What is Gratitude?
The word gratitude comes from a Latin word Gratia that means Grace or Gratefulness. It means being thankful and appreciative of everything, we possess or receive.
This may be a tangible birthday gift your friend gave you, or maybe, a gesture of friendship from a co-worker. It is not limited to tangible things.
Different people perceive gratitude differently. Some people call it a feeling, some people think of it as a character trait, some people even go far as to think of it as a behavior.
Gratitude has benefits that range from improved health to improved mind-set. It empowers our relationship with our peers as well as makes us feel more optimistic for the future.
Gratitude is one of the strongest predictors of how happy people are, how easily they make new social bonds, and how good they are at dealing with difficult circumstances.
Given the untold benefits mentioned above, one would think that it is widely practiced by those who know them. The truth, however, is that it is not.
“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”—Alphonse Karr
Marketing has come a long way. To sell something you have to first, create a need in the consumer.
Now, this is good if your goal is to sell something. However, a consumer feels a scarcity every time he looks at any commercial.
In this information age, you go through hundreds if not more commercials every single day.
Most you do not even pay attention to consciously, like the big board on the roadside you see every day to work.
Either the goal is to shock you to grab your attention or to create fear so it is easy to direct your attention where the commercial wants it to be.
When surrounded by this continuous bombardment of messages all designed to make you feel you are not enough, it is easy to give in and falsely believe that to be true.
This, among others, is a reason we forget being grateful for what we do have and thus gratitude becomes something that we must consciously practice.
“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Where does Gratitude come from?
In nature, the activities animals perform to help other members of their species even if it hurts them are called Reciprocal Altruism.
They know that other animals will repay them for their help eventually. This is because Gratitude is present in animals as well.
It has its roots in their DNA. The animal on the receiving end feels thankful for the kindness received.
Reciprocal altruism is the give and take mechanism that has evolved with time to bring strangers together and improve the co-operation of the group.
This way a collective can grow stronger as more helpful animals get a priority in the group than selfish animals.
This is how gratitude resulted in making co-operation an evolutionary advantage.
This is seen most in primates, however, reciprocal altruism is also seen in many species of fishes, birds, and even bats.
Scientists believe that gratitude programmed in our DNA is the reason humans have survived and become the dominant species on earth.
Even young children have an inherent concept of gratitude that matures as they grow older.
“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”—William Arthur Ward
Gratitude as a social glue
Gratitude is what incentivises reciprocity and altruism. Several studies over the years have proven this time and time again.
A study done in 2009 showed that under an fMRI scan people that felt gratitude showed activated regions in areas of the brain responsible for feelings of reward or creating social bonds.
Gratitude is our feeling towards the external and thus, is inherently social.
Other similar studies have found that feelings of Gratitude show activity in areas of the brain linked to interpreting the intentions of other people, moral cognition, and our perceptions.
It is safe to say that gratitude is directly related to the social relations we have with others. Research shows that it inspires people to be more kind and generous.
It strengthens bonds between people be it romantic or otherwise. Gratitude is essential for a good workplace environment.
A function of gratitude when it comes to its social aspect is what researchers call as ‘find, remind, and bind’.
Find, remind and bind
By helping, you interpret people’s intentions; gratitude helps you in finding good prospects for a social bond.
It reminds you of the good qualities of the current social bonds that you have.
When you express thankfulness to the people close to you, it binds you thereby deepening your social bonds.
Researchers found that gratitude enables people to easily save and recall positive experiences and thus people that have more ‘trait gratitude’ are in general happier compared to those who have less.
As every marriage counselor would say, couples that express gratitude are likely to stick together.
Gratitude is important for human sociality and benefits in mental health and interpersonal relationships.
You can read all about the fMRI studies mentioned above as well as other scientific research on it in a research paper titled Neural correlates of Gratitude.
The ability to feel gratitude isn’t equally distributed in people. Trait gratitude is an inherent quality that determines how much gratitude one feels.
