“I know I have a lot to be grateful for but I don’t really feel it.” It’s a common sentiment, experienced by many of us at some point. You realise you are not in a bad position in life, but that doesn’t shift your overcast mood or make a difference to your dissatisfaction about something that isn’t going your way. And yet when you think of those worse off, you feel almost guilty for being unhappy. Gratitude is not always easy to get right.
One of the problems may be the assumption that being grateful equates with feeling completely happy about our lot at all times. But it’s not an either/or. While it’s certainly important to appreciate what you have, this doesn’t need to involve denying any problems, or neglecting to take steps to improve your situation.
It is also partly a matter of practice. Positive psychology has done a lot to put gratitude on the map as a prime road to increased wellbeing, happiness, health and just about anything else. It’s not simply a matter of telling yourself how lucky you are now and again. There are specific techniques. One is the gratitude diary, which involves listing three things you have to be grateful for every day for a week – or as an ongoing practice if you find it helpful.
More demanding is the gratitude letter. You are advised to write this to someone whom you feel you have not thanked adequately before, and deliver it and read it to them in person. Both these techniques are said to have lasting effects on mood, and it might be worth trying whichever you feel more drawn to.
But there are pitfalls. If, after reading this, you were to receive a visit from someone with a gratitude letter for you, you might well wonder whether they were doing it just to boost their own mood. So not only should your feelings be sincere, you should also keep your focus firmly on the reasons to be grateful, allowing yourself to express your gratitude in any way that naturally follows.
Behind the great twin evils of consumerism and individualism – most commonly vilified by individualistic, middle-class consumers – lies a bigger, deeper menace: the culture of entitlement. People have always wanted more, but never have they expected so much.
For instance, getting a degree and a good job is no longer thought of as a privilege but as something that anyone who wants should be able to do. Not being able to have a child is discussed as though it were the perversion of a natural right rather than a misfortune. People even talk about having a long retirement as though anything else would be a terrible aberration, when we all know people who have died long before receiving their bus pass.
If the affliction is marked by the loss of our sense of the uncertainty of all good things, then the cure is gratitude whenever we are fortunate enough to get them. The world seems a very different place if the good things in it are only what should be expected rather than treasured all the more because we know they might easily never have been.
The religious can thank their gods for this but to whom or what do agnostics and atheists feel grateful? The fecundity of blind chance inspires awe – but it does not merit gratitude.
The American philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests we should “thank goodness”, namely, the goodness of everyone on whom our good fortune depends: doctors, scientists, farmers, family, friends, teachers and so on. His contemporary Ronald Aronson extends this to aspects of the natural world, saying “Gratitude, when it is clear-eyed, acknowledges some part of the fullness of our dependency.”
But there is also a kind of gratitude that needs no object. We don’t need to express our appreciation to anyone in order to be aware of how lucky we are to have and to have had whatever is good in our lives, and to be profoundly moved by the thought that it might never have been. The best way to show gratitude is not to offer thanks but to make the most of what we are grateful for.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England