Post No.: 0342
I think that gratitude needs a lot more mentions as a key ingredient for a happy and content life! So much about social life is about giving, receiving, repaying and reciprocation thus gratefulness is a crucial foundation for our social interactions. Even though in some cultures people think that everything they get is what they earned and deserved – no one who is here would, or could, be here if it weren’t for the input and cooperation of others, such as, for instance, the community that helped your parents, who, along with teachers, perhaps siblings and others, helped raise you.
Some people don’t find gratitude easy though because it implies indebtedness to and dependency on others and therefore an obligation to reciprocate, for which they may actually feel resentment for and even report negative feelings towards their benefactors. But if embraced, it leads to greater optimism, happiness and connectedness. And for feeling more positive and outwardly thankful – grateful people are more favourably perceived by others too.
People who reciprocate, are kind, supportive and helpful to others are also favourably perceived by others of course. Thus it’s beneficial for both the benefactor and beneficiary. People like grateful people, and feeling grateful enhances our desire to affiliate with and include others. Gratitude simply makes people nicer and less grumpy – it makes all involved mentally happier and kinder. It all strengthens our social ties and makes us feel valued. It enables us to receive, and motivates us to return the goodness that we’ve been given, thus making us and societies complete. Woof!
Gratefulness helps us to find or identify partners or friends whom we can possibly form solid relationships with, or reminds us of our existing partner’s strengths and binds us closer to them interpersonally. It enables us to realise the good in others and motivates us to reciprocate and be good, which jointly reinforces gratitude and pro-social behaviour in society.
For those who feel indebted and resentful for it, they shouldn’t view social relationships (as opposed to market relationships) as purely transactional – just because someone does something generous for you, it doesn’t mean you must immediately or directly owe them back (as if, as an example, your spouse has just cooked you a meal and now you must immediately pay him/her back for it lest you be doing a dine and dash(!)) And although gratitude requires us to be somewhat vulnerable – to acknowledge that one needs a bit of help from others in life now and again – well that’s how life works, particularly for a social species such as humans. As far as I’m aware, every major language in the world has a word or many different words to say, “Thank you” because of its enormous social value.
However, can gratitude and the sense of reciprocation be exploited by businesses (e.g. a business offering you a ‘free gift’ in the hope of getting some paid custom in return)?
We must indeed be aware of separating social and market norms. So be careful about mixing businesses with friendships because businesses aren’t your friends. To large corporations in particular, you are just an account number and a potential pot of money (your calculated ‘customer lifetime value’), whom they don’t care about unless they think they can somehow get you to part with some of your money. Likewise, be very careful about trying to mix friendship with business – the boundaries must be clear (e.g. try not to take the workplace attitude home).
In general, commercial relationships have some automatic and formally binding arrangements for compensations (e.g. you don’t necessarily need to sign anything if you buy something from a retailer but the transaction comes with it certain automatic consumer rights), whereas even the courts understand that contracts aren’t normally automatic and are in fact generally unconscionable between family and friends (e.g. there’s a massive difference between a romantic partner and a prostitute – see Post No.: 0229 for more). People generally dislike it when others plug their own products in inappropriate contexts – it makes a normally social situation seem more like a market one. So we know that there’s a difference between social and market contexts but we sometimes unwittingly blur the two.
Another barrier to gratitude is the ‘self-serving bias’ – we tend to attribute good things that happen to us as down to our own actions, yet bad things that happen to us tend to be blamed on other people, tools, the circumstances or other things i.e. we’re bad at giving credit to others! Some of our successes are down to our own efforts but without a host of other people right from the very start or along the way – many of whom we’ll never have even seen because they were behind the scenes, never mind remember – they literally wouldn’t have happened (e.g. the people who donated to a charity that helped the school that employed the teachers who taught you the skills you learnt to do the things you do).
Gratefulness therefore goes against our desire to feel in full control of our own destinies and environment because we understand that we’re not independent but interconnected to others and what they do or did in place and time. It contradicts the ‘just-world fallacy’ because we don’t always get what we deserve – good things often happen to bad people, and vice-versa. With gratitude, we are grateful for what we have and thus also accept life as it is.
So when we feel grateful, we realise that we sometimes get more than we deserve and this goes against our (erroneous, perhaps relatively modern) cultural beliefs that we all deserve all the good that comes our way and are entitled to it all, for which a feeling of entitlement makes it harder to feel grateful for anything. Entitlement and self-absorption are key impediments to gratitude. The world is far more chaotic at one level and random at another level than we intuit, and therefore luck plays a key role in everything once we understand how life and the universe actually works – in fact, life existing in this universe at all was a series of chance events itself!
