Tell someone struggling with money worries, or trying to make the best of an unfulfilling relationship, that gratitude is the key to happiness and they will probably turn away in disgust. But gratitude does not mean pretending to be happy, neither does it means giving thanks to some kind of supernatural being. Practising gratitude simply means cultivating a new perspective, one that may increase your joy and pleasure in life.
Some recoil at the word "gratitude," put off by the moralizing or even religious connotation. For many, the word brings back memories of parents or religious teachers telling them to "be grateful," because "there are people all over the world much worse off than you." But real gratitude is much more positive than this: it means taking the time to enjoy what you already have.
In a paper on the subject, the psychologists Robert Emmons and Robin Stern describe gratitude in both a worldly and transcendent sense. In its worldy sense, it is the feeling we experience when someone performs a kind or thoughtful act, usually without us asking for or expecting it. For many, it is also a sign of depth, sensitivity, and good manners.
But gratitude can be understood in a more general or "transcendent" sense as well, as an antidote to the toxic delusion that we are entitled to be happy. Indeed, the American Declaration of Independence enshrines the right to "pursue" such happiness, implying that it is not only attainable but a right. Therapists often struggle to persuade clients that they are in fact entitled to nothing, that life isn't fair and that no one ever gets everything they want. These seem obvious points, but to many they are not. The British comedy series Peep Show, for example, includes a monstrous character who exhibits precisely this sort of thinking: a selfish, lazy, 30-something who even says at one point "why can't I have everything I want all the time...I mean, that's democracy, isn't it?" Obviously, the character is meant to be stupid as well as comical, but he does express a very common attitude.
Gratitude in its transcendent sense is an antidote to this. No doubt some will object and argue that this is just another way of saying "aim low," adding that unless you have big dreams and ambitions you will achieve nothing. But cultivating gratitude does not mean giving up your ambitions. It just means recognizing that the universe owes you nothing and that you should take the time to appreciate what you have. After all, when we roamed the African savannah two or three million years ago you'd be fortunate to reach your mid-30s!
Human beings are very good at noticing the bad things in life. Indeed, most people have worked, or even lived, with someone who constantly drew attention to the rain, the heat, the traffic etc. Of course, the news does much the same (indeed, it would be more accurate to describe it as "the bad news," given that that is what it largely consists of). Some explain this through evolutionary psychology. To put it crudely, those who sat admiring the clouds and feeling grateful to be alive would have fared poorly. Those who focussed on the practical and paid attention to potential threats (a rival tribe's plan to attack or a leopard prowling the neighboring valley etc) would have survived longer.
In a consumer society, gratitude and contentment are also bad for business. It is in the interests of those who employ workers and make and sell the TVs, clothes, computers, cars, and jewellery, to keep people restless and dissatisfied. If everyone was grateful for what they had, they wouldn't strive for more – and striving for more keeps the economy ticking over; it motivates people to work hard and then spend their cash on shiny new goods. The German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote an interesting book on this subject titled One Dimensional Man: the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, in which he argued that developed nations create "false needs" via mass media and advertising, resulting in "one-dimensional" personalities.
And this sense of discontent is exacerbated by social media, with its endless images of old school friends standing before a new house or car. Thus, our jealousy, and the fear of being left behind, which have always existed of course, can now be inflamed as you lie in bed at night flicking through your iPhone. After all, it is difficult to feel gratitude when the girl who bullied you in High School puts up photos of her new sports car or beachfront home on Facebook, while here you are struggling to pay the rent on your rotten little apartment!
Gratitude has numerous benefits, not least in relationships. First, a distinction needs to be made between gratitude in the abstract or "transcendent" sense and gratitude in its less healthy, slavish sense. Many people, especially those with poor self-esteem, consider themselves lucky to be with their partner. Because of this, they adopt a passive, docile attitude: eager to please, quick to give way in arguments, and so on. When friends or loved ones comment on this and urge them to stand up for themselves, they reply "yes, but I'm just grateful to have her. I'm so lucky – she is out of my league." Unfortunately, this kind of gratitude is a huge turnoff.
The gratitude that strengthens relationships does not involve meekly accepting everything your partner does. However, those who approach the world with a sense of gratitude, who are simply grateful to be alive, are easier to live with. Since gratitude lifts you out of yourself, it also makes you less self-centred and less narcissistic. And such people are also quick to forgive. More generally, they exude a sense of lightness and joy. If you have ever met a cancer survivor, you may understand what is meant by that. Such people often find all their old ambitions and resentments melt away and that they are just grateful to exist.
The English novelist and essayist G. K. Chesterton once wrote that "happiness is gratitude doubled by wonder." Chesterton was a devout Catholic, and the words "wonder" and "gratitude" probably had a religious meaning for him. But you needn't be a committed Christian to enjoy them. Many long-term meditators, for example, speak of such gratitude. And this may be in part because meditation shifts one's consciousness. In day to day life, most people spend an enormous amount of time lost in thought, usually about the past or the future. Meditation teaches you to detach yourself from these thoughts, to become a witness to them, to observe them as if from the outside.
It is this thought that keeps us trapped in time. And people tend not to look backward or forward with gratitude but with regret and fear. Instead, the meditator seeks to live in what the Buddhists call an "Eternal Now." Those who experiment with mind-expanding drugs, for example, try to induce this state artificially. Aldous Huxley even wrote of the "tears of gratitude" experienced when a drug like mescaline shatters the identification with thought and returns people to the present. When this happens, life here and now suddenly appears charged with meaning and significance and is experienced with a new intensity, wonder, and joy.
You could start by compiling a gratitude list. Write down all the things you have to be grateful for, no matter how trivial or mundane they seem. And be as specific as possible. Next to each item, include the reason for your gratitude. You could even try compiling such lists at the end of each day. So, for example, you could note that the train arrived on time or that you managed to get a seat by the window. And note the gratitude you feel towards others for their simple acts of kindness. The more you do this, the more it becomes a habit. If you find it truly helpful, you could even start a gratitude blog or ask others to join you on a social media account.
Above all, be sincere. Few people are quite so irritating as those addicted to New Age therapy, who spend their time inanely grinning and trying to convince themselves that they feel happy when they do not. And remember, you have more choice in how you feel that you realize. You can choose to approach life in any way you like. A sense of gratitude would be a good place to start.