The Science of Gratitude (Won’t Make You Grateful)

Practicing Gratitude Can Be Extremely Beneficial; That is, Until it Becomes a Law

Sam Bush / 11.26.19

“Gratitude is one of those things that cannot be bought. It must be born with men. All the obligations in the world will not create it.” – George Savile

Gratitude, it turns out, is good for you. Studies have suggested that a sense of gratitude improves one’s quality of sleep and overall physical health. It builds resilience for when depression and anxiety strike. A discipline of writing gratitude lists tends to help people who are in despair. If you want to be happy in life, being grateful is a good place to start.

And yet studies also show that our culture has shown a significant drop-off in gratitude. Some say that the self-esteem movement has lead to several generations of entitled jackanapes. It’s hard to argue that inflated self-esteem doesn’t lead to less gratitude, but I think there’s more to the story than the “kids-these-days” bandwagon suggests.

One parallel for its decline is that we seem to be drilling for gratitude like it’s the Texas oil boom. A 2018 Atlantic Monthly article presented gratitude as having been corporatized: “The practice known as corporate gratitude includes methods for how to say ‘thank you’ to employees and customers with trinkets and cookies and how to use gratitude as a career builder. The Harvard Business Review is chock-full of gratitude advice, calling it ‘the new willpower.’” Call me crazy, but I see a correlation between the commodification of gratitude and the death of gratitude. While there’s nothing wrong with giving your employees cookies, people can usually smell the difference between a gift and a worm on a hook.

While gratitude is in itself a good thing, turning it into the 11th Commandment does not usually yield lasting results. The Wall Street Journal presents the downsides of forcing gratitude on our kids. “As parents, we do our best to teach our children to be grateful, by doing things such as nagging them to writing thank you notes. Experts warn, however, that our best efforts can backfire and actually become a barrier to genuinely experiencing gratitude.” The law, it turns out, does not engender obedience.

Practicing gratitude can be extremely beneficial; that is, until it becomes a law. The Atlantic describes the writer Liz Brown’s discipline of keeping a gratitude list for 100 days when she was going through a hard time:

It made her feel ashamed, depressed, and angry. Only when a new therapist suggested an “ingratitude list” did things start to turn around, allowing her to “grieve the things that I’d lost, missed out on, been cheated out of and all the times life had kicked me straight in the heart.” Suffocating sorrow with gratitude doesn’t make it go away, Brown concluded. And being told to focus on gratitude when angry might lead to shame for having other, less positive, feelings.

Gratitude, it turns out, is a gift in itself. It is something to be received rather than acquired. Like the fruit of the Spirit, it can spoil as soon as one becomes self-conscious. The more we try to force its hand, the more it slips from our fingers. Gratitude can be a mindset, yes — and we can be better off if we practice it — but, it tends to be a door that only opens from the outside. So what to do? Well, if gratitude is simply the recognition that some kind of help came from a source other than ourselves, we would be best to trace back to the source itself. The feeling of gratitude may come and go, but the source of “every good and perfect gift” (i.e. a loving, gracious God) will never change.

As Paul writes in Colossians, may we give “joyful thanks to the Father,” not because studies show it’s good for our health or because it’s the right thing to do, but because the Father “has qualified us to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Cartoon image from The New Yorker.

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3 responses to “The Science of Gratitude (Won’t Make You Grateful)”

  1. Thank you for this article. I am wondering if gratitude is a new wave of the “power of positive thinking.” It seems as though the trend of practicing gratitude is another control mechanism to yield certain results like another one of the habits of highly effective people. And perhaps there is hope that the results will yield a real sense of gratitude. Yet the gratitude we have for what is received or that which comes from outside cannot be contrived from within and it is almost surprising and accompanied by a sense of joy.

  2. Jon says:

    I’m feeling grateful for this article! I definitely do, at times, hear reminders about gratitude as the law.

  3. […] The Science of Gratitude Won’t Make You Thankful. “While gratitude is in itself a good thing, turning it into the 11th Commandment does not usually yield lasting results.” via Sam Bush […]

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