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Tis the season to be jolly, to give thanks, to count our blessings, and be grateful. It’s something we’re told often “you should be grateful.” The implication being, that we’re not grateful. What we’re not told is: how. How do we become grateful? More importantly, why should we become grateful? Let’s start there. Allow me to share a cautionary tale.
A few years ago, I was on vacation with a group of people. One of us was burdened with the unfortunate talent of finding a fault in any given situation. On a sunny day, she would bemoan tomorrow’s cloudy forecast. When we made good time there, she would worry about the way back.
On one of our last nights, we treated ourselves to a table at a fancy torchlit dinner at a restaurant tucked into a rainforest. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime sort of over-the-top experiences.
It was a muggy night, so we ordered drinks to cool us down while we waited for our food. Soon a waiter emerged, balancing a black lacquer tray. Perched on this tray, was a long-stemmed glass of golden wine so crisp you could see the pearls of condensation forming.
It was the first drink to arrive at our parched table. All eyes followed the glass until it was elegantly placed in front of Miss Misery. Rather than enjoying this tiny cosmic win, a wide frown spread across her face.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t reconcile her expression with the scene. It was a chilled, clean, heavy pour of an expensive vintage. The rest of our table had noticed her scowl and – judging from their expressions – were as perplexed as I was. I couldn’t help myself but ask:
“What’s wrong?” She looked at me indignantly, waving her hand at the glass as if it had just insulted her. “Well look at it! There’s too much wine in the glass, it’ll get warm!”
There are those who see the glass as half full. There are those who see the glass as half empty. Then there are those – like her – who see a full glass and experience it as being empty.
Now it would be easy to dismiss her as privileged and spoiled. Sure. It would be hard for me to invent a better example of first world problems. So why did I choose this story? Because she’s attractive, rich, and healthy, and loved. She has all the requirements people believe are necessary to have a happy life, yet here she was, surrounded by it all, miserable.
No matter how wealthy, healthy, loved, beautiful, or lucky you are, or may become, it won’t matter unless you’re a grateful person. The problem is, most of us are not.
We’ve all experienced gratitude in some form or another. We’re grateful for the favorable test results. We’re grateful for walking away from a car accident. We’re grateful to someone who does us a favor. There is however a difference between experiencing gratitude, and being a grateful person.
Very few of us, myself not included, are naturally grateful people. That does not make us bad people, it just means that we suffer more than we need to. That suffering comes from the way we perceive the world. That perception is shaped by our fear, anger, jealousy, and grief. We can get trapped in narratives authored by the lesser angels of our nature. In other words, much of our suffering is our own doing. The question is, why do we do this to ourselves?
As a species, we’re wired to focus on things that pose a potential threat. This is known as our negativity bias. It’s what allowed our ancestors to stay off the menu. It’s an ancient warning system on a hair trigger. In modern times, we’re flooded by news intentionally designed to trigger us. We’re made relentlessly aware of misfortune on a global scale. We’re simply not equipped to effectively process that much information, let alone negative information. Yet, we can’t help ourselves but to keep looking. Moths to a flame. The more we look for it, the more we find. Which brings us to another kind of bias: confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. If those beliefs are driven by fear, life will continue to provide evidence of how menacing the world is. If those beliefs are driven by anger, life will provide evidence how unjust the world is. To make matters worse, we live in an age where it’s effortless to find evidence to confirm any belief, even if it’s false, even if it poisons us.
This poison can gradually desensitize us to anything but the bad. If left untreated, we can find ourselves dying of thirst even when our glass is too full. It’s important to be grateful because otherwise we risk becoming increasingly – what I call – antigrateful.
The grateful see a full glass, and are thankful. The ungrateful see a full glass, and are indifferent or oblivious. The antigrateful will also see a full glass, and are resentful. As opposed to seeing the good or bad in things, antigratitude is seeing the positive as negative. It’s what happens when the negativity bias metastasizes, gradually trapping its host in a state of perpetual pathological pessimism. Good times!
