What is gratitude?
October 31, 2019 3:23 PM   Subscribe

I understand that gratitude journals are a common thing to do to improve one's mood and outlook, but I realized I don't really have any positive associations with gratitude. I'm wondering how other people conceptualize it that makes it an uplifting thing to dwell on.

So for me, gratitude has three main types/associations:
- Someone gave me something! Oh no, now I owe them! I am indebted!
- I'm lucky! I got something that not everyone else has. Oh no, why did I get it? I don't deserve it more than anyone else does. Isn't that unfair? Isn't it bad that I have it?
- What I have now is better than some worse alternative. Oh no, things COULD become worse, I am not safe!

Etc. I realize these are negatively distorted associations.... but what are the GOOD associations? What does it actually mean to be grateful for something without the context of owing someone for it, getting it in place of someone else, or being at the mercy of the universe chaotically meting out good and bad things in turn?

These concerns don't apply as much to things like, say, a beautiful sunset, but I also don't feel like I really grasp what it means to be "grateful" for something like a sunset without the context of guilt or threats. Who am I grateful to? Why does it feel good to be grateful?

If you enjoy feeling grateful, what does being grateful mean to you?
posted by space snail to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know how you feel when you give someone a gift, but it makes me feel good to give. And I would say that's true of most people. So if you can remember that the person who is giving you something is getting enjoyment out of the act of giving, then it becomes easier to accept it without feeling you owe them something. I've learned to smile and say thank you and enjoy the gift.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 3:40 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

what it means to be "grateful" for something like a sunset

Hm, Carson McCullers's short story "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" calls it love, which is part of what makes the story feel a little strange, but you can read about a diffuse appreciation of existence and being glad to be alive in Thich Nhat Hanh too, e.g. The Sun My Heart or Peace is Every Step.

More concretely/pragmatically, you probably already thank your friends and colleagues for the little things they do for you, asked or unasked, but there's usually room to think a little more about what they must have gone through and how they handled the matter. That optional/extra bit of empathy exists mostly inside your head, but finding a way to express it can turn into a pretty wide-ranging practice of gratitude.
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:44 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

For each of your examples, you would write down just the first sentence. Then stop there. No wore writing. No more thinking. Just stop.

That's the moment of gratitude.
posted by quarterframer at 3:47 PM on October 31, 2019 [14 favorites]

To me, gratitude is more about contentedness rather than an overt happiness. It's not meant to create a guilt trip - it's about recognizing that what you have already can be enough. It's more of a "not wanting more" and recognizing that even if X changed tomorrow, there are other things in life that can keep me content.

I'd try to separate the action from your negative reaction. For example, taking your bullets:

-Someone gave me a gift. I am so grateful that I have a friend who thought of me.

(It's ok to have additional thoughts, but that's not part of the gratitude: "I should let them know that I appreciate them and the gift. That will make them feel good, just as they made me feel good. They may be more of a gift-giver than I am, but I can show them that I care in my own particular way and in my own particular time.")

-I'm grateful that I have a roof over my head. Not everyone has that.

("I'm grateful that I've got a good job that pays rent so I can be warm. I can't give everyone a home, but I can donate to XYZ to help out someone else.")

-I'm grateful that I have my health.

("I understand that this could change, but it's ok to be happy with what I currently have. I also acknowledge that a change in this status isn't the end of the world. I might gain something else if I got a diagnosis of something tomorrow.")

I really enjoy The Frugal Girl's perspective on this, here and here.
posted by hydra77 at 3:52 PM on October 31, 2019 [8 favorites]

As others have mentioned, I think part of the practice is to just stop after expressing the gratitude, and letting go of all the spinning that happens after that.

Alternatively, I've kept a journal of "things that went well today"*, which is not focused so much on gratitude specifically but just on noticing good things, which may be things I'm grateful for, or things I enjoyed (like that sunset), or even things I feel like I personally handled well. You may find it easier to start there and work up to gratitude, if you feel like you're getting caught up in negative thoughts.