It varies from person to person depending on their DNA, the culture they grew up in and their personality (although some researchers argue that gratitude should be considered as a personality trait by itself).
Your gratitude can be measured by
- (GAC) Gratitude adjective checklist– scale from one to five how much a person feels grateful thankful and appreciative and add them to find the GAC score.
- (GQ-6)Gratitude questionnaire-6 – survey used to measure trait gratitude
- (GRAT) Gratitude resentment and appreciation test– survey used to measure trait gratitude
- (TGS)Transpersonal gratitude scale– includes transcendent aspects accompanied with gratitude
- (MCGM)Multi component Gratitude measure– measure gratitude as a moral virtue
There are yet other ways to measure gratitude as well such as ‘Expression of gratitude in relationships measure’. It measures how much partners express feeling of gratitude in their relationships.
Want to measure your trait gratitude? Here is a GQ-6 questionnaire you can try out.
Barriers to Gratitude
(envy, materialism, narcissism, and cynicism.)
Personality factors such as Materialism and Envy involve focusing on things we lack and thus are antithetical to gratitude.
People that are chasing external goods always find it difficult to be grateful for things they have currently.
Narcissism is another significant factor that inhibits gratitude. Narcissistic people tend to feel entitled for everything good that happens to them.
This might be one of the reasons for them being inconsiderate where others feel grateful.
“What separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude.”― Brené Brown
Cynicism is the last prominent factor that inhibits gratitude.
This is because cynics tend to be more aware of the struggles they have faced and less perceptive of the benefits or privileges they enjoy.
Good thing is that inversely, once you start consciously practicing gratitude, you will feel all these personality factors decrease. More on that later.
Benefits of Gratitude
1.You feel more alive
People that have faced a terminal illness can attest to the fact that when they get back and come back to their daily routine, their life feels completely different.
Even though everything is the same, they feel much more gratitude for the things they have and thus their focus is on the good things in life.
Although, we do not need to go that far. Do you remember how you felt a day before a big exam? Now think how relieved you were after it.
2.Enjoy the good times more
Often times when people chase their goals they spend all their time and focus in achieving said goals.
As soon as they acquire them however, their goals lose all that glitter which brings a void in their life.
They feel empty and immediately start working for the next goal. They never stop to enjoy the success for which they fought so long and hard.
People that practice gratitude really savor those moments, this is not just true for the big things but little things too.
Did you wake up early? Can you enjoy the pleasant cool breeze, slowly rising sun, and birds chirping?
3.Improves physical health
Grateful people report feeling healthier than other people do.
They are also more likely to take care of their health.
They tend to exercise more consistently and are more likely to attend regular check-ups with their doctors that lead to a healthier lifestyle.
More thankful you are for your health, more effort you will take to stay healthy. Who knew. 😛
4.Grateful people are more perceptive
Grateful people notice the little things. Thus, when expressing gratitude they do not simply say, “I like you because I like you’ or “I appreciate you” to a person that is close to them.
Instead, they would say something like “I am thankful for the hugs you give me when you see I’m stressed so I feel better” or “I am grateful you came to my show even though you had an important meeting today”.
Grateful people sound genuine because they
a) understand intentions (you see I’m stressed)
b) are aware of the costs incurred (even though you had an important meeting)
c) describe the benefits they feel(so I feel better)
This results in strong bonds with their partners and friends since the gratitude they express feels authentic.
When times get tough and something terrible does happen, people can fall into a vicious self-defeating cycle.
They tend to lose morale and in the process lower their self-esteem. Say, you were fired from your job; you might be devastated or think that you were not good enough for that job anyway.
This is where gratitude comes in and helps you tackle hardships. A grateful person would see that experience as just one of those things life throws at you. They will just learn from them and move on.
They might thank their boss for forcing them to try other things. Thanking a husband that files for divorce for having the courage to end a dysfunctional marriage.
In this way, they are not just being blindly optimistic. They are reframing the circumstances in terms of the potential positives because they feel gratitude for the things they still have, instead of regretting the things they lost.
