really tired"), and they'll describe the value of benefits received ("you give me hugs when I'm sad so that I'll feel better").
When Amie Gordon and colleagues studied gratitude in couples, they found that spouses signal grateful feelings through more caring and attentive behavior. They ask clarifying questions; they respond to trouble with hugs and to good news with smiles. "These gestures," Gordon writes, "can have profound effects: Participants who were better listeners during those conversations in the lab had partners who reported feeling more appreciated by them."
Remember: Gratitude thrives on specificity!6. They thank outside the box
But let's get real: Pancakes, massages, hugs? Boring! Most of my examples so far are easy and clichéd. But here's who the really tough-minded grateful person thanks: the boyfriend who dumped her, the homeless person who asked for change, the boss who laid him off.
We're graduating from Basic to Advanced Gratitude, so pay attention. And since I myself am still working on Basic, I'll turn once again to Dr. Emmons for guidance: "It's easy to feel grateful for the good things. No one "feels' grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health or has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement portfolio."
In such moments, he says, gratitude becomes a critical cognitive process--a way of thinking about the world that can help us turn disaster into a stepping stone. If we're willing and able to look, he argues, we can find a reason to feel grateful even to people who have harmed us. We can thank that boyfriend for being brave enough to end a relationship that wasn't working; the homeless person for reminding us of our advantages and vulnerability; the boss, for forcing us to face new challenges.
"Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth," writes Emmons in his Greater Good article "How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times." He continues:
So telling people simply to buck up, count their blessings, and remember how much they still have to be grateful for can certainly do much harm. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.
That's what truly, fantastically grateful people do. Can you?