Through the Lenses of Gratitude
Given the very real benefits of practicing gratitude, why do we so often struggle to develop the habit? A survey done by Janice Kaplan, author of The Gratitude Diaries (paid link), found that while "more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life... less than half regularly express gratitude."
It's yet another case of knowing what's good for us and failing to do it.
What are some of the obstacles to developing a grateful mindset?
- We're busy and distracted. We may feel thankful for someone or something, but then the phone pings, or a child needs attention, or a colleague asks a question, and we move on. We felt the impulse to say thank you, but it got buried under a to-do list.
- We notice the negative over the positive. This might be an evolutionary adaptation, since our ancestors had to pay attention to potential threats in the environment in order to survive. But in modern times it means that ten things can go right in my day, and one thing go wrong, and I'll fixate on that problem to the exclusion of all else.
- We adapt. While novel or unexpected pleasures bring an upwelling of thankfulness with no real effort on our part, we soon adapt. Before long, our new house/car/job/outfit/toy isn't so new, and we stop noticing all the goodness. In the same way, we sometimes forget all of the qualities that make us admire and cherish our family and friends, and start to see their negative points. It takes a bit more work to keep finding reasons to give thanks for the same (still good) stuff.
- We compare ourselves to others. It's hard to be happy with what you have when you compare yourself to others who may have more. Feelings of lack, envy, greed, and resentment destroy gratitude, and they're harder to avoid when we view the "highlight reels" others post on social media.
- We're proud. In the name of autonomy and self-reliance, we have a hard time admitting how much we depend on others. I didn't create myself, or raise myself, or invent any of the things that make my life comfortable. I happened to be born in a certain time and place which has largely determined much of my lifestyle and opportunities. But if instead of feeling grateful, I begin to feel entitled, then that's just a delusion, and not an attractive one.
Research shows that a sense of wonder or surprise is a key component to experiencing gratitude, but we can't be surprised if we constantly expect, even demand, good things to come our way. This might explain the fact that while our standard of living is higher than ever, we have generally become more dissatisfied and depressed. Our expectations have risen along with our conveniences. We have more, but feel entitled to a life that's even better.
Of course, expectations aren't totally bad. It's not wrong to expect a spouse or friend to treat you in a certain way, since you are mutually invested in a relationship. You have a right to expect certain behaviors from each other. And it's not wrong to expect that when you pay for a good or a service you will receive what you paid for. But having these expectations doesn't mean they will always be fulfilled, or that we can't be delighted with a positive outcome.
My husband and I share household chores. I expect his help, so do I still need to thank him for running the vacuum cleaner or folding some clean clothes?
No matter how routine and expected Jon's effort is, it's still a gift. Not only could he simply refuse to do it, but he receives no reward in return for his service. I may do the same number of chores and offer ample emotional support, a listening ear, or whatever, but there simply is no such strict record-keeping in a loving relationship.
Further, the work is a gift done with the hands of a man I don't "deserve." Sure, I won his love and continue to treat him well, but I had nothing to do with the forces that caused us to meet at church one Sunday (a church I was only visiting in order to sing for the service) and literally run into each other in the library of a 20,000-student state university the next day. I didn't create him. Our marriage has lasted for 37 years, through ups and downs, and because neither of us has suffered a tragic accident or been laid low by a terrible disease. And there he is, sweeping the porch.
When I say, "Thank you for sweeping," the phrase can barely contain all of the ways Jon's act might be expected and yet still be a wondrous, unearned gift.
That there are many obstacles to a habit of gratitude is the bad news. The good news is that anyone can intentionally cultivate gratitude and practice until it becomes the default mindset.
Gratitude can open our eyes to all of the beauty, goodness, and joy that we overlook when we're sad and suffering, or when distracted by busyness, jealousy, and daily annoyances. Gratitude gives us a more expansive view of reality, similar to the first time I put on long-needed glasses in 2nd grade and realized how much I'd been missing.
Through the lenses of gratitude, we become more sensitive to the benefits and mercies of our lives that might otherwise remain hidden and unacknowledged. We become more aware, more present, and we experience life more fully.
Photo © 2020 J. Trefzger. Thank you.