* This was on the specific recommendation of a therapist probably 10 years or more ago, and it's a practice I come back to as a starting point when my brain is having a Bad Time.
posted by epersonae at 3:56 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you enjoy feeling grateful, what does being grateful mean to you?

I just feel lucky. Not lucky to be X instead of Y, but just lucky that through some mystery I will never comprehend, I get to see a beautiful sunset or an amazing movie, or taste something really delicious. I just think “wow.”
posted by sallybrown at 4:01 PM on October 31, 2019 [11 favorites]

I tend to think of gratitude as trying to be aware that my situation is better than it could be, BECAUSE I'm always aware of the challenge life can be when it's NOT. The most frequent example of this is whenever I get a particularly nasty head cold, I always wonder why I took for granted my ability to breathe easily and sleep soundly the week before. It's because I didn't even notice it, why would I? So it's about trying to notice and remind myself how pleased I am about a particular thing in this moment, knowing that sometimes it's not so nice. And I find it helps me cope better when things are not so nice, because 1) it can change back, too, and 2) I savored the moment when it WAS nice, which helped me experience it more deeply.
posted by carlypennylane at 4:08 PM on October 31, 2019 [6 favorites]

To answer the part about what are the good associations, like how could the thoughts spin out in a positive way? For me it has to do with being part of something bigger.

So if it starts out with gratitude because someone gave me something! I might start to remember the long history of nice things that person has done for me, and the wide network of people who do nice things for me and each other, and other people...

I'm lucky! I got something that not everyone else has. This advantage puts me in a position that I can leverage to help others gain a similar advantage (money that allows me to donate, or education that allows me to teach), and those I help will then be in a position to help others, and so on...

What I have now is better than some worse alternative. I feel this as a sort of a "road not taken" thing, where the time for getting on the alternate path is long gone in the past. And it's a really peaceful feeling to look back on things that are past and done and there's nothing anybody can do to change them, and feel like...it could have been worse, but it wasn't. Somehow it worked out to the good.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:17 PM on October 31, 2019

For me gratitude is less a feeling than a mindful practice -- to be consciously receptive to a force of the positive (the beautiful, the loving, or the sacred -- all of which I might indeed feel in the effect of a sunset) and to gently turn my mind away from the what-if, the why-me, the what-next, and to just dwell for a moment in that state of engaging with it.
posted by nantucket at 4:26 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

This article says a gratitude journal "is really about forcing ourselves to pay attention to the good things in life we’d otherwise take for granted." I don't keep one myself, but that's the way I've always thought about the idea - that it's supposed to be about things you're glad are in your life or things you're glad have happened to you. (Which could - but does not have to - include nice things people have done, gifts you've received, etc.) Some people might think of it as being grateful or thankful that those things are in their lives. That definitely makes sense if you believe some higher power deliberately put them there. Even if you don't, I think it's still a pretty natural way to think about it. I don't believe in God, but I say, "Thank god" about all kinds of things. "Thank god I broke my left arm and not my right." "Thank god I don't live in a place that has rush hour traffic jams." I suppose those are the kinds of things I might include in a gratitude journal, along with things like the taste of raspberries and blueberries, being able to grow raspberries and blueberries in my own yard, going skiing with my kids, my daily walks with my dog, living in a place where I can go on a solitary walk in beautiful surroundings, and so forth. I don't feel there is a specific entity I can thank for having those things in my life, but I do feel something like gratitude for them.
posted by Redstart at 4:31 PM on October 31, 2019

For each of your examples, you would write down just the first sentence. Then stop there. No wore writing. No more thinking. Just stop. That's the moment of gratitude.

I came in to say exactly this. To me it sounds like you know what it is to feel gratitude, but it immediately gets swamped by a negative emotion. IMHO you don’t need to find out what gratitude is — you need to find out why you can’t just let yourself have a moment.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:40 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

I characterize it as appreciation in my head because I just couldn't get over feeling weird about "gratitude" for sunsets or whatever, and I think that's fine.

