What are you grateful for? A simple question many of us take care to put to ourselves often—and more so than ever over the past 18 months. While gratitude has been a moral virtue for centuries, encouraged across cultures, religions and creeds, gratitude as a practice has risen in popularity in recent years. From apps to journals to TED talks, it’s difficult to avoid the pastel infographics, fitness influencers and well-meaning friends urging you to cultivate a daily practice in gratitude in order to improve your life.
There is a good reason why gratitude has become so popular. Emerging research in positive psychology—which focuses on what makes humans thrive—shows strong evidence of both its physical and mental benefits. In the face of the uncertainty and enduring challenges of the pandemic—job dissatisfaction, relationship fissures and compromised health—it’s all too easy to focus on what’s going badly, hence the concerted effort to be more ‘glass half full’. But as we’ve seen with the rise of toxic positivity, positivity practices can have a darker side.
Andre Spicer, author of The Wellness Syndrome, and professor of organisational behaviour and head of the faculty of management at Bayes Business School, points out that scientific findings are rarely enough to make a concept popular. Instead, Spicer believes our newfound interest in gratitude speaks to broader self-help tropes that suggest you can transform your life simply by taking a more positive and upbeat view of yourself and others around you. “The idea is that by being grateful you can become more successful in all aspects of life,” Spicer tells Vogue.
“The acknowledgement of the value and meaning of something,” is how Amie Gordon, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, defines gratitude. We often need a little push in this direction, she says, because we are hard-wired to take things for granted—what is known as “hedonic adaptation”. “We also tend to be threat vigilant, meaning it is easier for us to see what is wrong than what is right,” says Gordon. In the age of COVID-19, it’s perhaps no harm to have the extra reminders to focus on the positive where possible.
Looking on the bright side can have a range of positive health benefits. “Generally, people who tend to be more grateful report better health (good sleep, fewer colds),” says Gordon, explaining that gratitude is also associated with a more positive mood, higher quality relationships, and the promotion of pro-social behaviour.
Research also shows gratitude can help people better adapt to negative experiences, which may explain why developing a daily gratitude practice was so widely encouraged during the pandemic. “In general, people who experience more positive emotions after loss show more resilience,” explains Gordon, referring to the notion of the silver lining—that seemingly negative circumstances can be used as a vehicle for positive change.
A darker side to gratitude
While most of the research to date has focused on the positive benefits of gratitude, and for the most part overseen the potential pitfalls, there is evidence to suggest that the practice has some darker consequences.
Gratitude can stop us from facing challenging circumstances. Say for example, you were unhappy in your job during the pandemic, but because so many other people faced job instability and—worse still—job losses, resolving to be grateful for what you have might result in you accepting your circumstances and staying in your job.
“If people are grateful to have a job, it might promote loyalty to the company even if the job is not great,” says Gordon, explaining that while more research is needed in this area, the practice of gratitude could promote loyal behaviour in undesirable situations. Those who suffer with lower self-esteem—something that tends to impact women more than men – may well be more vulnerable too.
Since gratitude can encourage us to put up with less-than-ideal circumstances, it follows that research also shows gratitude can justify abusive or exploitative situations. This is because it can allow us to “explain away” intolerable demands, in abusive relationships, for example.
Further, much like broader positivity practices, gratitude can lead to quite binary thinking. “Only focusing on what you are grateful for is likely to mean you only attend to positive information,” says Spicer. “This will inevitably lead you to overlook negative as well as neutral information.” While this might mean experiencing the world through rose-tinted glasses—nice in the short term—it is problematic for decision-making and longer-term outcomes. Spicer explains that if you ignore lots of important factors (for example, if you are grateful for certain traits in a partner, you might overlook more worrying negative ones), which could become an issue in the relationship later on.
Moving from gratitude: perspective shifts
So, let’s avoid binary thinking. None of this is to say gratitude is all bad. Many of us are guilty of complaining too much and it’s far too easy to take things for granted. As the research shows, experiencing and expressing gratitude sincerely can be beneficial. However, it could also be helpful to take a more critical approach to gratitude.
While the common gratitude practice is to list down three things you are grateful for at the end of each day, Spicer has an alternative suggestion. To this list, add two more: one list of more negative observations, such as, what I didn’t like today; and the other a more neutral list, for example, what puzzled me today.
“What we should aim for is a balanced perspective,” says Spicer, who recommends being grateful for good things, but also alert to negative, neutral or confusing aspects of a situation. “If we do that, we will start to see the world for what it is—a complicated and contradictory thing.”
This story first appeared in British Vogue.