Do you feel taken for granted, at least some of the time? Who appreciates that you get up early to make lunches or do laundry? Who appreciates how hard you work to provide for the family? Who appreciates the dinners, help with homework, paying the bills, doing the chores and the countless things you do each day? Or the fact that you haven’t given up and run off to find an easier life?
Maybe no one.
That’s because we mostly take for granted the good stuff we have. I don’t wake up and give thanks for the fact that my husband didn’t have an affair, or that my kids didn’t throw up in the night, or that my house didn’t burn down. I don’t give thanks that my children’s are not starving or suffering from a debilitating illness. By default, we seem to focus on the negative instead of the positive, to dwell on our problems and concerns. Sure, we often give thanks for our food and our health in a generic sense, but that’s different from noticing how richly we are blessed in all the ways we take for granted.
It stands out when you say thank you to your spouse for the usual things they do, because we are so used to not being thanked.
Most religions have gratitude at their core. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says “In everything, give thanks…” We all seem to know the power of giving thanks, and research has demonstrated gratitude is a key element of happiness. Yet, we still grumble more often than not. Why?
“Given its magnetic appeal, it is a wonder that gratitude might be rejected. Yet it is. If we fail to use it, by default we choose ingratitude,” says Psychology Professor Robert Emmons, PhD, in an essay which appeared in Big Questions Online and Greater Good Science Center. He explains that our provision becomes so commonplace that it is easily accepted. “We believe the universe owes us a living.”
At this morning’s church service, I heard again the story of the 10 lepers whom Jesus healed, and only one returned to him to give thanks. Think about the people you know, and you may agree that about 90 percent of of people complain more often than they express gratitude. I’m often guilty of focusing on a problem or crisis, then when it is solved or passes, I rarely think of it again. We are on to the next thing, with little more than a “thanks” or “whew, I’m glad that’s over.”
If you’re with me so far, hang in there for the “ouch” factor and the happy conclusion.
What’s the obstacle to gratitude?
Research shows ungrateful people have a high sense of self-importance, arrogance, vanity, and an unquenchable need for admiration and approval, explains Emmons. This is about a sense of entitlement that says, “Life owes me this,” and “I deserve this.” Being preoccupied with ourselves makes us feel we are owed what we have, or that we have earned it, and it makes us forget the giver of these gifts.
While only one percent of the population meets the criteria for narcissistic disorder, these self-serving characteristics are found in all individuals to varying degrees. It starts in childhood as all children believe the world revolves around them, and we hopefully evolve to understand the importance of other perspectives and needs.
A focus on the self is an obstacle toward being thankful.
Humility Paves the Way
“Humility is a key to gratitude because living humbly is the truest approach to life. Humble people are grounded in the truth that they need others,” says Emmons. “The humble person says that life is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed.”
The thing is, humility seems to go against everything we are taught will make us successful in life, to take charge, to take credit, to demand the best the world has to offer. The Paradox of Giving, in which the more we give, the more we receive, is just like the Paradox of Gratitude, in which the more you give thanks, the more blessed you will feel. (OK, I made that up, but that’s what I think.)
“Humility is profoundly countercultural. It does not come easily or naturally,” says Emmons, yet “reigning in entitlement and embracing gratitude and humility is spiritually and psychologically liberating. Gratitude is the recognition that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift.”
The truth is I didn’t do anything to deserve my life, my husband, my kids, my job, my parents, my friends—any more than a person suffering in the Philippines deserved to experience a typhoon.
As we approach Thanksgiving in the U.S., let’s shift our focus away from ourselves and toward humility and gratitude for others and toward our Creator. Tell your spouse and all those who are special to you all the ways in which you appreciate them.
Don’t fall back to the default setting of ingratitude. When you think of complaining, try to find five people or things to be thankful for. Please share in the comments three things you are grateful for today!
For the full essay as well as a short video from Robert Emmons, PhD, explaining the following four benefits of gratitude, check out this page.
1. Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present.
2. Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression–because they are incompatible with gratitude.
3. Grateful people are more stress-resilient.
4. Gratitude strengthens social ties and self-worth.
4 Proven Secrets to Long Marriage Part III: Express Gratitude
Express Thankfulness to Your Spouse Today
Can Your Mind Change Your World?
Focusing on What’s Missing in Life Can Cause You to Miss What’s There
Lori Lowe is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, family interference and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here.
Photo courtesy of morguefile.com.