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Life's Headwinds and Tailwinds

Research explains why people tend to think they have it harder than others.

When Donald Trump said on October 26th that “It has not been easy for me … My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars … ” he made himself the well-deserved target of scathing political humor. The understandable reaction was something like, “Could he possibly be more out of touch?”

But actually, although everything about Trump is extreme, his reflections on his past may not be so different from those of a great many people.

Understanding the barriers to gratitude

Tom, along with social psychologist Shai Davidai, has conducted research showing that it is easy for all of us to arrive at an imbalanced assessment of the opportunities we’re received and the burdens we’ve faced.

Think of it this way: When you’re cycling or running into a stiff wind, you’re made aware of it gust after gust. You might even say to yourself, “I can’t wait until the course changes direction and I have the wind at my back.” And when the wind finally is at your back, you’re grateful—for a moment. But you quickly adapt to it and soon fail to notice it’s even there.

What’s true of headwinds and tailwinds is more broadly true of most of the benefits we receive and the obstacles we must overcome in many areas of life. Like headwinds, obstacles are “in our face,” reminding us of their existence, because we have to attend to them in order to overcome them. Many of our benefits and privileges, in contrast, are easy to lose sight of because we typically don’t have to attend to them. We just profit from them.

Lack of gratitude breeds resentment toward others

This asymmetry in what’s salient can limit gratitude and fuel resentment, making people feel that they’ve had it harder than others. Tom and Shai have shown, for example, that sports fans tend to think that their teams have harder schedules than their opponents, Republicans and Democrats each think the electoral college landscape favors the other, and siblings believe, like the Smothers Brothers, that “Mom always liked you best”—that their parents did not bestow the same favorable treatment on them that they showered on their brothers and sisters.

This is also seen in large institutions where members of one unit (sales, engineering, human resources) typically believe that they have it harder than those in other departments. It reaches its peak in Trump’s distorted view of the world, or that of actor Rob Lowe, who was quoted in the New York Times as complaining about the “unbelievable bias and prejudice against quote-unquote good-looking people.”

Given the benefits that come from the experience of being grateful—increased well-being, fewer hospitalizations, more restful sleep, the ability to delay gratification, a more generous orientation toward others—it’s important to know about this asymmetry as a first step toward blocking where it otherwise so often leads us. Try to take note of all your advantages and the ways your life has been made easier. We all stand on the shoulders of not just giants, but of a great many people whose efforts have helped get us where we are.

Understanding the barriers to gratitude is the first step to having more of it.

More from Thomas Gilovich, Ph.D., and Lee Ross, Ph.D.
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