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How Practicing Gratitude Helps You Through Life’s Toughest Times

Gratitude's benefits are profound, so how can we develop it as a skill for good and bad times?

Any moment can have importance to our ability to render and generate gratitude.

We have all received gifts that missed the mark. 

The bad gift archetypes include things like grandma’s hand-knitted kitten sweater, all-beef barbecues for vegetarians, Armani suits given with an ulterior motive, the list goes on.

So not all these gifts elicit gratitude, and in the last example, they probably should not.  But for gifts given with some degree of good intention, however slight, how can we develop a sense of gratitude? (Hint: gratitude does not depend on receiving gifts from others, rather it depends on our own recognition of abundance.)

We know, in fact, that those who practice gratitude report profound benefits to general health, and stronger post traumatic growth while coping with serious illnesses such as breast cancer.  Gratitude then, is independent of our position in life — it predicts higher performance and lower materialism independent of socioeconomic status.  Great — so let’s focus on Grandma’s kitten sweater as an exercise in understanding gratitude and how the more we practice the more we can experience its benefits.

First, what is gratitude and when are we most likely to experience it? We know that gratitude is (more or less) a product of how much we need something, and how much effort it took to give it. While this is a bit of an oversimplification, let’s just imagine gratitude as emerging from these same two social factors: need and effort. Both of which can vary on a continuum, and both of which involve a multitude of lower level factors.

If gratitude is part need, and part effort, maybe we can start by focusing on the need. What type of need does the sweater fulfill? Can it fulfill a basic need (i.e. food, shelter, protection)? If it does, think about how the sweater will feel on a cold day, or under the specific circumstances when it will be useful. Okay, so you have a lot of sweaters, this one cannot fulfill a basic need, what next? Think now of whether it can fulfill a psychological need (i.e., being taken care of)? Think about what it means to have others taking care of you, focus on your self and your needs to belong. For the sweater, even if the gift does not have a functional utility, it does represent some quantity of care offered by another person. Thinking about a gift as it may fulfill multiple needs is good too. The general principle is to think about the things we have as fulfilling important needs of one sort or another.

Focus on how the things we have fulfill the needs we had.

Now let’s focus on the effort involved in the gifts. We have all heard the adage that “It’s the thought that counts.” I tend to think this is true, but it matters a lot in how we think about the thoughts of the person providing a gift. It will reveal that when we think about others thoughts in gift-giving, we are actually thinking about how others are working to fulfill our needs. In this way, need and effort are not independent of one another, they are mere shorthand for how we can think about the things we receive.

Now let’s consider the effort involved in the sweater. Consider, for the sweater, what grandma did to give you this gift. Think about your grandma, at the moment she is picking the sweater, thinking of you and your sweater-needs, trying to help you. Think about what she was considering as she was working to be thoughtful and to produce a nice gift for you. Think about her thinking about you in a nice way. This will increase your perceived thoughtfulness for the gift, which has been shown to predict gratitude and induce a stronger relationship bond. Do not consider her ulterior motives, how she should have been smarter and bought you a nice shirt or shoes or something. You probably cannot know your grandma’s mind, or her true intentions, so think warmly about her in the simple act of thinking nice things about you and picking out the sweater.

Even in the worst of situations, if we take the perspective to have a moment to breathe, even to be grateful for the chance to have perspective itself, that may indeed motivate us to rise and fight the most difficult challenges we face. 

As an aside, I also like to think about modern gift-giving in this way. Much of what we receive for gifts comes in the form of gift-cards or online shopping. Do not diminish someone’s thoughtfulness when they buy things for you in this way. For online shopping, the same principle for increasing your perception of thoughtfulness can occur. Think about the person, browsing, clicking links, looking at images and thumbnails, then selecting and filling out credit card and shipping information. They are thinking of you during this time, and most of the time, they are hoping you will like what they bought for you. People really tend to overestimate ulterior motives and overthink what they think they know about other people’s minds. Don’t be a mindreader, if someone buys you a gift, or produces a gift, take it, consider it and enjoy it. Can you really expect yourself to know exactly what someone was thinking when they bought the gift? Give them the benefit of the doubt and picture them trying to help you in some way, and think about the gift in a way that shows its use to you in helping you live your life.

Let’s close with something even more important, in case I have left some of you behind: You Do Not Need to Receive Gifts to Feel and Practice Gratitude.  Sadly, I have  received hate mail about this stating that “we can’t just think that gratitude is for everyone since not everyone receives gifts.”  To the contrary, let me state in no uncertain terms that gratitude is a state that can be practiced and it is each of our own responsibility to practice and enhance this powerful emotion regardless of our external circumstances.  As I cited earlier, gratitude is a key predictor of healthy outcomes in patients dealing with breast cancer, and is also shown to be a protector from serious side effects of post-traumatic stress. Clearly then, gratitude is not just for the high points or for those blessed with an easy path.  Paradoxically, gratitude has little to do with what the outside world actually holds and everything to do with how we perceive it — and that’s why we implore people to practice it.  Even in the worst of situations, if we take the perspective to have a moment to breathe, even to be grateful for the chance to have perspective itself, that may indeed motivate us to rise and fight the most difficult challenges we face.  This is why we can take advantage of gratitude by practicing it to recognize “gifts” small and large, internal and external; in so doing, we connect with our true abundance in such a way that impels us to help others in turn — completing the virtuous cycle.

An earlier version of this article was published on glennrfox.com.

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