Recognizing the Right type of Gratitude

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This is a guest post from Ciara Conlon, one of Ireland's best productivity and well-being bloggers.

What are you grateful for today?

How often do you stop to give thanks for all the gifts you have been given? Recently I met a friend for coffee who described to me the changes she'd been experiencing in her life since she started writing what she was grateful for each day.

Previously unhappy in her job, as she started to focus on the positives, little by little things started to change. At work, she took note of her boss thanking her for work she had done and her colleagues inviting her for lunch. At home, she took note of her healthy children and the shining sun. The results were much bigger than expected. Her mood improved, her health improved and her relationships both in work and outside have been positively affected.

Hers isn't the only transformation. Both Amit and I have received a number of similar accounts from those who've started incorporating gratitude into their lives. For most, the changes are smaller and more gradual, but for some, gratitude can be transformational.

All this from simply giving thanks?

According to Robert Emmons of The University of California, gratitude is the “forgotten factor” in happiness research. He says scientists are the latecomers. He's right – religions and philosophies have long embraced gratitude as an indispensable manifestation of virtue, and an integral component of wholeness and well-being. But science is making a quick comeback, over the past 20 years, a large body of scientific data has accumulated on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its potential consequences for health and well-being.

Catholic Gratitude

I’m Irish and growing up in a Catholic house meant being kind to your neighbor, doing good deeds where possible, being honest and having empathy for those who didn't have as much as we did. We were always reminded of how lucky we were and how much we had in comparison to the poor, the sick and the lost souls.

Being grateful was ingrained into everyday life.

Every day we gave thanks for the bread on the table and the roof over our heads. We were reminded daily how many starving children there were in the world and how lucky we were not to be one of them. We were made aware of how many children weren't lucky enough to be born in a free country. On the other hand, we were born in a country where our forefathers fought and died for our language and our religion, therefore we must be grateful that they did.

But it was only in recent years when I started to challenge my own limiting beliefs when I realized that giving thanks in this way was perhaps not the right type of gratitude. The gratitude I had learned as a child was about comparing yourself to others in order to be able to feel good about yourself.

Other types of gratitude?

My youngest children often complain about how they don’t have an iPad and their friends do or how it’s not fair that John got a new PC for Christmas and the laptop allocated for their use at home is so old it won’t even play Minecraft. I get irritated and angry that my children can be so selfish and greedy.

So I start by telling them to be grateful for what they have, “there are so many children in the world that have no electronics or that don’t even have enough to eat.” And when they complain about having to walk to school or about bringing the dog for a walk, I tell them to think about the boy who lives around the corner from us who only has one leg. But then I realized I’m making the same mistakes as my Catholic parents.

Gratitude should not be a comparison.

Real happiness and real gratitude shouldn't be about comparing yourself to others, but being happy and grateful for your own situation regardless of what others do or don't have.

Gratitude not because a situation is better or worse but because it is as it is and we can be thankful. If we stop each day to breathe deeply and be thankful for all that we have, surely it will be more difficult to feel sorry for ourselves. More difficult to wallow in the comparisons of what we lack or what the world hasn't given us. Life is simple really, and gratitude the only prayer we need to practice.

“Thank you for all that is and thank you that I am part of it.”

So what are you grateful for today?

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3 thoughts on “Recognizing the Right type of Gratitude”

  1. Thanks for the article!

    In answer to your question…. I’m grateful that I’ve finally got someone to guest post ;), I’m grateful for the great book I’m reading right now, for the party I’m about to go to, for the shiny, sexy shirt I’m wearing, for the great drink I just had, for my toe nail having finished healing from its injury, and for the great music I’m listening to.

    Your article got me thinking about your idea that downward social comparison as gratitude isn’t ideal. I’ve done a preliminary search of the evidence and you seem half-right, which I’ll talk about in the next few days!

  2. This is an interesting idea. I haven’t given much thought to the idea of what way I’m being grateful. There are ways to be grateful where you compare what you have to others and be happy for having more and there are ways to be grateful for just having what you have.

    I think you make some great points about not being grateful by comparing yourself to others. In fact, the other day a friend of mine said he was grateful for his life because at least he didn’t have another friend’s life. Admittedly that friend he mentioned has fallen on rough times, but the comparison didn’t set right with me. We shouldn’t feel better about ourselves because we’re better off than other people. We should want everyone to be well-off.

    • I hadn’t really given it much thought either. I’m still working through whether or not I agree! You think it’s immoral to feel better about yourself because you’re better off than someone else. I’m not much for morality – more important to me is the consequences, and in that regard your intuition is more true than you know.

      I wrote a brief reply here – but the gist is that downward social comparison feels good and generates gratitude but maybe reduces empathy and inflates pride.

      “We should want everyone to be well-off.” Great sentiment!


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