Gratitude is the self-help blogospheres favourite word. It’s a cure all. Depressed? Practice gratitude! Want to have more meaning in your life? Practice gratitude! Want to stop feeling numb and lifeless? Practice gratitude!
I once read an extremely crappy article about the habits of happy people. According to that article, happy people think of three things they are grateful for before they get out of the bed in the morning. Are you kidding me?
My gut tells me that the promotion of gratitude as a proven technique to increase happiness is off. I asked myself, how can such a minor thing make such a massive impact? What does science have to say about this?
Benefits of Gratitude
The science says this: Grateful people tend to be happier, have better relationships, less mental health issues, and are generally just more competent at living life than ungrateful assholes like me 1.
Keep in mind that the above description is based on correlational research. That means that we don’t know whether being grateful makes us happier, or whether being happy makes us more grateful 2.
Can practicing gratitude make you happier?
After a preliminary look at the research, I found the answer was yes, you can improve your level of happiness (and by that I mean positive emotions, and life satisfaction) by practicing gratitude.
I may not believe in it. I may think it’s a waste of time. I may be irritated every time I read an article about the awesomeness of gratitude. I may have privately ridiculed Rick Hanson when he said “I haven’t had a paralysing stroke yet today. Woohoo!” 3
The science said I was wrong. And even though trying to make myself happier goes against my philosophical, scientific, and spiritual beliefs, I was willing to give it a go. I decided to get on the gratitude bandwagon.
Roisin Does Gratitude
Here’s what I did.
First things first: I needed to know how to practice gratitude. In an effort to educate myself on such matters, I picked up The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. It’s all about positive psychology practices than can take you from being just normal-level happy to happy-happy. Great.
I took baseline questionnaires measuring happiness, and depression. At this point in my life (I did this a few months ago) I was running around the place telling people I was the happiest I’d ever been. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that I was actually slightly less happy than the average person. But, at least I wasn’t depressed.
For five weeks I practiced gratitude. Sonja said: don’t do it more than once a week because I found that if you do, it isn’t effective. And, she was all about mixing things up. So I did. Sometimes I wrote a list. Sometimes I thought about it in my head. Once or twice I wrote a card expressing my gratitude to someone.
After five weeks, my happiness decreased by 19%. I was irritable, had a lot of negative thoughts, and felt unappreciated and uncared for. And to top it all off, I was now less happy than the average person. I don’t know whether my depression score increased because I forgot to take retake the questionnaire. I guess I was just too preoccupied with everything I was ungrateful for.
Eeeeek. Well, that could have happened for any number of reasons.
So I stopped practicing gratitude for one month. I went about my business. I ate cake, spooned cats, and complained about my father.
My happiness score rose by 25%. I was now happier than I was when I began the experiment.
First, let’s acknowledge that this isn’t definitive proof that gratitude poisoned my soul, and that not practicing gratitude made me happier.
But, there were a couple of things I noticed that suggest to me gratitude was responsible.
When I practiced gratitude, negative thoughts always intruded. Here’s an example from my first ever gratitude list, including the thoughts that popped up when I wrote it in brackets.
I am grateful for being able to walk for 45 minutes. It’s a real fucking pain having to walk for 45 minutes when you’re tired.
I’m grateful I have a warm coat. That cost $300 – angry face.
I’m grateful that I have someone to walk with. I’ve ruined my Mother’s life.
Jeez. You can see where this is going can’t you?
I even got into a verbal altercation with myself over one of the items on my list. I was like I’m so lucky to be able to take time out to recuperate when I’m unwell and then I had the thought I’m so dependent on other people. I fought back and wrote I’m so grateful I have people to depend on. There are people out there who don’t. I am so so lucky. But then I noticed that I didn’t actually feel lucky or grateful, I just felt anxious.
Every week, I thought or wrote down the same things. I couldn’t come up with anything new. And when I practiced gratitude in the real world, no one seemed to notice or care. This made me feel bad and I had all sorts of negative thoughts about my deficiencies as a human being.
I ended up feeling bad about myself, pissed off with my friends, and stressed about my situation.
Why Didn’t Gratitude Work?
Before I started the experiment. I was the happiest I’d ever been. During the experiment, I started to feel miserable, unappreciated, and stressed.
1. The Brain Works in Opposites
Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a behavioural theory of human language and cognition, says there are links in the brain between related concepts. These are called relational frames. You can’t have good without bad. You can’t have happy without sad. You can’t have life without death. And you can’t have grateful without ungrateful.
Relational Frame Theory suggests that when I bring to mind what I’m grateful for, all of the relevant relational frames will be activated. And one of those related frames is all those things which I am not grateful for.
2. Gratitude and the Three Selves
According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we can exist in three states of self: self as content, self as process, and self as context.
