If you struggle with expressing gratitude, take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone.
You'd think with all the scientific research performed on gratitude, with all the proven positive benefits associated with gratitude that we'd all be rushing forward to make gratitude one of our key practices in everyday life. And yet that is simply not the case because, for so many people, gratitude just doesn't come easily or naturally. And, indeed, a gratitude practice can actually be pretty difficult to cultivate.
There are numerous reasons why this may be the case and, in this article, we'll explore a few of them.
Gratitude may be opposed to some deeply ingrained personality traits
Hands up if you consider yourself to be a 'control freak' (or 'control enthusiast' as I prefer to call it).
Hands up if you've ever given yourself sole credit for your achievements and yet found someone to blame and point the finger at for your failures (there's no-one watching... be honest).
In today's society we're urged to be self-sufficient, self-dependent, to stand on your own two feet, take control of your destiny.
In today's society personal achievements and success are celebrated yet mistakes and failures are frowned upon and something we're taught we should feel ashamed to admit.
Such traits have been drummed into us since childhood. And yet such traits go against the natural grain of gratitude where gratitude invites you to understand and appreciate that what we do, what we achieve (or don't achieve, as the case may be) is not done on some individual basis but as a collective, in partnership with others and/or the Universe.
And so the very essence of gratitude goes against everything we have been taught and have learned. When you try to follow a new course that goes against traits that are deeply ingrained within you, it's like trying to swim upstream against a very strong current. Until you build your muscles, until you perfect your technique, you'll find that you each time you try to swim upstream, you're simply washed back downstream again.
So whilst gratitude is someting to aspire to, it's essence goes against such deeply ingrained traits taught to us and accepted by us since such an early age that following a concept that goes against those traits is difficult.
The natural human propensity towards negativity bias
You've had a long day at work and are finally heading home. How do you feel when someone cuts you off in traffic?
Most people would feel upset, angry even. The reaction and the emotion experienced through such an incident is a negative emotion, right?
Now, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the least intense, 10 being the most, where would you place that emotion you experienced? Give an honest rating (remember only you know the rating)
Now consider a different scenario. You've been out shopping and are heading back home after finding exactly what you were looking for. You climb into the crowded bus and someone makes eye contact with you, removes their bag from the seat beside them and offers for you to sit down. How do you feel as a result of that person's action?
Most people would feel appreciative and thankful. The reaction and emotion experienced as a result of someone else's kindness and thoughfulness is a positive emotion, right?
Again, give an honest rating. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the least intense, 10 being the most, where would you place that emotion you experienced?
In most cases, the intensity a person feels in the first scenario is greater than the intensity of emotions the person feels as a result of the second scenario. Did you notice the same for yourself?
According to Christian Thoroughgood, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Villanova University, there's a "widespread finding that human beings possess a negativity bias". In other words, even when two events are of the same intensity, negative events and experiences have a much more powerful impact on our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour than neutral or positive events and experiences.
The reason for this negativity bias lies deep within our brains and can be traced back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our ancestors perfected the art of determining imminent danger and their ability to be on high alert determined whether they would survive or be killed. Although modern-day humans do not face the same mortal danger, the crisis centre in our brain, the amygdala, still continues to sift through all information coming from all directions to determine our likely surivival rate. And with the amount of information coming our way every second of every day, the amygdala never stops.
It shouldn't come as any surprise, therefore, that when it comes to our experiences, our tendency to react to negative experiences with greater intensity than to positive experiences comes more naturally.
Obviously re-programming generations of conditioning is not something that can happen overnight. However, some experts believe that by taking a more empathetic view on life, having faith that human nature is innately good, being patient and giving grace to others, we can learn to begin to better practice and experience gratitude on a regular and daily basis.
Gratitude creates a sense of obligation and indebtedness
To feel a sense of obligation or indebtedness towards someone can be a bitter pill for many of us to swallow because it means we are not and can not be as self-sufficient, as independent as we believe and have been taught to be.
Gratitude, in this sense, teaches us about humility, that we are not here on our own to survive alone but are inter-connected and inter-dependent on others, something to embrace if we are to thrive.
This, again, returns us to the first point I made - our ingrained personality traits that have been fed to us since childhood and which we soaked up as eager sponges.
The thing about gratitude is that it encourages us to admit we are not on our own, that through being either the giver or the receiver, there is a bond created between us. In this way gratitude can actually free us from the alienated and separated existence that we have created for ourselves, which we believe is in alignment with what we have been taught, if we only open our hearts and allow ourselves to be set free.
Contrary to popular societal belief, there is nothing shameful or weak in depending on another. It is only when people come together that great things can be accomplished. So if gratitude brings us together rather than keep us apart, if gratitude creates relationships rather than isolation, isn't it something to be embraced? As the American football player and Chicago Bears running back, Walter Payton, is often quoted as saying 'We are stronger together than we are alone'. Gratitude brings us together and so makes us stronger.
Addressing the societal dis-eases of comparisonitis and FOMO
There aren't too many people in modern society who are not connected and using some sort of social media.
What social platform are you on? And how many followers (or friends) do you have? In turn, how many people do you follow?