Life is just a brief flash of consciousness between two vast eternities thus life and being alive is itself a precious rarity – a privilege rather than an entitlement. Being alive at all is thus something to be grateful for as a state of mind. The universe doesn’t owe us a living – most of the universe is barren so life here is a miracle itself. Therefore gratefulness is lubricating – it’s the recognition that life owes us nothing and all the good we got and get is a gift. This includes every single breath we take – which has been donated by other life on this planet that produces the oxygen we breathe (e.g. phytoplankton and trees)!
We frequently achieve greater results together compared to the mere sum of what we can achieve individually, and the gratefulness for these gains is owed to the cooperation itself and cannot be attributed to any one individual alone, never mind oneself. So we often receive more than we individually deserve, often as a result of other people. A lot of the gains we receive aren’t borne from what we unilaterally do but what everybody does to the greater benefit of everybody else – it creates greater economies when people cooperate so everybody, at least on average, gets more out than they individually put in when societies are harmonious (and if there are any who put more in than what they get out, they have more to put in because they got more than what they put in previously).
Ingratitude results from the failure to acknowledge receiving a favour and refusing to return a favour, while gratitude compels us to return a favour and isn’t just a sentiment. Gratitude feels even more powerful and personal when heartfelt rather than obliged i.e. when not expressed merely out of politeness or tradition but freely. Humility and appreciation makes us realise our interdependence and recognise the myth or arrogance of self-sufficiency – we start to look upwards (to the Sun or the Big Bang if one isn’t religious) and outwards to the sources that created or sustain us; to the reality that we aren’t self-made. We start to focus on others, not just ourselves. We may not want to feel indebted to future obligations but we (informally) are.
Compare your situation and life to those who have it worse than you across the world, then be mindful of how much harder life could’ve been for you. Everyone and everything is not against you. Many innocent people have died before reaching your present age. Pause to appreciate every meal before eating it. Say, “Thanks” out loud. Tell your loved ones how lucky you are to have them. Look on the bright side of life! Focus on what you have rather than what you don’t. Count your blessings whenever you feel down or notice how much more unfortunate some other people’s lives are (e.g. refugees from war-torn countries, homeless people). You are highly likely not the most unfortunate person alive – not least because you have the electricity to access this blog(!) Watching a tear-jerking movie is better than a comedy when it comes to making us feel grateful. Don’t take your modern human rights, relative peace, clean water on tap, bed, education, vaccinations, etc. for granted if you have them. There’s plenty to feel good about yourself too!
Be grateful also for what you can give, as opposed to what you receive – giving means that we’re healthy and are able to give at least something. It doesn’t necessarily mean life is perfect or mean ignoring complaints but we can identify the goodness, fortunes and capabilities in our own life. Remember the bad days too – with the right perspective, this’ll remind you of how you’ve recovered from those adversities and/or how far you’ve come. Confronting our own mortality helps us to re-evaluate what’s really important in life too. Hypothesise about the absence of someone or something you treasure, then be glad that they’re still presently here.
Intentionally focus on appreciating and relishing the happy and good moments. Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present, it blocks toxic emotions like envy, resentment and regret. A grateful disposition or habit makes us more resilient to stress, trauma, rejection, adversity or suffering – it helps us to recover faster, and grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth for feeling cared for, valued and connected. It makes us less likely to be hostile, vengeful or anti-social, and more likely to be pro-social. For recognising the network of people who’ve contributed towards getting you to the positive aspects of where you are today, you see life and the world very differently in a happier and less stressful way – and happiness is surely the overall goal in life, not social comparisons or ‘getting even’. Even though there are likely to be some negative aspects to your life too – if you’re still alive then positive things are still happening to you because as long as you’re alive, you have a chance of changing things.
A top tip if you keep a gratitude diary though – to boost your self-confidence, you could try to write a dauntingly long list of 50 fuzzy reasons why you’re a failure, or just 3 furry reasons why you’re a success. When we struggle to complete a long list of reasons to be happy or grateful for, this makes us feel like we haven’t much to be happy or grateful about, hence it’s best to only ask for a short list of things if we wish to keep a regular and ongoing gratitude diary. (This is related to fluency or cognitive ease.)
Woof! Today isn’t just another day – it’s a unique day. Today was given to you as a gift – the present is a present – so open your heart and live it fully!