How to Practice Gratitude
Human beings have a problem: we lean towards ingratitude. The first time we acquire a new cellphone, vehicle, partner, or anything else, we feel very happy and excited about it. However, it doesn’t take long for us to start to look at the very thing that gave us a dopamine rush and, instead of feeling happy about it, feels like we want something better. Why is this the case? And how can we best practice gratitude?
“Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys.”
Our Obsession With Negativity
Why are human beings so obsessed with negativity? A person could have hundreds of blessings only to get upset at the one thing that they don’t have. Let’s consider our evolution.
Fundamentally, humans are organisms, and all organisms have the desire to survive. When placed in a situation where danger is present, the natural inclination for all organisms is to act in a way to maximize survival. Of course, there are mechanisms, particularly in humans, that allow us to override this base drive to survive. Otherwise, war would essentially be impossible.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes that humans have a “switch” that allows us to act more like bees, prioritizing group survival and legacy over our individual survival. This, he also believes, is the religious sentiment.
Whether we are concerned at any given time about our survival or the group's survival, it makes logical sense that we would naturally gravitate towards detecting danger as opposed to feeling grateful for the good things that we do have. After all, what evolutionary advantage is there to feeling good about the clothing that you have on when you already have it? Would it not make more sense to, instead, focus on what you don’t have so that you can go out and get it?
That is how evolution thinks about such things, but when we consider how best to flourish as human beings, we no longer have the same priorities. Of course, survival is most likely still a high priority, but in our everyday lives, constantly being dissatisfied with your lack of possessions and/or relationships isn’t a recipe for flourishing in the modern world.
The fact is that many of us already have everything we need to survive — shelter, food, water, relationships, etc. In such a situation, these psychological mechanisms instead tell us to be unhappy with our 2016 car when our neighbour is driving a new 2022 car.
Gratitude: The Antidote to Ingratitude
It may sound obvious (because it is), but the antidote to ingratitude is practicing gratitude. Despite its obviousness, it is curious that many of us fail to incorporate this into our daily lives. Perhaps the reason is that gratitude is a practice. That is, it’s something that you must practice regularly with the knowledge that you’ll never be perfect at it, and you’ll inevitably miss the mark.
Practically, this can look like a gratitude journal where you write about what you are thankful to have. It could also look like a date night with your partner where you reflect on what you love about each other as opposed to focusing on the cups that they continue to leave uncleaned in the sink.
I’ve found that I seem to naturally feel very grateful on Friday nights when I’ve had a good week (defined mostly by how my character was that week). Part of this, I’m sure, is out of habit; I’ve been making it a practice on Friday nights to relax, wind down, and feel grateful for what I have.
Many practices in any philosophical way of life don’t come naturally to us, but that’s exactly why it’s called a practice! By incorporating gratitude in your daily and weekly life, you’ll find that, even though you will absolutely miss the mark sometimes, you will get better at it over time. And that is a habit that can most certainly help you flourish.
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.