Heading into that one day each year when people in the U.S. collectively decide we have reason to feel grateful and should show it, it’s possible the feeling you’d most welcome would actually be less pressure to feel so grateful all the time. While extensive research shows that gratitude practices boost satisfaction and even physical health, you still need to customize proven practices to what actually works for you. Diving into the data provides so many options that you are likely to find several that make you say, “Thanks!”
Relentless messaging around the benefits of gratitude can raise expectations on your basic Thanksgiving (cue family tension, gooey marshmallows and the 2020 twist of relatives on halting Zoom calls) to overwhelming levels. While growing research points to the power of gratitude practices to boost mental, emotional and even physical wellbeing, is it okay to sometimes not be feeling it?
Writing in Psychology Today
, author Alfie Kohn suggests that too much focus on gratitude can encourage those living the good life to accept their status as normal and pressure those who are struggling to simply count their blessings. “The implication seems to be that it’s impolite for any of us, including the have-nots and victims of various forms of oppression and exclusion, to be dissatisfied, let alone to speak up against existing conditions.”
At home and at work that could translate into putting up with unacceptable behavior from others, not advocating for your own needs or even repressing negative emotions. But leading researchers in positive psychology argue that a deeper understanding of gratitude does not ignore the negativity and suffering of life, but rather helps put it in perspective and can actually motivate us to tackle personal and societal challenges.
What does it mean to be grateful?
The real deal in gratitude research, Robert Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and founding editor of The Journal of Positive Psychology
, defines gratitude as how we think about receiving a benefit and giving credit to others for that benefit. Writing in the Greater Good Magazine
from the University of California, Berkeley, he refutes the criticism that gratitude is a naïve form of positive thinking.
“Gratitude can be very difficult because it requires that you recognize your dependence on others, and that’s not always positive,” Emmons says. “What’s more, feelings of gratitude can sometimes stir up related feelings of indebtedness and obligation, which doesn’t sound like positive thinking at all.”
Better than rose colored glasses
Emmons clarifies that grateful people are not free of negative emotions. Instead, gratitude practices magnify positive feelings more than they reduce negative ones.
Best-selling author and research professor at the University of Houston, Brené Brown, Ph.D., agrees that gratitude and pain exist together. On her Unlocking Us
podcast, she talks about a “wild heart” awake to the pain in the world while also leaning into joy. “A wild heart can really beat with that gratitude and practice gratitude and know joy without denying that there is struggle in the world,” she says. Being grateful for joy, she argues, helps her and others fight for all people to have the same opportunity.
Emmons adds that studies also show that gratitude drives a sense of purpose and desire to do more, rather than feelings of complacency or resignation to bad situations. Gratitude actually inspires more pro-social behaviors such as generosity, compassion and charitable giving.
Grateful and empowered
In multiple studies, Emmons and others have found that grateful people recognize the contributions of others without overlooking their own hard work and abilities. That is an especially important finding for women who, at work and at home, sometimes discount the impact of their actions and talents on their success. Grateful people “recognize their own feats and abilities while also feeling gratitude toward the people . . . who helped them along the way,” Emmons says.
Grateful and resilient
Research reported in the Journal of Positive Psychology
asked participants to recall a time they were victimized, betrayed or hurt in a way that still made them upset. Each was then randomly assigned a writing exercise, with one group focused on the positive aspects of the experience and how it might make them feel grateful. Although they were not asked to ignore the challenging aspects of the memory, those who wrote about the experience from a perspective of gratitude reported a greater sense of closure and resilience.
Similarly, even people suffering from severe neuromuscular disorders asked by Emmons to keep a gratitude journal for two weeks reported more positive emotions, greater optimism about the coming week, better sleep and more connection to others.
Celebrating Thanksgiving during a global pandemic may provide just the opportunity to build your capacity to be grateful for the good and motivated to improve what isn’t — for yourself and others. Extensive research links gratitude to increased satisfaction, better health, less fatigue, greater resilience, lower materialism and more patience and humility. Within groups, it also helps strengthen relationships. Which means that proven gratitude practices may even help you see the benefits of strange family gatherings and quirky colleagues.