Studies have found that gratitude can help counteract the effects of our negativity bias. It can help us see the world in a more positive light, improve our relationships with others, and ourselves – the list goes on. It seems that gratitude promises to be the remedy for our negative nature. The question is, if we all experience gratitude, why don’t we also experience these benefits?
The difference between a grateful and an ungrateful person isn’t attitude, or character, or kindness. It’s awareness. Whether it’s due to indifference or obliviousness, the ungrateful simply aren’t aware of the good. That’s why they suffer more. The more they suffer, the more they risk becoming antigrateful. Fortunately, awareness is a skill that can be developed through training. You train your ability to be grateful through – you guessed it – a gratitude practice. The goal of a gratitude practice isn’t to make you a happier person; it’s to help you become a more perceptive one.
Stopping to notice both the “little things” and things we take for granted, means we have to stop our automatic thinking. This is unnatural for most of us, and it takes practice. To reap the promise of gratitude, we have to take the time and put in that work. That’s what it means to be a grateful person: someone who actively works to become more aware of the good things in their life.
Now the question is: what does that work look like? How do you train to become a grateful person? One way is to keep S.C.O.R.E.. It stands for: Sincerity, Consistency, Originality, Reflection, and Expression. Keeping S.C.O.R.E. is the strategy I’ve developed in response to the frustrations I’ve had with popular gratitude practices. It combines multiple approaches into one flexible solution that adapts to different needs. It’s helped me become a more grateful person, and I hope that it will help do the same for you.
Keeping S.C.O.R.E begins by keeping a journal. In that journal you can write whatever you want as long as it includes an ongoing record of the things you’re grateful for.
When you begin creating that record, you’re likely to list things you know you “should” be grateful for…but don’t feel grateful for. Maybe it’s your looks, your talent, or your job. Again, not being grateful for these things, doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means you don’t know what it’s like to not have those things. Listing things you don’t feel grateful for, can instill a quality of shame, guilt, or insincerity into your practice. This risks the practice all together. Don’t judge yourself, simply look elsewhere.
That’s the beauty of your practice, it’s personal. You decide what matters. That phonemail, that cup of coffee, that victory, that touch, that word: no matter how big or small, selfish or selfless it is, if it resonates, if you feel it, don’t judge, write it down. It’s as valid as anything you “should” be grateful for.
Having to be sincere requires you to be more intentional about looking for the things you’re grateful for. It’s the looking that matters as much as the finding. That’s you putting in the “reps”, strengthening your perception, growing your awareness. This brings us to: consistency.
For any training to be effective, it requires resistance. You tear muscle to grow it. Our attention follows the path of least resistance. As discussed, that path, ironically, tends to be one of suffering because of our natural bias towards the negative. Trying to redirect our attention towards the positive will be met with resistance. It’s engaging with that resistance consistently that forms the core of an effective gratitude practice. It’s through this practice that we can develop our brighter sensitivities, optimism, and resilience. The trick is finding a balance between effort and consistency.
If you’re not capturing things consistently, progress can be so slow that it’s outweighed by the effort the practice demands. You risk losing your motivation to maintain it. Similarly, writing down one mega-list of all the things you’re grateful for, can be the equivalent of some fad diet: quick results, quickly lost. You end up where you started, or worse. As with most things relating to our physical and mental health, meaningful change results from a sustainable practice.
Start simple. Here’s one approach:
Write down one thing you’re grateful for today. One sentence. That’s it. It won’t exorcise all your demons, but it will move you one step toward becoming a more grateful person: a person not immune to suffering, but also not consumed by it.
To stay on that path, just keep taking steps. Write down another thing tomorrow, and the next day. Once you’ve done that most days for a month, increase the weight by one. Record two things you’re grateful for every day.
For context, I worked up to three, but found that I stopped doing it, so I went back to two, with an added layer of reflection. I’ve done that most days for years. With just two entries most days, I’m left with hundreds of accounts of joy in my life. As we’ll see, that record becomes a powerful resource for various parts of our practice.
It’s at this point that I want to stress: this is my practice, reflecting my circumstances, my experience. Yours should do the same, and the way you keep S.C.O.R.E. may be different. Developing your practice is part of the practice. Whether it’s once a day, once a week, or once a month, figure out what frequency allows you to keep showing up while making your practice feel beneficial.
