Post No.: 0042
Gratitude helps us to notice the good in the world and our positive connections with others, and to not take these for granted. We’re goal-focused, problem-solving-oriented organisms hence why we tend to focus on problems yet take what’s good or fine for granted – this is an effective and adequate rule-of-thumb behaviour overall for our survival, but a stressful state of hyper-vigilance or discontentment (feeling that whatever we have is never enough) is not the best way to live for our mental well-being if we’re like this most of the time (nor good for the environment if enough material goods will never be enough).
Gratitude goes against individualism or narcissism (for understanding that we all need a little or a lot of furry help from others along the way in life), and materialism or feelings of entitlement (we’re not thankful for the things we think we’re simply entitled to). Free-riders morally lack sufficient gratitude (e.g. tax avoiders and what taxes have paid for them, such as their education and healthcare when young, or the public goods that give them safety and allow their businesses to operate).
A barrier to gratitude is that we tend to notice what goes against us but not what goes in our favour (e.g. the decisions of referees in sports). Struggles/obstacles also seem to make better stories to tell so we view them as badges of honour, whilst we tend to neglect all the luck and help we get along the way. Movies, stories and anecdotes seem more interesting when they focus on the problems or obstacles rather than on the fine or okay things. Lucky people often don’t realise or appreciate their luck because they don’t know any differently – they’ve not experienced an unlucky life (e.g. an upbringing of sexual abuse or being a refugee of war). Bitching (i.e. negative commentaries) during gossip is a form of power play too. Simply being too stressed or busy can also get in the way of feelings of gratitude.
Yet feelings of gratitude are even more effective than a good mood in getting people to cooperate or help others. Gratitude is incredibly effective for improving our happiness and life satisfaction because it automatically implies there are things to be happy about and confirms the associated feelings of joy, trust, connectedness, hope and so forth. The opposite frame of mind is one of the main signs of depression.
Gratitude is a state of being, not merely a single act or expression of thankfulness. It isn’t just about saying “thank you” – it’s a deliberate state of mind. Rather than superficial, it’s fundamental to our happiness, optimism, positive relationships and pro-social attitudes – it ties with social connectedness and mindfulness, it reduces envy and possessiveness, anxiety and depression. Gratitude is the feeling of reverence for the things that are given to us (the gifts of life and consciousness, for instance) and not necessarily completely earned or deserved by us (and this can include our own work ethic too, which is dependent on the luck of our genes and upbringing).
It promotes cooperative behaviours between people, especially when we think about the voluntary, costly and intentional positive acts and gifts we receive from other people as we go through life. Gratitude is innate and traces back to understanding and recognising reciprocal sharing as a social species. Both giving and taking feel pleasurable because they aid the survival of a species that is particularly social – reinforcing the overall successful benevolent-biased ‘tit-for-tat with a kind first move’ game theory strategy (as covered in Post No.: 0035); so it’s not just ‘cultural good manners’ but evolved for a good reason. (Whenever all or virtually all independent cultures across time and place have the ability and tendency to express or feel something (in this case gratitude) then it suggests that there’s a species-wide evolution-based reason for it; although different cultures will create e.g. different exact words for saying ‘thank you’ and possibly slight nuanced differences regarding when/where such expressions should be used.)
But people often fail to notice things that they really should be grateful for, fail to think enough about whether someone gave them something out of kindness rather than because they had to (hence we often fail to realise we owe them back in return to reinforce the cooperative relationship), fail to savour the good feelings that being grateful brings, and then fail to act with appreciation, reciprocation or paying it forwards. And that is why gratitude must be intentionally practised (e.g. keep a gratitude diary and note 5 good things that happened during the past week).
Gratitude tends to increase with age. It’s healing; it’s understanding that the glass is half-full and not taking for granted the blessings we have. It makes us humble and understand interdependence. A grateful person is appreciative and accepting of all of life – the good and the bad – seeing most things that happen as a gift or potential gift. We start to look more outwardly, at other people, at the world, rather than just ourselves (outrospection is overall better for our health than introspection). It’s probably impossible to feel genuinely grateful and unhappy simultaneously! We feel that the world is full of goodness, kindness and love rather than randomness, cruelty and selfishness.
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