Be Grateful: How Gratitude Gives You Superpowers
Have you ever done something nice for someone and they didn’t say thank you afterward? You go out of your way to help the person with no regard to profit or convenience and get a fat “whatever” as a response.
Or maybe they did say thank you but you can tell they didn’t mean it. They use the right words while their body language suggests that you may as well have not gone through the trouble. Now you’re forced to play along: “You’re welcome. Anytime,” but what you really want to say is, “I hope you sit in something wet.”
Why is it so annoying, angering even, when people fail to be grateful when they ought to be? Perhaps, it shouldn’t matter to us; after all, you don’t help someone for the thank you.
You can argue that being bothered by this sort of thing is petty if you want, but there’s no escaping the feeling of indignation when you’re the recipient of this gratitude negligence.
It seems we have a sense of when gratitude is owed. We even use the phrase “debt of gratitude” to express its obligatory quality. What I’m going to assert here is that if you can turn that obligation around and point it at every good thing that happens to you, you have a superpower.
I recently acquired this superpower with little effort and you can too. Do you want to know how gratitude can massively improve your life as it did for me? Read on.
Also, if you’d like to get into the powerful state of gratitude, stick around to the end for details on the gratitude exercises I practice every day.
So what’s this gratitude stuff all about? I used to think about it as acknowledging when someone does something nice for you. It’s not wrong, just incomplete.
What I was missing are all the times I said things like “I’m glad it’s sunny today,” or “Thank God my car still works.” These are clearly instances of gratitude where no person is doing anything nice for me. It’s simply the world working out in a way that I prefer; good fortune.
You may wonder if it’s still gratitude when it’s an inanimate object. While I’m not suggesting that you’re obligated to say thank you to your car, I do believe it’s still gratitude if you do. I’m not just talking objects either, concepts like democracy, rock and roll, and donuts are all things that you can be grateful for too (and you should be),
We can distinguish these two types of gratitude as propositional, e.g., I’m grateful for donuts, and targeted, e.g., I’m grateful for this chocolate donut I’m about to sloppily shove in my face.
Philosopher Sean McAleer believes that it is bonafide gratitude either way:
“There are not two kinds of gratitude here but one, sometimes aimed at targets, sometimes not.” (2012, Propositional Gratitude, American Philosophical Quarterly, p. 57)
Now we can change my definition of gratitude to simply acknowledging good things in your life. All good things qualify. Whether it is something that happened to you or someone else today or throughout history, you can gratitude the crap out of it. With this definition, there is no limit to what you can be grateful for and how often you can express that gratitude.
Gratitude the Crap Out of It
Remember that feeling when someone owes you a thank you? I want you to imagine that you’re the one with the debt of gratitude and you owe it to everything good in your life. No matter how trivial it is, if it’s positive, be grateful.
So, as a matter of fact, yes I do want you to thank your car for working properly. I want you to be grateful for all good things. If you don’t feel grateful, force it. Even when it’s bad, try to construe it in a positive way. There’s always a positive consequence if you look for it.
Claudia Card, another philosopher, thought of “owing gratitude [as] more like having accepted a deposit, than like having taken out a loan.” (1988, Gratitude and Obligation, American Philosophical Quarterly, p. 119)
Owing thank you is recognizing that you’ve been given something of value from the world. You didn’t put yourself in debt to receive this gift but you pay with gratitude anyway because of a sense of responsibility.
If someone gives me a gift, I’m responsible for writing them a thank you card. If that someone is the world, as corny as it may seem, I’m still responsible for the thank you card.
Okay fine… I can be grateful for the existence of donuts. So what? How does that help?
According to McAleer, being grateful to these features of the world is all about paving the way to an underrated virtue.
He says that the significance of gratitude for something like donuts in general “is it’s being an expression of humility.” (Ibid. p. 61)
That’s right… Gratitude makes you humble! This is the real superpower.
Maintain the state of gratefulness as much as you can and you will quickly transform into a humble human being.
Now you are a superhero. A superhero that fights crimes of thought. Thoughts along the lines of “why don’t I get more” are defeated while thoughts like “I’m glad I have this” rush to take their place. Countless insecurities are beaten down and arrested in this process.
Humbleman saves the day, according to philosopher Bernard Gert, by “[recognizing] that he is never a sufficient condition for his own success.” (1998, Morality: Its Nature and Justification, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 306)
There were numerous things that had to go right for you to be where you are and while you won’t be able to acknowledge them all, Humbleman/Humblewoman draws power from such acknowledgments.
The more good things you see and are grateful for, the more humble you become. Everything you deem good about your life is dependent on one part of the world or another and you must train yourself to look for those parts.
How Humility Is a Superpower
Being humble radically changes the way you see the world. Flaws turn into challenges and lack turns into abundance. Paying attention to the good things means you won’t miss out on as many opportunities for more of those good things because you were wasting time paying attention to the bad things.
You still get to keep your beliefs about what’s wrong with the world but since you won’t be thinking about them, they won’t really be affecting you. Fear shrinks as well because you’re less concerned with losing what you have since you’re walking around in awe that you even have it.
To say that this results in more good things happening to you is an understatement. Humility will make you far more likely to get the things you’re grateful for without even trying. If you actually try to get those things too, you are pretty much unstoppable.
So, thanks to humility, being grateful for donuts will literally give you more opportunity to eat donuts. Self quote time!
“I’m grateful for donuts and now my life has more donuts.” — Ben Savage
Humility and Other People
Social interactions become exponentially better. Imagine talking to someone and thinking “I’m glad this person is in my life.” Chances are, that conversation is going to go well.
Even fighting with people improves. You’ll be thinking “I’m grateful we’re having this argument and I can’t wait to see what good comes of it.” Do you think you’re going to make a big deal if you end up being the one that’s wrong?
This time I won’t use an obscure philosopher to help make my point. How about Benjamin Franklin who credits humility second to only integrity as the virtue responsible for his success?
He claimed that because he was humble he “had so much influence in public council” even though he was “but a bad speaker, never eloquent.” I know Ben only changed the world with his groundbreaking achievements a little bit but I think we ought to listen to him.
How to Put Yourself in a State of Gratitude
I use two exercises that I got from Shawn Achor in a Ted Talk several years ago.
- List three things that you’re grateful for.
- Write about at least one positive experience you had in the last 24 hours.
I do both of the exercises alongside my nightly journaling practice to save time. Journaling is a very good habit to have (I will write about this soon) but combining it with the exercises made it much better.
I’ve always set a timer for ten minutes before journaling but now I start the timer and immediately write down three things I’m grateful for right there at the beginning of the journal entry.
I denote where it starts with a capital G and colon and save time by not writing “I’m grateful for” or “I’m grateful that” because it’s pretty easy to infer what is meant if I ever cared to read it afterward.
Once I’m done with three things, I skip a line and begin with the positive experience exercise. I denote where it starts with “PE:” and then proceed to describe a positive experience I had in the last 24 hours.
Sometimes it’s very detailed and other times it's one sentence. Sometimes I have to think about it for a bit to come up with something and other times I write about two or three different experiences. The important part is that I always come up with something to write about regardless of how my day went — purely bad days don’t exist.
Once I’ve finished the second exercise, I skip a line and begin journaling normally with the time I have left. Doing the exercises first has the added benefit of putting me in a state of gratitude before I begin to journal which makes my writing more positive. Of course, journaling is still a healthy habit no matter how dark your writing is but I believe I get more out of it when I start with gratitude.
That’s it. Easy stuff right?
Hope this helps. Now I’m going to go get myself a donut.