credit: Piamen Agov

How to Cultivate an Effective Gratitude Habit

How to Be More Thankful by Default, and Reap the Benefits

There is all sorts of evidence to support the claim the gratitude is good for us. Those who practice gratitude tend to be both mentally and physically more healthy. They tend to be happier. The list goes on. In short, having that attitude of gratitude is key in cultivating a richer life — in the short-term and the long-term.

Most of the things I’ve read about gratitude tend to speak of it in the abstract. The tips center around the attitude of being grateful itself, rather than focusing on the potential objects of gratitude. That makes it harder to actually go from being pretty ungrateful to an attentive and appreciative person. Allow me to give an example.

Let’s assume that you’re a busy, distracted, stressed, person who is genuinely interested in cultivating gratitude. You read somewhere that you should start recording things you’re grateful for every day (keeping a gratitude journal), and that will help you become more grateful and mindful — so you try it. You sit down at the end of your busy day, and you fill in the stock answers: you’re grateful for your significant other, your friends (who you haven’t called in months), and your health. Boom, you’re done.

But here’s the problem: gratitude lists like that are just going through the motions, and will hardly ever work because they are flowing in the wrong direction. In order to cultivate gratitude in a mind that is used to being busy and preoccupied by the day-to-day happenings, you need to meet it on its own terms: the specific, day-to-day things.

Get Specific About Your Gratitude

A good post on practicing gratitude at Happify lays out the principle of specificity quite well:

The best way to reap the benefits of gratitude is to notice new things you’re grateful for every day. Gratitude journaling works because it slowly changes the way we perceive situations by adjusting what we focus on. While you might always be thankful for your great family, just writing “I’m grateful for my family” week after week doesn’t keep your brain on alert for fresh grateful moments. Get specific by writing “Today my husband gave me a shoulder rub when he knew I was really stressed” or “My sister invited me over for dinner so I didn’t have to cook after a long day.”

This works better than “I’m grateful for my family” because it speaks more directly to how our minds work. Your mind may visit the realm of abstract concepts like “my family”, but it doesn’t live there. Your mind lives in the realm of experiences — sensations, feelings, moments. That’s what it understands. When you train it to realize gratitude for those things, you can then become more grateful overall.

I have recently begun trying to practice gratitude, and I’ve done it by not only going more specific (as illustrated above), but also more mundane. I focus on the everyday interactions between myself and others. I am thankful that the server at the burger joint I went to last night kept asking us if we needed anything. I’m thankful that my co-worker took the ball on answering that email that I was having trouble figuring out how to handle. I’m grateful for the work ethic of the people who got up even earlier than I did to plow the roads in my neighborhood yesterday.

Find the Hidden Things in the Process

As I have begun to get specific about gratitude, I have realized that so much of what we have to be specifically grateful from to day to day is hidden from us. There are entire networks of service and support that — when they’re working as intended — are meant to be virtually invisible to us.

Think of the traffic lights, water, natural gas, and cell phone service. All of these things take thousands of labor hours, maintenance, execution of intricate processes, etc. People work hard to hold up this complicated world we live in, and we’ve largely gone numb to it. The task of specific gratitude, then, should be to start becoming re-sensitized to all of the support that we each receive every day. It’s there; you just have to become aware of it.

Once you begin to take on the mindset of specific gratitude, you should begin to see many of these hidden things. You’ll start thinking in terms of the chains that link it all together. You buy some eggs at the grocery store. The eggs got there by an air-conditioned truck, which was driven by a dedicated driver, who picked it up from a farm where a family wakes up every day to ensure the health of the hens. That family, in turn, relies on roads, irrigation, seed providers, and fertilizer manufacturers on a daily basis.

Acknowledge People as Ends, Not Means

A key part of the whole process of specific gratitude is realizing that in most cases, the things we should be grateful for are things that are done by people. People exercise their efforts and abilities to do the things that help to make life better for so many of us each day. When we begin to look at things in this way, a few things happen:

  • we become more patient, because we understand all that is involved in everyday things
  • we become more understanding, because we see the complexity and amount of coordination involved
  • we begin to see people more like they see themselves — that is, as ends, rather than as means to our ends

This last point is important. So often, we see other people as mere means to some end that we’re chasing. The barista making your coffee, the clerk scanning and bagging your groceries, the mechanic working on your car’s radiator. Our interactions with those people is so often distorted by why we’re interacting with them — because we want them to provide something to us. But those people are not merely the services they provide — means to our ends. They are ends in themselves. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it:

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.

The more we begin to see other people as more than the services and products they provide to us, the more we can truly be grateful for what they do for us. To me, that is the end-game of gratitude practice — seeing each person as a full person — over and above what they do for us. When we do that, the unfair expectations, the lack of understanding, the impatience — all of that falls away. That’s powerful stuff.

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