The way I learned to do this, you also specify why you're thankful for/appreciative of the thing, and I'm not very good at that, but whatever. If I were going to do 5 things in my head tonight before bed, I might think something like:

- I'm happy that so many kids came out to trick-or-treat even in the rain, because I love Halloween.
- I appreciated how tasty that cookie I had at lunch was, because it was even better than I expected.
- I'm glad nobody minded the fact that I hung out in my partner's office all day, because they don't have to be as nice about it as they are.
- I'm relieved the weather was still calm when I drove home, because I was worried about the predicted storm.
- I appreciated that my partner made dinner--and I also appreciate how I made myself pick up some easy dinner items the other day even though I was tired, because it would have been hard to handle cooking etc. while also answering the doorbell.

If I'm not treating my anxiety and depression, then this process is much more difficult for me.
posted by wintersweet at 4:47 PM on October 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

For me it’s not about feeling gratitude towards some provider. It’s a feeling of gratitude at being there for x. Being there for a great moment in a liver performance. Getting to see Chagall’s windows. For the feeling of warm sand under my toes.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:52 PM on October 31, 2019

Gratitude to me is about being happy to have had a moment/experience/person in my life. I'm grateful that I have my health, and though I might not have it tomorrow, I will always have had today, in which I was healthy. I saw the sunset, and now I have the experience/memory of that beautiful thing, the warm feeling I had while experiencing it. Even if you never saw another one, that moment of happiness happened, and it can't unhappen. It's always yours.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:16 PM on October 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm a therapist as well as a (naturally, I think) grateful person. I love gratitude, I express it a lot, I feel it a lot. I used to recommend to clients that they keep gratitude journals. I have stopped making it a blanket recommendation because fully half of them had reactions exactly like yours -- the act of expressing or noticing gratitude increased their anxiety and spiraled their thoughts in unhealthy ways. Especially if they were listing survival-level stuff like shelter, and especially if they had parental abuse in their pasts. Now I tell people to try it, but just to stop if they find it unhelpful.

That said, for me, gratitude is more about just noticing a beautiful or delightful or moving moment and being happy that I'm getting to experience it. CBC's Tapestry recently ran a piece on a man who wrote down things that delighted him every day, rather than things for which he was grateful, and that may be closer to explaining how I think of it and may avoid the negative associations you're feeling. (Or not -- if that still doesn't work for you, that's ok too! There are lots of exercises people can do to increase happiness. Gratitude's in vogue right now, but that doesn't mean gratitude exercises are the only route to happiness [and my inner socialist tends to wonder if they're particularly in vogue right now as a means of suppressing people's righteous anger at late-capitalist working conditions and income inequality...].)
posted by lazuli at 5:24 PM on October 31, 2019 [5 favorites]

One thing that helps me with this is that, if I’m keeping a gratitude journal, I aim to only put in things that I’m genuinely happy about, not things I feel like I should be happy about. Discerning the difference between those two things, with a rule of no self-recrimination for my own ungratefulness, is both revealing, and a tremendous relief.

So, for example, maybe I was out with a group of friends and my first impulse is to write that I’m grateful I have those friends, because I know that’s the “right” answer. But the reality might be that I really wasn’t in the mood for a big night out and the whole evening drove me nuts and I don’t feel grateful - that’s fine, my journal is about me being honest with myself, not something I’m showing to someone else who will judge whether I’m appreciative enough.

Maybe, though, I was genuinely happy for those three minutes that someone put my favourite song on the jukebox when I was standing on my own at the bar, and I’m going to put that moment down, even if it was brief. There have been some days, honestly, where my only entry has been that I’m glad to be back in my warm, safe bed, and that’s the best I can say about the day. But I really do love my bed and am always grateful for it, it turns out.

So it’s best, for me, when it’s not an exercise in brow-beating myself into feeling all the gratitude I think I should feel, but when it’s a moment to pause and really be aware of the moments I genuinely appreciated in the day, however slight or fleeting they might have been. If you do that enough, the hope is, those feeling will start to grow, like a plant given daylight.
posted by penguin pie at 5:26 PM on October 31, 2019 [7 favorites]

And, as with the commenter above, I tend to think in terms of appreciation rather than gratitude.
posted by penguin pie at 5:28 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Pleasure in small things. Learning to look for the little joys in the world. To see that there are things to be grateful for no matter how small. This is my interpretation & one that helps me the most.

