The following is an excerpt from The Gratitude Project: How the Science of Thankfulness Can Rewire Our Brains for Resilience, Optimism and the Greater Good by Jeremy Adam Smith
Gratitude (and its sibling appreciation) is the mental tool we use to remind ourselves of the good stuff. It’s a lens that helps us see the things that don’t make it onto our lists of problems to be solved. It’s a spotlight that we shine on the people who give us the good things in life. It’s a bright red paintbrush we apply to otherwise-invisible blessings, like clean streets or health or enough food to eat.
Gratitude doesn’t make problems and threats disappear. We can lose jobs, we can be attacked on the street, we can get sick. Here are some tips for how to become one of those fantastically grateful people.
1. Once in a While, Think About Death and Loss
Contemplating endings really does make you more grateful for the life you currently have, according to several studies. For example, when Araceli Frias and colleagues asked people to visualize their own deaths, their gratitude measurably increased. Similarly, when Minkyung Koo and colleagues asked people to envision the sudden disappearance of their romantic partners from their lives, they became more grateful to their partners.
The same goes for imagining that some positive event, like a job promotion, never happened. This isn’t just theoretical: when you find yourself taking a good thing for granted, try giving it up for a little while. Researchers Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth Dunn had fifty-five people eat a piece of chocolate—and then the researchers told some of those people to resist chocolate for a week and others to binge on chocolate if they wanted. They left a third group to their own devices. Guess who ended up happiest, according to self-reports? The people who abstained from chocolate. And who were the least happy? The people who binged. That’s the power of gratitude!
2. Take the Time to Smell the Roses
Grateful people also notice the fragrance of the coffee, the bread baking in the oven, the aroma of a new car—whatever gives them pleasure. Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant finds that savoring positive experiences makes them stickier in your brain and increases their benefits to your psyche—and the key, he argues, is expressing gratitude for the experience. That’s one of the ways appreciation and gratitude go hand in hand.
You might also consider adding some little ritual to how you experience the pleasures of the body: a study published in 2013 in Psychological Science finds that rituals like prayer or even just shaking a sugar packet to bring your attention to the beverage you’re about to drink “make people pay more attention to food, and paying attention makes food taste better,” as Emily Nauman reports in her Greater Good Magazine article about the research. This brand of mindfulness makes intuitive sense, but how does it work with the first tip above? Well, we humans are astoundingly adaptive creatures, and we will adapt even to the good things in life. When we do, their subjective value starts to drop; we start to take them for granted. That’s the point at which we might give them up for a while— be it chocolate, sex, or even something like sunlight—and then take the time to really savor them when we allow them back into our lives. This applies to people in our lives, too, which goes back to the first habit: If you’re taking someone for granted, take a step back—and imagine your life without them. Then try savoring their presence, just like you would a rose. Or a new car. Or whatever! The point is, absence may just make the heart grow grateful.
3. Take the Good Things as Gifts, Not as Your Birthright
What’s the opposite of gratitude? Entitlement—the attitude that people owe you something just because you’re so very special. “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. “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. Be Grateful for People, Not Just Things
Sunlight and trees don’t have feelings. Being grateful for them may have good effects, like leading you to think about your impact on the environment, but the trees don’t care. Likewise, the sun doesn’t know you exist; that big ball of flaming gas isn’t even aware of its own existence, as far as anyone knows. Our gratitude doesn’t make it burn any brighter.
That’s not true of people—people will glow in gratitude, as several studies have found. Saying thanks to my son might make him happier, and it can strengthen our emotional bond. Thanking the guy who makes my coffee could strengthen our social bond—in part by deepening our understanding of how we’re interconnected with other people. My colleague Emiliana Simon-Thomas, another codirector of the Greater Good Science Center’s Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project, put it to me 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 benefited 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. Mention the Pancakes
Grateful people are habitually specific. They don’t say, “I love you because you’re just so wonderfully wonderful, you!” Instead, the really skilled grateful person will say, “I love you for the pancakes you make when you see I’m hungry and the way you massage my feet after work, even when you’re really tired, and how you give me hugs when I’m sad so that I’ll feel better!” That is, they’ll recognize specific things to be grateful for. 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-yous 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 implicitly express gratitude 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. Thank Outside the Box
Let’s get real: pancakes, massages, hugs? Boring! Most of the 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. With this step, we’re graduating from basic to advanced gratitude, so pay attention.
As Robert Emmons writes, “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, Emmons 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, that is, 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. We can even give thanks in the face of death.
As one participant in the Greater Good Science Center’s online gratitude journal, Thnx4.org, wrote, “My dad recently passed away. I am so grateful to have had him in my life and to know that he cared tremendously for me. He wasn’t shy about telling me how much he loved me. I will treasure those memories forever.” In such a case, gratitude is a way to nurture the memory of someone we’ve lost.
These are a few ways to feel and express gratitude. It’s what truly, fantastically grateful people do. Can you?