When starting out, the list of things you’re authentically grateful for will be obvious. Your partner, your health, your friends, your dog etc. Because they’re obvious, you’re prone to list them time and again until your answers become automated. The problem is that after you’ve listed your dog for the fifth time, chances are you won’t feel grateful, you’re just going through the motions. If you no longer feel grateful for the things you list, your practice becomes meaningless. The trick is to keep finding new things to be grateful for.
Next to authenticity, the most powerful tactic I’ve developed in my own gratitude practice is this rule: avoid writing down the same thing twice. To be clear, it’s not that you can’t ever be grateful for the same thing, you just have to find something new about why that experience stood out. This rule helps to switch off our natural autopilot and forces us to pay much closer attention to both the familiar and the unfamiliar alike. That’s where the practice really begins.
Let’s start by looking at how this works with the familiar. We are after all creatures of habit. We do the same things over and over again. How are we supposed to keep finding new things to be grateful for? We ask questions. Questions are a powerful tool to excavate novelty in even the most familiar places.
If you had another great talk with your friend, why was this conversation special? What did you notice this time?
- I’m grateful for this call with Rita because: I love the way that she gets my sense of humor.
- I’m grateful for this call with Rita because: I really feel heard when I talk to her.
- I’m grateful for this call with Rita because: She always sees my side, but also tells me when I’m wrong.
If you are grateful for the weather again, why is this sunny day better than other sunny days?
- I’m grateful for this sunny day because: it allowed me to sit outside and read
- I’m grateful for this sunny day because: it allowed me sell my stuff on the stoop sale
- I’m grateful for this sunny day because: it allowed me to go for a socially distant walk with Rita
No two moments are identical. Each moment is the first and last of its kind. Through practice we begin to see – if not appreciate – the way they differ. Once you’ve experienced finding the originality of a moment through practice, your awareness changes. You realize that what you can discover in each moment to nourish you is limited only by your ability to perceive it.
When you keep your entries original, your practice slowly begins to transition from passive to active. You start actively looking for the things to be grateful for…everywhere. That sunlit spot on your bedroom floor you stand on to warm your feet. The sweet smell of the bakery down the street. That new blog you can’t stop reading. The more you look for original good, the more you flex your perception, the more sensitive you become. The awareness you’re cultivating during practice begins to follow you into the rest of your life.
Rather than limiting your experience of gratitude to the time you designated to your practice, you can feel it at any time. Rather than relegating your experience of gratitude to memory – thereby delaying it by hours, days, months, even years later – you can enjoy it as you experience it.
Studies conducted by neuroscientist Alex Korb at UCLA found “Once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for..” To keep finding things to be grateful for, look for what is original.
Our practice can give one bright moment many lives. The first life is the experience itself. The second life is when we memorialize it by recording it on paper. Then there are the times we can relive the experience by reflecting on that record.
When we’re in a good place, reflection can help us maintain a sense of optimism and positivity, even as we’re presented with challenges. Knowing what’s good in our lives, can make us more resilient and optimistic. Reflection however is not just about staying aware of the good.
When we’re in a good place, it’s easy to take our fortune for granted. When good becomes the new normal, we’ve become ungrateful. Of course when the good times are gone, we realize what we had. This is why it’s helpful to have a more general journaling practice, one where we log both positive and negative experiences. Reflecting on how bad things were, allows us to better appreciate how good things are – a key function of an effective practice.
We spend a lot of our life waiting to be happy. Our happiness is often contingent on some future qualification: When we make this much money, find this person, buy that house, only then will we be happy. Of course this is rarely the case. These misguided expectations pave the roads leading to disappointment, suffering, and, ultimately antigratitude.
An inability to enjoy what you have, won’t be cured by having more. Be it objects or experience, reflection helps us become more aware of what we’ve already been gifted. Learning how to appreciate what we have, is far more valuable than anything we could ever buy.