What is going in my journal tonight as an example.

I saw a beautiful sunset it made me happy. I'm grateful I saw it.
A mermaid waved at me today.
I was sad today, remembering my mother that passed. While sitting in the floor crying, my dog who is very headshy he hates being near peoples faces, came up & licked the tears away from my face then asked for a pat. He never does that. I am grateful for him even in my grief for my mother.
posted by wwax at 5:47 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Like others have mentioned above, I view gratitude as appreciation.

My family had plenty of dysfunction but my parents were pretty good at gratitude, especially my mother, and she passed that trait onto me. If it doesn't come naturally, start practicing. Gratitude can be life-changing -- so trite but true. When I notice myself complaining too much or caught in a negativity cycle, I am not practicing gratitude.

Whatever it may be, big or small, I try to appreciate the joys and pleasures of life. I appreciate my cup of coffee, a chat with a friend, the breeze, etc. I am often grateful during my walk into work (It's quiet and still dawn and the air is cool and the birds are starting to sing and my legs feel good, etc.). I can have gratitude for a piece of art or literature that brings me joy -- like the HBO Olive Kitteridge miniseries and all of the great books I've read. What a time to be alive. Thank you to those authors and filmmakers and artists who bring us beauty.

I often say "thank you prayers" at night. I guess I'm sending my gratitude out to the universe and reminding myself of the good things in my life.-- Thank you for my husband. Thank you for the health of my children. Thank you for my life. Etc.

I notice the little gifts and good fortunes in my life. Thank you that I remembered my work badge when I thought I forgot it. Thank you that I remembered to bring my sunglasses or my umbrella. Thank you for the ten dollars I found in my purse when I thought I had no cash. Thank you sister for giving me that coral lipstick that you didn't like because it looks good on me -- I love the way it feels and the color is perfect.

I can have gratitude for my health without comparing it to the poor health of others. People in poor health have things to be grateful for as well, of course.
posted by loveandhappiness at 5:52 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have issues with general "gratitude to the universe" as well, for similar reasons to the ones you listed. So I've never done a gratitude journal or gratitude practice even though I know it's supposed to be good for general life happiness or whatever.

My WW coach does a daily practice of listing three "good things" that happened that day instead. They can be as simple as a great lunch, or loving her job today, or working from home, or getting all her planned activity in. Or bigger things like finally getting the kitchen remodel finished, or a great vacation, or spending time with her grandkids. She doesn't worry about being repetitive either... working from home makes the list once or twice every week! I haven't started this practice yet myself, but it feels less uncomfortable to me than a gratitude journal.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:53 PM on October 31, 2019

So, I agree with "gratitude can stop with the first sentence," but I do feel like at least for me, there are specific assocations/underpinnings that I may not vocalize, but inform how I think/feel/behave. So, here is what I would be thinking (even if not consciously) in your examples:

- Someone gave me something! Oh no, now I owe them! I am indebted!

"Someone gave me something! Wow, they know me so well to know I would like this, and took the time/money/effort to give me it! They must really want to make me happy! Gosh, what could I do that would make them happy?"

- I'm lucky! I got something that not everyone else has. Oh no, why did I get it? I don't deserve it more than anyone else does. Isn't that unfair? Isn't it bad that I have it?

"I'm lucky! Not everybody gets this, but I did! The universe aligned totally randomly to make that happen, isn't that weird and cool? Since I was lucky, I didn't have to put in the extra energy/effort/money/whatever to get it, so now I have extra energy/effort/money/whatever for other things, including helping out other people."

- What I have now is better than some worse alternative. Oh no, things COULD become worse, I am not safe!

"Things are good now! They might get worse, but that's even more reason to enjoy the good times while they're here! If things get worse, at least I'll have these good times to look back on."

