Why Gratitude Is So Hard
Gratitude has many benefits, but is hard to cultivate.
Posted Dec 24, 2016
Gratitude never came easily to us men and women, and is a diminishing 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 what we already have. More than that, gratitude is the recognition that the good in our life can come from something that is outside us and outside our control, and that owes little or nothing to us.
By turning us outward, gratitude shifts our focus from what we lack or strive for to what we already have, opening our eyes to the bounty that is life, something to marvel at, revel in, and celebrate rather than forget, ignore, or take for granted as it flies us by. This much broader perspective frees us to live life, no longer for our narrow selves, but for life itself.
The ancient philosopher Cicero called gratitude the mother of all the other virtues, and modern science has begun to catch up with him. Studies have linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation, and energy; better sleep and health; and reduced stress and sadness. Grateful people are much more engaged with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning, and specialness.
Despite these many and varied benefits, gratitude is hard to cultivate. It opposes itself to some deeply ingrained human traits such as our striving to better our lot, our need to feel in control of our destiny, and our propensity to credit ourselves for our successes while blaming others for our failures. As human nature does not leave much place for it, gratitude is an attainment of maturity, or, to be more precise, emotional maturity. Children taught to parrot ‘thank you’ rarely mean it, and even as adults we often make a superficial display of gratitude because that is the ‘done thing’. Gratitude is good manners, and good manners aim at aping profundity when profundity is lacking.
Real gratitude, in contrast, is a rare virtue. There is a fable in Aesop about a slave who pulls a thorn out of the paw of a lion. Some time later, the slave and the lion are captured, and the slave is thrown to the lion. The starved lion rushes bounding and roaring toward the slave, but upon recognizing his friend fawns upon him and licks his hands and face like a puppy dog.
‘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