When we are in self as content, our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, memories and other internal experiences reflect who we are. Thoughts are not just thoughts, they are reality. Think “I’m useless” and you are useless. Feel sad, and you are a sad person. Here, thoughts and emotions drive behaviour. This is called a state of fusion, and often it’s not a psychologically healthy place to be.
When we are in self as process we’re able to recognise that we are having a thought, emotion, or memory, and we’re able to notice our evaluations of those experiences. This is a healthier place to be, because it unsticks what you think and feel from who you are, and allows space for behaviour to be driven by what’s important to you.
When we are in self as context, our thoughts, emotions etc, are just experiences. They do not define who we are. In self as context, we are simply experiencing what is. This is distinct from self as process where you are noticing what you’re experiencing – here you are just experiencing. This is a more advanced form of defusion and mindfulness.
People who can move between the three selves in a way that allows them to live a life by doing what’s important to them have what’s called psychological flexibility. Higher psychological flexibility is associated with greater well-being and fewer mental health issues.
I’d been working hard at living my life in a state of defusion as much as possible. And it was definitely helpful. Knowing that I didn’t have to take on thoughts and emotions or my physical pain as part of my identity was empowering.
Practicing gratitude destroyed my ability to be psychologically flexible. When I practiced gratitude, painful relational frames were activated, and continually pushed me back into self as content where I became fused with my thoughts, emotions, memories. Once I got into self as content I found it hard to shift back out again. Who I was became no different from what I was experiencing.
When I was saying how grateful I was that I could walk for 45 minutes, I was also ungrateful that I could only walk for 45 minutes. Instead of that being an experience I have in a particular context, it became a limitation of who I am. And that limitation defined me.
Gratitude Is Not the Holy Grail of Happiness
My issues with gratitude raised some questions for me. Does everyone benefit from gratitude? Are there certain kinds of people who gratitude is harmful for? Surely I was not the only person in the world who struggled with it – I’m my own kind of special, but I’m not that special.
I did some digging, and I discovered that despite the rosy picture the media has painted of gratitude, the research isn’t as well developed as we’ve been led to believe.
1. Inadequate Comparison Groups
The media is quick to say that gratitude shows all improvements in happiness, physical health, and relationships. Yet the majority the research has used inappropriate control groups. For example, Emmons & McCulloch (2003) randomised participants into groups. Some wrote a list of three things they were grateful for, and some wrote a list of three hassles they’d had that day. Gratitude improved well-being.
From a study like this, we can’t be sure what is causing increased well-being in the gratitude group. Gratitude could be making people feel happier. Or gratitude could look like it’s making people happier because the people in the comparison group feel worse. Or it could be some combination of the two 4. What we do know is that writing about hassles has decreased well-being in at least one study.
Bottom line – to know whether gratitude is working, we need a control group that doesn’t reduce participants well-being.
2. Lack of research evidence
Gratitude research is still in it’s infancy.
We know that it probably works, but we don’t know why, or how, or when it’s most and least effective. That’s why no one is talking about when not to use gratitude. We simply don’t know much about it yet.
It turns out that there is some evidence to suggest gratitude practice is ineffective, or can be harmful for some people. For example, people with a depressive personality style characterised by fear of rejection, abandonment, and interpersonal concerns feel worse when they practice gratitude.
In another study, mildly depressed university students report reduced well-being after immediately after practicing gratitude. And unless they believed gratitude would make them feel better, they continued to get worse. 5
It’s Not All Bad
In saying all this, it’s important I point out that the most recent study I could find on gratitude had thought about all these issues. The authors acknowledged the limitations of previous research and they found out that yes, gratitude does improve well-being when using a decent control group. And yes, there is something special about gratitude over and above just writing about about positive events. So it does work, and apparently the benefits keep on improving up to five weeks later.
Should You Practice Gratitude?
I don’t believe in trying to make yourself feel happier. I believe in experiencing everything that you are experiencing, and doing your best to live a meaningful life.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t practice gratitude. If it works for you, and your happy with it. Then keep on doing it.
But when my Dad said to me, “you laugh a lot more when you’re not practicing gratitude” I took that as a sign it wasn’t right for me.
Have you tried practicing gratitude?
Did it work for you?
Image credits go to Dollar Photo Club.
- For a full list of references used in the making of this article, go here. ↩
- A correlation between gratitude and happiness tells us these two variables are related but we don’t know which one is causing the other. ↩
- Rick Hanson is quoted as saying this in The New Science of Happiness – an article in North & South Magazine February 2015. ↩
- Watkins et al., (2015) talk about this issue in their study. They go so far as to say there is possibly only one study that actually uses a decent control group (Seligman et al., 2005). One decent study does not mean we should roll out gratitude interventions on an international scale. ↩
- If participants thought gratitude would make them feel better, they eventually improved. P-p-placebo anyone? ↩