It’s no secret that unhappy or sullen people tend to focus on the negative side of life. If you are dissatisfied with everything and never see the bright side, then it’s obviously hard to recognize that there’s anything to be grateful for. Many will be familiar with the type: no matter what you do for the chronically dissatisfied, they are never appreciative. Eventually you give up expecting in return for your efforts and count yourself lucky if you receive a perfunctory “thank you.”

It seems obvious that if everything seems like doom and gloom then you will have trouble summoning up feelings of gratitude. However, what if the relationship actually works the other way around? Instead of unhappiness and dissatisfaction producing ungratefulness, perhaps being ungrateful actually makes you unhappy. Conversely, taking the effort to practice gratitude could be the key to feeling happier and finding more satisfaction in your life.

Thinking about the relationship between gratitude and contentment this way around might seem counter-intuitive, but in fact the link between cultivating a sense of appreciation and feeling satisfied with your lot has long been recognized by philosophers and ethicists, particularly within the Buddhist tradition. More recently, a number of studies over the past two decades have created a strong body in favor of the proposition that saying thank you and, more importantly, feeling it has real and lasting effects on your overall wellbeing.

Researchers have shown that diverse forms of expressing gratitude, such as writing a gratitude diary before bed or regularly sending thank you notes to people who have done you favors, lead to measurable changes in happiness, lower rates of depression, greater resilience, and even improved self-esteem. There’s even evidence that practicing gratitude improves your physical health.

Most interestingly, a recent study indicates we can actually pinpoint the part of the brain that is activated when you express gratitude. The participants in the study were set thank you letter writing exercises. A full three months later, they were placed in a situation where their brain activity was monitored and they had a choice to respond to a particular situations with a greater or lesser degree of gratitude. The participants demonstrated a significantly higher level of gratitude compared to the control group and showed heightened activity in the same area of the brain. In short, it seems that gratitude is a sort of mental muscle: the more you use it, the more active it becomes. So, by practicing gratitude you can become a more habitually grateful person, which in turn will increase your overall wellbeing.

Can gratitude be selfish?

With reflection, we can understand why practicing gratitude can make us feel happier. It’s a common observation that happiness is based only in part on what happens to us and to a much larger extent on how we perceive and process it. We all know of people who have been through great adversity while retaining a cheerful and positive approach to life. We are also familiar with those who seem to have every advantage, but are incurably dissatisfied. There is a lot of truth to the famous, if hackneyed, “glass half full, glass half empty” paradigm.

While — formally speaking — gratitude is directed to someone else, when you say thank you, you are also reminding yourself of what is good in your life. Since gratitude increases with practice, the more you express thanks, the more positive things you will start noticing about your life, which will naturally increase your levels of satisfaction. At this point a virtuous circle can set in: the more positive things you observe and feel, the more you have to give thanks for, in turn making it easier for you to recognize all that you have to be grateful about.

In addition, making sure to practice gratitude is likely to have roundabout effects that improve your mental health. Saying thank you in a convincing and sincere manner is likely to endear you to others, winning you friends and improving your relationship with those you already have. You will also probably get on better with your partner as the warm feelings evoked by your gratitude help to smooth over life’s inevitable frictions. Since good relationships are indispensable supports for enduring happiness, expressing gratitude is indirectly laying the foundations for life satisfaction. Last but not least, by expressing gratitude, not only will other people have a higher opinion of you, but you will too. Contrary to the pseudo-realism which states that people are only interested in money, power, or prestige, the vast majority of us have a deep need to feel like we are morally good. All too often, the actions we take to feel good about ourselves are confused, but perhaps one of the most effective ways to feel like a good person is to practice virtues like gratitude in your daily life.

That brings me to a thorny question. If we look at gratitude as a virtue, then it must be one that entails recognizing and responding to the good deeds of others because that is inherently right. However, if we are motivated in expressing thanks by the knowledge that it is good for our own well being, does it remain a virtue? Is this kind of enlightened self-interest compatible with gratitude as we generally understand the term?


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