The anatomy of gratitude

When we talk about gratitude we often assume that gratitude is something specific, one very clear feeling that we all experience. I do not believe this to be true. As far as I know, there are many kinds of gratitude, constructed from very different elements. More reading here, here, here, here, here,  and here.

Mental subtraction

How to feel immediate gratitude?

Let me suggest a simple trick called mental subtraction. In your mind remove from your life something you took for granted. Think about what your life would look like without it. Now look around and be grateful you still have it. This is something that can be done all the time.

Near misses activate this sort of gratitude spontaneously. A car that came too close to our child is the most common and powerful example. We experience a lot of fear, followed by relief, and then by gratitude. This sort of gratitude is immense. It is a release from the stress and panic of near-miss experiences.

Being grateful to someone

In an alternative scenario, someone heals us or helps us deal with a complex task. I saved lives of some people. The gratitude I felt in their voice was immense.

Even without saving lives, I feel gratitude in the “thank you” letters I get from my students, simply because I made them more efficient. This gratitude is honest, true, and somewhat rare.

What gratitude is the most common?

Gratitude that is good for you

We kind of knows this scientifically: gratitude reduces stress. So people who have brains want to feel gratitude. To lower stress and live longer.  This means writing the gratitude diaries and counting the things we are grateful for. Without thinking about possible losses.

The artificial gratitude definitely feels strange. Almost like the artificial smile Americans often fake to look polite. Europeans in comparison appear rude and do not care about it. Personally I am not sure which way is better.

We teach to “fake it till you make it”. How long should that take? A month? A year? A lifetime? If the gratitude does not become natural that something is wrong.

Natural gratitude

We tend to feel naturally grateful when we played a lottery and won. There are all kinds of lotteries. People get sick and lose loved ones. Poverty can be a heavy burden and not everyone can find a great job. Some people are lonely and do not have friends. If we did not pull the unlucky ticket we should naturally be grateful. I do not know many people who feel this sort of natural gratefulness.

Most people do not think about the bad luck lotteries and wait for the good luck lotteries. These people are grateful when they get huge sums of money, promotion, or a victory in some sort of competition. Such gratefulness does not last and can be easily replaced by envy.

Ritual gratitude

Since most people tend to be ungrateful, society invented ingenious ways to wake us up. Americans celebrate thanksgiving. There are harvest festivals almost in every culture. In most religions, there is a prayer that is said every day, where we thank god for what he provides.

If we are not religious we often see atrocities on television or read about them in articles. The authors of the news stories often make sure to press the painful triggers. Every time a child dies we are grateful it is not our child, and every time a person is shot we are grateful this is not someone we know.

This sort of gratitude is ritual. We are reminded by society to be grateful. It is our choice how to treat this reminder.

Book of Job

The Book of Job in the Bible addresses human suffering and ritual gratitude. At the beginning of the book, Job has everything that a man can desire and he is naturally grateful. To test his faith he goes through incredible suffering, but he does not lose his gratitude. This time the faith helps him deal with his pain and he is grateful for it. Then he gets a reward, more than he ever had, and he is grateful this time for redemption.

Never is the Book Job loses his faith and his gratitude, but the nature of the gratitude changes. Moreover, I suspect that his sort of gratitude is very different from the feeling we call gratitude.

Existential gratitude

When I was young I met a girl who surprised me. She was always grateful in a way I never saw before. For her, gratitude was an existential position. When she saw flowers she was grateful for the fragile beauty. If she read a good book, she was grateful for the excitement. Eventually, I understood that being grateful for her is an effortless natural state, and every time she focuses on something she feels grateful for this.

This was a sort of surprise. For me, the existential state is a sort of dull and almost pleasant pain, like the pain of getting a tattoo. For my mother, the natural state is fear, and for my father, it is dreamlike escapism. This girl was a rare example of untainted gratitude. It was as easy for the girl to be grateful as it was to breathe.

We are still friends. I did not meet anyone like her since. Every time I call her she says: “It’s so good that…” and I hear in the voice true gratitude.

Gratitude as manipulation

While some people are all the time naturally grateful, others do not even bother to fake gratitude. They use the word as a figure of speech. “I want to thank you all for this opportunity to…” There is no gratefulness in such speeches. They tend to be dull, pompous, and totally fake. While the politician talks about gratitude, he is thinking about deals, threats, and opportunities, and how to appear dignified.

People who are truly grateful attract others. So toxic people use gratitude for their manipulations. Quite often gratitude is mixed with concepts and numbers that have nothing to do with a real state of affairs. I was a child in a communist country. I saw this in every party-sponsored event. We were grateful to our country. Not really, but we had to lie about it. Or else…

Survivor’s guilt

Gratitude does not have to be weaponized for the feeling to feel bad. Survivors tend to be grateful for their fate, but they also tend to feel guilty for those who perished. Thus gratitude can be mixed with pain.

In a sense all of us are survivors. My grandmother was an exceptional woman and I am grateful that I knew her. At the same time, she is dead, and the particular hole in my heart made by her death will never heal. All of us lose something, as this is a part of life, so gratitude tends to remind us of pain.

Revenge is the opposite of gratitude

In a way, gratitude is a positive feeling of winning something above what we deserve. Then we can lose something we feel is rightfully ours. What will we feel? Rage and willingness to revenge. Why revenge? To make things more even. Some would call it poetic justice.

Gratitude can be vengeful. Revenge is a very powerful motivator. A person driven by revenge can perform atrocities. But is this feeling justified? Are we naturally entitled to something?

Take this to the limit. Are we entitled to have a happy and healthy family, or are we just lucky and should be grateful? What if something bad happens? Should we try to revenge, accept or be grateful for good memories?

Promote gratitude

I do not have all the answers. What I do know is quite simple. We should be grateful if we can. And we should perform small acts of generosity whenever we can, so other people will also feel grateful.

Somehow visualizing others enjoying the fruits of our generosity is a very positive feeling. It makes us better people, and it also makes us more grateful.

When times are good we tend to be self-centered. Quite often in the bad times we tend to offer more generosity to others as a way to cheer up ourselves. Poor people tend to be more generous than rich people.  Why? Because this way they feel more grateful for what they have.

Job and his friends

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