For me, it's about being grateful to the experience. There's also a bit of being grateful to and amazed by the universe, as it is so randomly and perfectly set up so as to let me experience X good thing at this moment in time. Yes, it's chaotic and may also bring bad, which is why I'm grateful when everything aligns to bring me good.
posted by brook horse at 6:34 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've seen the gratitude journal exercise reframed as "list 3 things that went well today and why they went well". I think it might be helpful to shift it away from being specifically about gratitude and toward it just being about reflecting on nice and happy things. (The "why they went well" is just designed to get you to spend more time thinking about the detail of the nice thing, not to try and drive you toward any particular understanding of the nature of why things go well.)
posted by capricorn at 7:00 PM on October 31, 2019

Sometimes, people or places or things will make you light up inside, and something in you turns outward, turns toward connection--maybe you can think of gratitude as the discipline of noticing when this happens, and of taking the time to jot down what you connected with.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:07 PM on October 31, 2019

I have a really hard time with gratitude, too. Like, a really hard time. Noting the moments where I feel "delighted" resonate a lot more with me, similar to lazuli's comment.

Sometimes I'm better at this than other times, but I try to remember the Kurt Vonnegut anecdote: "And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

I find it much easier to notice when things are going "well" or if I'm enjoying something in those small moments, when I am able to notice them than to be "grateful" for them.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 7:39 PM on October 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

Gratitude-as-a-practice is tied really closely to presence and mindfulness for me. It's less that I feel an inclination to express thanks to the universe or whatever, and more that I don't want to take things or people for granted, I never want to stop appreciating the beauty and joy I find in the world and in my people, so I try to take time to appreciate it all deliberately.
posted by rhiannonstone at 9:02 PM on October 31, 2019

You know how good a bed feels after camping? See if you can make it feel that way for you tonight. My wife and I call it not-camping. It feels fucking great.

Do that with your life. Your life is full of exquisite sensations, physical and emotional. Learn to experience them directly.
posted by argybarg at 10:23 PM on October 31, 2019 [7 favorites]

One thing that might work is the variation where you write what went well today and why.

I got my report in on time because I started it early. I got out of bed on time because I had early waking insomnia which means my early waking insomnia had at least one good result. I had cherries for lunch because the green grocer had some for sale, even though they are not in season.

The second part of each entry might be enough to steer you away from the anxiety that turns your blessings into guilt or more worry.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:34 AM on November 1, 2019

I have all these same associations too. I am trying to turn it around on myself by thinking stuff like "I am so GLAD I have ___." Thanking anyone in particular or thanking the universe or whatever doesn't have to come into it imho. Like man I am so glad I have a car now, it makes things so much easier than they used to be. "But it's expensive! But it's not the car you wanted! But cars kill people, cities, and the planet!" Yeah but I'm not worrying about that now. *I'm* just glad I have *my* car. I'm glad I have a place to live that meets my needs and a job that pays my bills. It's just good to frame things positively for yourself for a change if you don't do it naturally. It's just like stretching if you've been sitting one way for too long.
posted by bleep at 6:16 AM on November 1, 2019

Here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on gratitude.
posted by aniola at 4:01 PM on November 2, 2019

Thanks everyone! I have actually been aware for some time of the suggestion to just take the word "gratitude" out of the gratitude journal and proceed with a list of good things that made me happy, but was still stuck on what it was about gratitude that made other people happy enough to name the practice after it. I felt like I was missing something.

I thought the philosophical definition of gratitude was extremely helpful for untangling my own charged perceptions about it with a sort of neutral accounting of what's involved in it and how gratitude toward an entity can be disambiguated from gladness for good fortune. I also marked some particularly helpful suggestions about how to make a gratitude practice work for me. I really liked the note about not forcibly adding things to a gratitude list that I think I "should" be grateful for, as I think that tendency was also contributing to some of my gratitude angst and making it feel more like a forced thank-you note to the universe.
posted by space snail at 6:20 AM on November 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

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