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What is the essence of true gratitude?

Beloved children’s book author Maurice Sendak once shared a story about a memorable exchange of thank-you notes. After receiving a drawing in the mail from a little boy named Jim, Sendak sent a return note with his own drawing, telling him how much he liked the gift.

He soon received a letter from the child’s mother that read, “Jim loved your card so much that he ate it.”

It seems unlikely that anyone coached young Jim to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude,” yet his unmistakably sincere gesture feels good to us, even when described secondhand. Perhaps that’s because it reminds us of just how wonderful it feels to give and receive genuine thanks.

This is something we often forget how to do as adults.

Rote thanks have long been a polite convention, so most of us learned to say thank you unthinkingly. And ironically, our developing knowledge of gratitude’s many benefits may pose another potential obstacle to actually feeling it.

Rote thanks have long been a polite convention, so most of us learned to say thank you unthinkingly.

A raft of research now shows that a grateful disposition positively affects physical health, from kidney function to blood pressure. And the social benefits are legion. Gratitude combats entitlement, reduces stress, and improves relationship bonds like little else. It eases workplace relationships and bolsters romantic ones.

Is it even possible to get too much of anything that does this much good?

Well, yes. Because with gratitude, sincerity counts. And when gratitude effectively becomes the new kale, another panacea for all ills, we may become more likely to treat it like eating our vegetables. Just one more dutiful obligation.

And when we hear someone chirping on about finding the blessing in something he or she is clearly bummed about, that sincerity can be called into question. Who wants to hear someone suggest that we should be grateful for our mother’s death, or a cancer diagnosis, or the fact that we “only” lost a leg in military combat?

At moments like these, it can start to feel like the gratitude Zeitgeist has taken a diabolical turn.

But it is possible to find our way back to the genuine heart of gratitude. Often, a little skepticism — or at least some restraint — may be exactly what’s needed to find it.

Discover Real Gratitude

If we habitually practice gratitude exercises but aren’t detecting any noticeable improvements in our worldviews, it may be because we’re coming at gratitude from the head rather than the heart.

To more fully feel the positive effects of gratitude, we may need to challenge our own reflexive tendencies to express it without really feeling it, suggests Amie Gordon, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher who studies gratitude at the University of California at Berkeley.

This might mean, for example, deciding not to automatically say thank you to someone who has ceased standing on your foot.

Her research has found that a mindlessly grateful attitude can actually be associated with feelings of self-deprecation, insincerity, and other unwelcome affects.

Authentic gratitude, on the other hand, doesn’t degrade our sense of self. Instead, it builds a stronger sense of connection. To achieve this, we need to remain conscious of our motives and aware of our own wiring.

It’s fine to “err on the side of being grateful,” Gordon says. You just don’t want to adopt reactive or mindless expressions of gratitude to every experience you encounter.

To cultivate greater authenticity in your own experience of appreciation, she suggests the following:

Don’t overdose on  gratitude exercises.

Gordon stresses quality over quantity. She points to studies that have found that it’s more helpful to write thoughtfully in a gratitude journal a few times a week rather than crank out a daily list, when it can start to feel like a chore. “Focus on quality,” Gordon advises, “and on finding the right expression — something that leaves you feeling good.”

Recognize your own efforts.

Gordon points out that people who suffer from low self-worth may refuse to recognize their own efforts and successes, and attribute them to other people instead.

“Recognizing how other people help us reach our goals is good for our well-being and relationships,” she says, “but if you find yourself attributing all of your successes to others and downplaying your own role, that may be a sign of low self-esteem.

“It’s important to acknowledge your own hard work, too,” she notes.

Give thanks where it’s due — and only where it’s due.

While it makes sense to be grateful for how difficult situations help us learn and grow, it isn’t healthy or helpful to be grateful to someone who isn’t treating you well.

Greeting a toxic work setting or damaging relationship with forced gratitude isn’t going to get you very far. “If you are in a relationship with an abusive partner, focusing on what you are grateful for — like the time he didn’t get mad at you when you thought he would — may encourage you to stay in an unhealthy situation,” Gordon says.

A more beneficial response to hurtful behavior is compassion, suggests Alex Wood, PhD, director of the Behavioural Science Centre at Scotland’s University of Stirling.

Focus on the fact that the harsh person’s suffering is making him behave badly, but know that showing him gratitude doesn’t serve either one of you.

Don’t use gratitude to avoid dealing with difficulty.

When your teenage daughter leaves her dishes in the sink for days, reflecting on all the things you love about her can be a good antidote to your irritation. But if you find she’s routinely telling you whopping lies, “looking on the bright side” for her redeeming qualities may not work to your advantage, or hers.

Gordon notes that focusing too exclusively on gratitude can lead us to delay addressing and resolving unproductive and unhealthy situations.

Focusing too exclusively on gratitude can lead us to delay addressing and resolving unproductive and unhealthy situations.

