Why Is Gratitude So Elusive?
The psychology of thankfulness and the hedonic treadmill.
Posted Mar 17, 2020
We all love a good adventure. As the old adage goes, “Travel is the only thing that you buy that makes you richer.” Adventure enriches our lives in a way that material purchases simply cannot.
This comes with good news and bad news. The bad news is that with the impact of coronavirus, all travel adventures and the personal riches they bring are on hold for the foreseeable future. The good news is that there is something that makes us richer that we don’t have to buy: gratitude.
Research has found that fostering a regular sense of gratitude can enrich our lives in several ways. It yields significant benefits from inter-personal relationships1 and is associated with positive outcomes for physical health,2 well-being, and happiness3. A more modest impact was recently observed for the direct treatment of anxiety and depression4. Clinical use aside, however, the benefits of gratitude for everyday life keep accumulating5.
The science supports what we’ve been told from a young age: “Be grateful for what you have.” Sage advice. But in practice, this is often easier said than done.
If gratitude is so beneficial and it doesn't cost us anything, why is it so elusive?
The Hedonic Treadmill
In one way or another, we’re all consumers. This presents a clear challenge for gratitude. Step outside, and we're constantly bombarded with ads for the greatest, newest thing. Check our newsfeeds, and we're immediately hit with a wave of FOMO. Wherever you look, we're being prodded to desire something other than what we currently have.
Whether it's the newest fad, fashion trend, or technology, it's easy to find ourselves running on the hedonic treadmill. Not exactly a recipe for gratitude.
Many products are deliberately designed and marketed to be desired, enjoyed briefly, and then replaced. This is especially the case with mobile devices, where we constantly seek out the newest, “most advanced” version, despite modest changes from model to model.
In a fascinating study from Columbia Business School6, researchers found that you’re much more likely to be careless with your phone if there’s a newer, better version of the product on the horizon.
Examining a dataset of over 3,000 lost iPhones, the research team found there was a curious spike in losses before a new model was released. Over 600 self-reports of iPhone neglect and damage followed similar timing. Even our physical dexterity becomes unconsciously attuned to the rhythm of the hedonic treadmill.
It’s easy to point the finger at the consumer world and how it nudges us towards discontentment. But there’s something deeper about the human experience which these tactics and incentives tap into. The challenge of gratitude is less about the outside world and more about how the brain interprets it.
The Nature of Attention
Our senses are continually being bombarded with sights, sounds, and smells. In order to cope, our perceptual system has to prioritize. It does this by focusing most of its resources on attending to the changes in the external environment. Old things can usually be safely ignored. New is interesting, noteworthy, and potentially dangerous.
This prioritization means that we learn what's new and what's old quickly, and this makes us adaptable to new environments. For example, if you lived in a quiet town your whole life and visited a big city, the street sounds probably kept you up at night. But after a few nights, our perceptual system adjusts, and these once jarring sounds fade into the background.
This mechanism is known as attention habituation. It’s so fundamental to how we interpret the world, that it's found even in the sea slug7: the more constant something is, the less we pay attention to it.
This is all perfectly natural from the standpoint of evolution. Habituation allows us to quickly adapt to new settings, and to delegate our limited attentional resources to the most salient items in any environment.
For gratitude, however, this feature of perception presents a significant challenge right out of the gates. Taking things for granted is very literally how our attention is wired.
This also means that the more constant something is, the more challenging it is to be grateful for it. If we've grown up our whole lives with fresh drinking water straight from the tap, it's a challenge to be thankful for each new sip that we take. The more accustomed we are to fast, reliable internet, the more challenging it is to be appreciative of it each time we log on. The further you travel up on Maslow's hierarchy, the more difficult it is to notice the items down at the base.
This is true of how we pay attention to things, and also in how we enjoy them. Pleasure also shows a sharp effect of diminishing returns. That first hour on a white sandy beach feels great, but after a little while, we find ourselves needing to move onto the next thing.
Wolfram Shultz, who won the 2017 Brain Prize for his work on dopamine and the neuroscientific basis of pleasure, describes this phenomenon in the following way:
“This is apparently a mechanism built in by evolution that pushes us to always want more and never want less. This is what drives life and evolution, and makes us buy a bigger car when our neighbors muscle up on their cars ... Even a buddhist, who hates wanting and craving for material goods and unattainable goals, wants more happiness rather than less.”8
Gratitude may be opposed by the basic mechanism of pleasure itself.
In how we attend to things in the world, and in how we enjoy them, the cards are stacked against us. We come into life with both feet on the hedonic treadmill; the consumer world merely accelerates the pace.
Recognizing it's inherent challenges doesn't make the pursuit of gratitude forlorn. Instead of discouragement, a realization of these difficulties may be a crucial step in overcoming them.
There are many worthwhile practices for fostering gratitude, but there are likely no silver bullets. Similar to approaching our other shortcomings, a deeper understanding of our own minds is vital.
The late great neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks knew more about the workings of the human mind than most. Perhaps uncoincidentally, he also long recognized the importance of fostering gratitude, an appreciation which crystalized in his later years. Shortly before his death in 2015, he wrote extensively about this in his appropriately titled book, Gratitude.
The final word belongs to him.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.9
1: Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D.(2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.
2: Kraus, R., Desmond, S. A., & Palmer, Z. D. (2015). Being Thankful: Examining the Relationship Between Young Adult Religiosity and Gratitude. Journal of Religion and Health, 54(4), 1331–1344. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-014-9923-2
3: McCullough, M. E., Tsang, J.-A., & Emmons, R. A. (2004). Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 295–309. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022- 3518.104.22.1685
4: Cregg, D.R., Cheavens, J.S. (2020) Gratitude Interventions: Effective Self-help? A Meta-analysis of the Impact on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety. J Happiness Studies. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00236-6
5: Davis, D. E., Choe, E., Meyers, J., Wade, N., Varjas, K., Gifford, A., et al (2015). Thankful for the Little Things: A Meta-Analysis of Gratitude Interventions. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(1), 20–31. https://doi.org/10.1037/cou0000107
6: Bellezza, S., Ackerman, J., & Gino, F. (2017). Be Careless with That! Availability of Product Upgrades Increases Cavalier Behavior toward Possessions. Journal of Marketing Research, 54(5), 768–784. https://doi.org/10.1509/jmr.15.0131
7: Pinsker, H., Kupfermann, I, Castellucci, V., Kandel, E (1970). Habituation and Dishabituation of the Gill-Withdrawal Reflex in Aplysia. Science. 167 (3926): 1740–1742. doi:10.1126/science.167.3926.1740. JSTOR 1728291. PMID 5416541.
8: Schultz, W. (2016). Dopamine reward prediction error coding. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 18(1), 23–32. (pg. 25)
9: Sacks, O. (2015). Gratitude. New York, NY: Random House LLC (pg. 6)