Why Gratitude Is So Hard
Gratitude has many benefits, but is hard to cultivate.
Posted December 24, 2016
[Article revised on 26 April 2020.]
Gratitude never came easily to us men and women, and is a vanishing virtue in modern times.
In our consumerist society, we tend to focus on what we lack, or on what other people have that we do not, whereas gratitude is the feeling of appreciation for all that we already have.
More than that, it is the recognition that the good in our life can come from something that is beyond us and beyond our control—be it other people, nature, or a higher power—and that owes little or nothing to us.
In paying homage to something outside ourselves, gratitude enables us to connect with something that is not only larger than ourselves but also benevolent, even nurturing.
By turning us outward, it opens our eyes to the miracle that is life, something to marvel at, revel in, and celebrate, rather than forget, ignore, or take for granted as it passes us by.
All this it does because it opens us up to a bigger and better perspective, shifting our focus from what we lack or strive for to all that we already have, to the bounty that surrounds us, and, above all, to life itself, which is the fount of all opportunity and possibility.
This eagle or godlike perspective frees us to live life, no longer for ourselves, but for life itself.
For this reason, Cicero called gratitude the greatest of the virtues, and, more than that, the mother of all the other virtues.
But you don’t need to take my or Cicero’s word for it. Recent studies have linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation, and energy; better sleep and health; and reduced stress and sadness. Grateful people engage much more with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning, and connectedness.
Despite the great and many benefits that it confers, gratitude is hard to cultivate. It is opposed to some deeply ingrained human traits, in particular, our need to feel in control of our destiny, our propensity to credit ourselves for our successes while blaming others for our failures, and our unconscious belief in some kind of cosmic equality or justice that is being violated by the advantages of others.
Today, we seek more and more to exist as independent individuals rather than as a social collective, and gratitude undermines our sense of separateness, autonomy, and self-efficacy.
As human nature does not leave much place for it, gratitude is an attainment of maturity, or, to be more precise, emotional maturity, which can arrive at any age or, more commonly, not at all.
Children taught to parrot "thank you" rarely mean it. Even as adults, many people express gratitude, or a semblance of it, simply because doing so is useful or the "done thing". Gratitude is good manners, and good manners aim at aping profundity when profundity is lacking.
Genuine gratitude, on the other hand, is a rare and accomplished virtue.
There is a fable in Aesop about a slave who extracts a thorn from the paw of a lion. Some years later, the slave and the lion are captured, and the slave is thrown to the lion. The starved lion bounds and roars towards the slave, but upon recognizing his friend fawns upon him and licks his face like a lapdog.
"Gratitude" concludes Aesop, "is the sign of noble souls."
Like all virtues, gratitude requires constant cultivation, until such a day as we can say,
"Thank you for nothing!"
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.