The comedian Louis CK has a funny bit on Americans complaining about air travel. “The seat won’t go back enough”, “I have nowhere to put my elbows”, “they made me wait on the runway for 20 minutes.” He juxtaposes these with the perspective of someone who doesn’t take the experience for granted… “Are you out of your __ing mind? What happened after your delay?”, he demands. “Did you fly through the air? Amazingly? Incredibly? Did you sit in a chair in the sky — like a Greek myth?” It is a funny bit, and the underlying observation rings true. We neglect aspects of modern life that can, and maybe should arouse wonder. We are lacking, it seems, in gratitude.
And yet, there is something wrong about this potentially demoralizing rebuke. If we are taking an objective perspective — if we are being “scientific” in our thinking about gratitude—there is a very different implication. The absence of felt gratitude among virtually 100% of regular airline passengers should instead cause us to rethink how gratitude works. An analogy may help make the point. If we expected water to contract when it freezes (as most liquids do), but instead find that our ice cubes float, it would be bizarre to shake our heads disapprovingly at the molecules for their behavior. Instead, the mismatch between expectation and reality tells us we have gotten something wrong. It is a basis for rejecting or at least revising our theory of how water molecules respond to temperature. When we are being scientific about human experience and behavior, the same logic applies. The massive divergence between what we think ought to make us grateful and what actually does make us grateful should tell us something is wrong with our intuitions about gratitude.
What is it that we get wrong about gratitude? At least part of the answer is that our intuitions confuse a subjective perspective (a particular view of the world) for objective reality (what the world really is). This is such a pervasive problem with intuitions that psychologists and philosophers have a name for it– “naïve realism.” Is there actually any absolute sense in which our technologies – our planes, cell phones, internet, etc. — are impressive? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “no.” Cultural capacities have accumulated, and barring catastrophe, they will continue to do so. Eyes from the past view our technologies as wondrous, but to take this judgment as objective reality is to make the mistake of naïve realism. Eyes from the future will see our 2017 technologies as primitive (the pity and contempt my kids have when my wife or I describe the world of our childhood comes to mind!) Subjective perspectives necessarily change with experience. The bigger TV, faster internet, finer cuisine will be easy sources of gratitude only as long as they are viewed with eyes from the past. When these things are with us regularly, they naturally become our new subjective status quo. To imagine any technological advance can remain an easy source of gratitude is to misunderstand how gratitude works.
Similar reasoning applies when comparisons are to contemporaneous others instead of past generations. We have the intuition that a person born into comfort and wealth ought to feel gratitude for it throughout life. When they don’t, there is disapproval. This is the energy behind the ‘first-world problems’ jokes (e.g., a deeply distraught face with the caption, ‘The cashmere lining in my calfskin gloves keeps getting stuck on my diamond engagement ring.”) Like CK’s routine the jokes land with a convincing rebuke. But wealth – especially for someone born into it — is almost never a source of sustained gratitude. The fact that we feel it ought to be should tell us, again, that our intuitions about how gratitude works are wrong. What feels like fabulous abundance from one viewpoint is the status quo to another. Neither perspective has any claim on objective reality. When we berate ourselves, or shake our heads at others for the lack of daily gratitude for being born into comfort, it is based on the error of naïve realism.
If wealth and technology do not lead to sustained gratitude, what if anything does? Is the effort to bring more gratitude into our own lives futile? Fortunately for those interested in cultivating gratitude, there are more promising potential sources of sustained gratitude. This is a big topic — I will just note two that may be particularly important. The first is interpersonal. Noticing what people have done for us and what they mean to us makes us feel closer to them. It may even make us feel more connected to other people as well. Those feelings in turn generate motives to be kinder and more generous to others. And that in turn can make them feel closer to us, and to behave accordingly. In other words, interpersonal gratitude, unlike ‘better stuff’ gratitude tends to snowball. A second good target for cultivation of gratitude is mindful appreciation of the moment. Mindfulness practices encourage more immersive attention to the moment, and that can lead to a sense of gratitude that is not based in any comparison. Since it does not depend on any particular subjective point of view, mindful appreciation of the moment is not prone to fading when one’s point of view changes (e.g., when “better stuff” becomes the status quo).
Gratitude can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, the evidence is clear that gratitude is associated with greater wellbeing. On the other, its absence when expected can lead to guilt and sometimes to conflict. Being clear headed about what does and does not engender gratitude can soften gratitude’s judgmental edge. And for those actively pursuing more gratitude in their own lives, better understanding of how it works can direct that effort in more promising directions.
John Monterosso is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and a member of The Brain and Creativity Institute at The University of Southern California. His research is supported by the National Institute of Health.