Gratitude has become an increasingly important part of my life. It has also been one of my greatest sources of improvement of well-being and one of the biggest factors in lifting me out of depression. How does this work? The short answer is that I keep a gratitude journal. The rest of this post is the long answer.
I think there are some theoretical reasons why we should expect gratitude to be helpful or extremely helpful. Try to imagine a time when you were deprived of something that you now have. For example, try to imagine a time when you misplaced your wallet, phone, or passport only to later realize where it was. Think of the sense of relief you got from this. Now recognize that you could feel that way now about all of the things that you have that you could have lost.
The hedonic treadmill refers to the phenomenon of us quickly getting accustomed to any new improvements that we’ve made so that we have to keep running to stay in the same place and maintain our happiness. I think one of the ways that the hedonic treadmill works is by us almost immediately taking everything for granted. If we can stop this process to some extent, through gratitude exercises, we might be able to make large improvements to our well-being.
In my own case, this is particularly vivid. Some years ago I had very bad repetitive strain injuries and associated chronic pain. I did not know if I would ever be able to work again or do many other normal things with my arms. The prospect of improvement seemed dim and my life seemed to be utterly ruined.
It seemed to me that if I could only get the use of my arms back, life would be perfect. At that time I thought to myself if things do ever get better, if there is anything positive I can draw from this piece of hell, it is to remember that feeling, so that if I recover, I can always feel that my life is perfect. You might be able to leverage past tragedies in your life in this way as well. You might be able to turn that darkness into light.
I still have some trouble with repetitive strain injuries and chronic pain, but my situation is now vastly improved. Do I feel perfect now? Well no, it’s hard to fight the hedonic treadmill, but I do feel a lot better because of gratitude exercises.
I think one mistake people make when it comes to gratitude is thinking too small. While it’s helpful to feel grateful for a lot of different things, and I do write down small things in my gratitude journal, there are lots of big things that we could feel grateful for. We don’t feel grateful for these things because we’ve become accustomed to having them and thoroughly take them for granted. It can take some extra work to feel grateful for these things, but it’s worth it.
Here is a short, and by no means exhaustive, list of some of the things you might want to try feeling grateful for: being alive at all, being alive at this time in history, having loved ones who are alive, being born a human, having functional limbs, being able to make a difference in the world, having access to godlike technology, and having access to a wider range of media for free than any library could hold.
To feel grateful for some of these things you might have to try to vividly imagine being without them for a time. If you are deprived of some of these things for a time (or temporarily believe you are) you can also try to remember what that feels like, so that you can recapture it later when you have them again.
The idea with these techniques is to help them become ingrained as habits. It is to train your mind to see more of the good things that you have and naturally feel more gratitude for them. You should also expect to feel good while doing the gratitude exercise and this should help reinforce the habit. I found this technique to be less effective when I’m feeling quite bad. However, I think practising this technique has made me feel bad less often.
Of course, we could instead imagine things as they could be in some hypothetical utopian society 100 years from now when most forms of suffering are unknown. We could then make ourselves feel bad because things are so much worse than they would be in that society. I don’t think it makes sense to say that any of these comparisons are more correct or meaningful than any other. The only thing we can say is that some of these comparisons are more useful than others. Making comparisons that allow us to feel grateful can be useful in improving our lives.
One fear I had when starting this practice was that feeling gratitude would lead to complacency. However, I think that with some care this can be avoided and we can draw from the practice in order to be more effectively altruistic. If we have the ability to more effectively control and improve our well-being through our own thoughts, without having to spend expensive resources on it, we can allow ourselves to contribute more energy and resources to improving the lives of others. This technique may also point to a way in which we can help others without expending too many resources, since it is an inexpensive means of improving mental health that can be taught.
I think this technique may also be helpful in allowing us to reflect on the suffering of the world without being overwhelmed with grief about it, which allows us to be more motivated to improve it. Part of the practice is reflecting on the suffering, but feeling grateful that we are not going through this suffering now allows us to turn this darkness into light.
People waste a huge amount of resources pursuing ever smaller amounts of happiness as they climb the social ladder. Gratitude promises to be a way of achieving this that doesn’t involve wasting these resources, which could be vastly more useful in improving the well-being of the less fortunate.
Some people might find comparisons between other people to be insensitive or in bad taste. If this is the case for you, you can instead reflect on ‘different hypothetical versions of yourself’ in different states of deprivation. I do think the process can be done in an inoffensive way—you just have to have the right intentions and be tactful. Certainly there are bad ways of doing this, such as if you use the comparison to fuel a sense of superiority or if you use it to ‘lord’ what you have over others.
The perspective I try to approach this from is one of solidarity with all other sentient beings. We may be lucky enough to have many more resources than others and if so should draw whatever we can from those resources to help others.
I sometimes feel that using gratitude in this way is too ‘Pollyanna’ or too ‘sunshine and rainbows.’ If you feel this way, I suggest considering which life feels more lucid and clear eyed to you—one where you are preoccupied with minor details, like the last person who cut you off in traffic, or one where you are keenly aware of all that you have and all that could be taken away from you.
I haven’t looked deeply at the empirical literature on the subject. I suspect that the method does have more promise than indicated by the studies, because I suspect that many people given the task of gratitude journaling in studies may not be doing so as effectively as they could be. The tips I give in this post should be an improvement on that. In practice it will still probably not be a magic bullet or panacea, but I think the method holds a lot of promise.
It’s possible that gratitude isn’t the word I should be using in this post. Appreciation might be a better word. The word gratitude carries at least a subtle suggestion that there is someone responsible and that person deserves praise, and this isn’t necessarily the case. In particular, God doesn’t exist, and if he did exist, I don’t think he would deserve our praise. Still, gratitude is the word that usually gets used in this context and it is emotionally punchier than ‘appreciation,’ so I’ve decided to keep using it.