“Focusing on what we’re grateful for in our relationships and our lives can help us shrug off minor annoyances,” she says. “But when we face more serious issues, sometimes feelings like anger are needed to promote behavior change.”

Consider power dynamics.

When you show thanks to your boss, your mortgage lender, or another person who has decision-making power in your life, take care that your statements are authentic and not excessive.

In interactions where one person has more power, “gratitude might not be expressed in the same way or mean the same thing to both people,” says Gordon.

Research shows that powerful people feel less thankful when they receive help from others — in part because they are more likely to think someone is trying to get on their good side.

Know the difference  between gratitude and indebtedness.

If we feel truly uncomfortable receiving a particular gift or offer of assistance, but find ourselves thanking the giver effusively anyway, this may be a sign that what we actually feel is indebtedness.

According to Gordon, feeling discomfort about receiving a gift or help can be another sign of low self-esteem, but it may also signal that something in the relationship is off balance.

Either way, Gordon says, if you feel an urge to repay a favor immediately, it may be a sign you don’t want a close relationship with the giver.

Big-Picture Gratitude

Knowing the difference between appropriate (authentic, healthy) and inappropriate (forced, excessive) expressions of gratitude is key to developing what Wood calls “gratitude with discernment.”

Considering the spiritual side of gratitude also gives us access to a more heartfelt experience.

In their keynote address at the Greater Good Gratitude Summit in California in June 2014, where gratitude researchers gathered to present the results of their studies, Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast and renowned Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield noted that gratefulness can help us develop a larger, more purpose-centered perspective on life.

When we find ways to appreciate all of life, they emphasized, including the lessons learned from hardships (if not the hardships themselves), we become less needy and controlling.

“Gratefulness makes you fearless,” Steindl-Rast offers. “It makes you trust life.”

“Gratefulness makes you fearless,” Steindl-Rast offers. “It makes you trust life.”

He also suggests that feeling thankful is the perfect antidote to the psychological ills of our consumer society. Advertising has a way of breeding dissatisfaction, he notes. “It tells you, ‘No, no, there is a better model and your neighbor has a bigger one.’” But when we’re in the habit of feeling grateful for the people and things that surround us already, those messages lose their grip on us.

This may be one of the key reasons authentic gratitude makes us feel good: It is empowering. Being grateful signals that we have what we need, we have enough, and we know it. We don’t have to continually grasp for more.

In this sense, genuine gratitude comes from the pervasive feeling that we are full, complete, whole — and lucky. And really, who could ever have too much of that?

Surprising Truths About Gratitude Practice

In his book, Gratitude Works!, pioneering gratitude researcher Robert Emmons, PhD, shares several counterintuitive research findings that challenge gratitude’s reputation as a “sunbeams and rainbows” sort of activity.

  • Gratitude is serious stuff. Emmons reports that viewing a bleak, melancholy film actually increases the feeling of joy and satisfaction with one’s life — more so than watching a comedy.
  • Reflecting on hard times can be healthy. Research shows that contemplating sorrow and failure makes us more grateful than reflecting solely on past successes. “Recall a breakthrough you had in what was once an insurmountable problem,” Emmons suggests, “and be grateful for that breakthrough.”
  • It’s good to dwell on death — at least a little. Occasionally reflecting on one’s own inevitable demise increases a sense of gratitude. Emmons reports that imagining a near-death experience increases people’s appreciation and decreases overall unhappiness.
  • Picturing a loss can leave us feeling that we’ve won. Contemplating life without someone or something that you really love increases gratefulness and happiness more than picturing yourself with it. Try imagining life without your spouse, a beloved pet, or a familiar place, and you’ll get it immediately.

Build Romance Through Gratitude

Regular expressions of authentic appreciation can act as a booster shot for romantic relationships, says Sara Algoe, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies the role of emotions in social interactions. Still, how we show our appreciation matters. Here are several ways that you can leverage gratitude for maximum feel-good impact.

  • Notice your partner’s actions. This might seem like an obvious point, but Algoe notes that stress is a barrier to seeing past ourselves. When we’re preoccupied with work or family drama, we often fail to see that our partner has cleaned the litterbox, paid the bills, or picked up takeout on the way home. Make an effort to pay attention to the things your sweetheart does that support you.
  • Speak your appreciation. When you do notice something nice your partner has done, say something. Be specific about whatever it was that got your attention and why it made you happy. For your bond to deepen, your partner needs to know that his or her actions have registered.
  • Be genuine. Couples who report the greatest relationship satisfaction say that their partner’s actions make them feel cared for, understood, and valued. So when your half-asleep partner brings you your coffee every morning, with exactly the right amount of cream, that’s a great time to let him know how delighted you really are by his thoughtfulness. Noticing how your partner’s actions reflect the intimacy between you leads naturally to more genuine expressions of thanks.

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