Gratitude helps you sleep better and longer.
Spend just 10-15 minutes being thankful at night, make a notebook, and write in things you were grateful for throughout the day.
You will have better and longer sleep. A study done by psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough where they asked people to do just that, make a list of things they were grateful for before they go to bed.
The people reported sleeping longer hours and their sleep being more refreshing.
This is because while drifting off to sleep they were more likely to have positive thoughts.
They were not thinking about their car that gave up in the morning, rather of the people helping them to fix it. Since they wrote down what they were grateful for they would not think about reaching late to work. Instead, they would think of the co-worker, that stayed late and helped them finish work before the deadline.
7.A check on temper
People with gratitude do not give in to impulsive emotional reactions.
They have empathy and are more likely to be kind and generous even if others are not as kind.
Gratitude makes them more sensitive to the emotions of their peers and helps them gauge what they are feeling.
They try to understand where the other person is coming from. Thus, even when they receive hostility they behave in a pro-social manner and are less likely to get aggressive and react.
They are less likely to seek revenge and are more likely to forgive and mend their relationships.
Grateful people as mentioned before are less likely to compare themselves with others. They appreciate the victories of other people and look at those as opportunities they can learn from or feel inspired.
It also helps you focus on the good things that you do, and in the process, encourages you to do more of those.
This forms a feedback loop where the happiness you feel results in more action taken and thus even more happiness.
Thus, in the long term, people that are more thankful have increased self-esteem. This enables them to perform better in their skill.
9.Decreases negative emotions
These emotions can subconsciously materialise in different ways in our behaviours, which tends to prevent us from feeling gratitude naturally.
Cynicism results in developing a negativity bias over time. Envy can lead to us comparing ourselves with everyone else which as we learned above can lead to a lower self-esteem.
Materialistic people are more prone to habituation, i.e. when new things quickly become a part of our lives and stop feeling special anymore.
Narcissism can lead us to subconscious self-deception where we deny the interdependence we thrive on.
Narcissistic people feel unpleasant when expressing appreciation and prefer to keep those feelings to themselves. This is why they may rise from dependence to independence but fail to ever become interdependent.
Conscious practice of gratitude tends to reduce all these toxic emotions of Narcissism, envy, cynicism and materialism.
Even though the conscious practice of gratitude can feel contrived as first, it grows stronger with practice and builds a resilient character in us.
How to practice gratitude
This week take time out of your day, do one of the following exercises, and observe the benefits of gratitude first hand in your life
Letter of thanks
Take some time out and remember an act of kindness and generosity someone did for you.
Then write it down as nicely as you can. You can send it as a social media message or mail or for the best results, read it to them in person.
Once you have done that, try writing a gratitude letter to yourself, the resistance you feel now to doing it is exactly why you should.
In our article how to tame the mind, we talk about mindfulness as a moving meditation where you are fully in the present moment.
Take a deep breath and focus on the task ahead of you.
Think how grateful you are for the company you are working in, for the challenging assignment assigned to you that forces you to stretch and grow.
Gratitude to the (universe/god)
Most religions preach the benefits of gratitude and even spirituality emphasises on gratitude as a key factor in happiness.
This week try to thank the universe or the god you believe in for every blessing granted in this life.
Perhaps by far, the most effective way to practice gratitude is to make a gratitude journal. All you need is a notebook a pen and 15 minutes daily.
The reason a gratitude journal is so powerful is that it incentivizes consistency in practicing gratitude.
Writing 10-15 things you were grateful for throughout the day, every day will result in massive growth in the feelings of happiness and increased self-reflection.
Try any one of these this week and let them be your first few steps in cultivating gratitude in your behavior.
At a time when most people are struggling with mental health and facing tremendous uncertainty for their future, the practice of gratitude may give you a new outlook on life.
Instead of spending time and energy in thinking about things you lack, gratitude will help you prioritize and appreciate the things you have.
We urge you to find more about what true callings are, you can read our free guide called The Perfect Beginning to find them.
I hope you have a good day and a good life.