Of everyone following you and whom you follow, how many of those people do you know really well or intimately? In other words, how many of those people do you, for example, meet up with for coffee regularly?
I'm guessing the percentage of people you're connected with on social media whom you know really well or intimately is really very small. And that's normal.
Now think about the type of things you share on social media and the type of things you see others share. Photos of a beautiful meal, of a pet playing and having fun, of a mesmerising sunset or sunrise, a stunning place recently visited, friends celebrating together. Those are the types of things we share, right? The fun parts of our life, the razzamatazz, the excitement and celebrations. Occasionally you may share something sad that has happened. But those occasions are few and far between, right?
What does this mean?
Well it means that you and all others on social media share the nice side of your life, the bright side, the happy parts. And that means, when you flick through your social media feed you're not seeing the full story, the honest truth.
More often than not, because we're only seeing one side of people's lives, it tends to tempt us into comparing our full lives with their partial life. And when we do that, when we give into the temptation of comparisonitis, we're tuning into the energy of lack because we;re seeing what they have that we don't.
The arrival of social media has led to the onset of comparisonities, a societal disease that is ruining so many people's lives. Because when you see only the good and happy side of others' lives and believe that to be their full life, it's human nature to compare your full life and feel you have failed and are lacking. And when you are lacking and in want of more, you spiral and gratitude becomes a struggle. Because gratitude promotes thankfulness in the present moment, whereas lack promotes desire in the future.
The same stands for FOMO - the Fear Of Missing Out.
When was the last time you made an impulse purchase? When was the last time you bought something in a sale because the message being touted was that you'll never again get it at that price?
Everywhere you look, clever marketing teaches us that if we don't act now, we'll miss out. It plays on our human fear of missing out, of living in lack. And so we react.
However, again, this goes against everything that gratitude teaches us; to be grateful in and for the present moment, for all you have and all you experience in the here and now.
Comparisonitis and FOMO are societal norms and have become more and more ingrained in us with the arrival of social media. The fear they create within us makes it challenging to fully and unequivocally embrace gratitude because gratitude encourages us to turn our back on these common societal diseases.
Personality factors that act as barriers to gratitude
If you have a propensity towards envy, materialism, cynicism and even narcissism, it is believed (and studies have shown) that you may find that you struggle when it comes to expressing gratitude. This colelctive of traits is commonly referred to as the 'thieves of thankfulness' because they are the traits that most inhibit gratitude.
Take envy and materialism. Each of these traits is focused on what you don't have in your life, that is lacking. You're envious of what others have that you don't. And if you have materialistic tendencies you'll keep buying 'things' to fill a perceived hole in your life and posessions.
In a study in 2002 by Jo-Ann Tsang from the Southern Methodist University, in conjunction with American psychologist and author, Michael E. McCullough, and one of the world's leading researchers of gratitude, Robert A. Emmons, it was found that people who self-reported a low tendency toward materialism and envy also reported being more grateful. Therefore, by default this concludes that people who have a propensity towards envy and materialism tend to struggle with the concept of gratitude.
Indeed researchers resolved that peopel who are envious or materialistic are "less happy in part because they find it harder to be grateful for what they have.”
Cynics believe that only selfishness motivates people and they carry a disbelief of selfless acts. They also don't trust the motives of others. So when someone does a kind deed for them, rather than experience gratitude, the cynic will most likely be thinking, "what's in it for them?" or "what's their ulterior motive?".
As gratitude promotes a bond and dependency between giver and receiver, the cynic will struggle with the concept of gratitude because of their mistrust of the other party and their unwillingness to enter a bond where they will have to do something in return.
With narcissim often comes entitlement. When a narcissist is given something by another, they may never entertain the concept of gratitude because their sense of privilege dictates that they were entitled to receive the benefit regardless and, so, may not even notice that a gift has even occurred.
A lowered sense of self-worth
In my article, 3 Levels of Gratitude, the deepest level of gratitude, the Worthiness Level, invites us to appreciate how worthy the person doing the act or giving the gift for which we are grateful, deem us to be. In other words, this final and deepest level of gratitude encourages us to believe, "they thought me worthy enough of receiving this".
Self-worth is the recognition and understanding that we are valuable human beings worthy of love.
Often a low sense of self-worth is developed through childhood. It can arise as a result of anything from adverse childhood experiences such as neglect, growing up in poverty, having an ill parent, to poor parenting involving regular punishment and criticism, to childhood trauma such as the death of a sibling or parent or a parent suddenly leaving, to also abuse such as physical or sexual abuse.
As a result of past experiences, lack of self-worth is then created and driven by associated negative core beliefs such as, "I'm not good enough", "I'm not loveable", "there's something broken within me"...
When someone has a lowered sense of self-worth resulting from negative core beliefs, they can struggle with gratitude because they struggle with the concept that they are worthy enough to receive kindness from another.
If you are struggling to start or maintain a gratitude practice, one (or more) of these barriers to gratitude may be the reason why. And if you wish to reap the many proven benefits of gratitude, you first need to address, unravel and heal the barriers currently standing in your way.