When we’re in a darker season, reflection can help reduce the amount, or duration of our suffering. As they say: pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. That choice is how much of our lives we allow our pain to consume. We easily forget that choice because of how distracted and convinced we are by some toxic narrative: people are evil, I’m worthless, I will never love again, and other miserable mantras we choose to believe.
Just like meditation isn’t about preventing you from thinking, a gratitude practice isn’t about preventing you from suffering. When you’re in a bad place, a gratitude practice can help you become aware that you’re choosing to suffer.
Suffering is in large part caused by our inability to see beyond our pain. Reflecting on the things we’re grateful for can provide a critical ingredient to support the healing process: perspective.
Time tends to slow when we’re suffering. The worse the suffering, the slower we experience the passage of time until the pain can feel like a permanent hopeless state. Here, reflecting on our practice can serve to remind us of the one unassailable truth: everything changes. If you’re going through hell, knowing that you’re just passing through can make all the difference.
Reflection can transform even the most painful of experiences: grief. An acquaintance recently died from Covid related complications. I called to check in on a mutual friend, one who was much closer to her than I was. When we talked, she sounded…good…nearly upbeat. She confessed to having alternated between feeling angry and despondent. She didn’t want to even think about it because it was too painful.
One day she found a souvenir that they’d picked up on a trip to Japan. Reflecting on that trip, she found herself overcome with a sense of gratitude. She felt incredibly lucky to have known her, traveled with her, been gifted time with this luminous human being. The gratitude for her friend’s life began to outweigh the sadness of her death.
Through reflection we are reminded of the good, and – just as importantly – its source. Our gratitude log will quickly reveal that much of the things we’re grateful for come from external sources. It is the world around us that has gifted us these experiences, these people, these golden moments. This awareness can help us maintain a much more resourceful and hopeful picture of the world. It encourages us to engage with it, rather than to run from it. This brings us to the final dimension of keeping S.C.O.R.E.: Expression.
Gratitude isn’t just about improving our ability to receive the good. What’s just as important is our ability to express our gratitude. New research suggests that our expression of gratitude can be even more beneficial than an internal practice.
Expressing our gratitude has many obvious benefits, like strengthening our relationships and improving our mood. What’s not obvious, is that we tend to express our gratitude backwards.
A study conducted at University of North Carolina breaks verbal thanks into two different types: “other-praising” and “self-benefiting.” Other-praising is about highlighting the giver like “This just goes to show how thoughtful you are” or “You’re so talented” whereas self-benefitting is about highlighting yourself like “That makes me happy.” or “I’m so relieved.”
The study found that “other-praising gratitude was strongly related to perceptions of responsiveness, positive emotion, and loving — but self-benefit gratitude was not.”
Everyone wants to feel significant, and other-praising has that effect. It’s worth noting that it also encourages more of the same helpful behavior from the benefactor, both towards you and others. Simply by pointing out someone else’s virtues, we can experience even more gratitude, closeness, and motivate them to shine brighter.
Similar findings have been discovered when it comes to gifting. We often gift them things that we want. Again, studies suggest that gifts bought through the eyes of the receiver, tend to be more successful. Even if you don’t get the right thing, it’s easy to distinguish a selfish from a selfless gift.
All these studies seem to indicate how much more beneficial selfless expressions of gratitude are. There is however one aspect of expression that should remain self-centered, one that brings us full circle: awareness.
We’re taught to give without remembering and receive without forgetting. Studies suggest that this isn’t the case. When it comes to gratitude, everything you’ve done for others is noteworthy. Researchers Adam Grant and Jane Dutton found that reflecting on the gifts we give, has a stronger impact on our wellbeing than reflecting on the gifts we receive. What’s even more interesting is the effect reflecting on giving – rather than receiving – had on the test subjects.
“In field and laboratory experiments, we found that participants who reflected about giving benefits, voluntarily contributed more time to their university, and were more likely to donate money to natural-disaster victims, than were participants who reflected about receiving benefits. When it comes to reflection, giving may be more powerful than receiving as a driver of prosocial behavior.”
Giving thanks is such a common human interaction. With just a little bit more awareness, it seemingly has the potential to be so much more. These studies suggest that the aware expression of gratitude, positively influences not only the mood, but also the behavior of both parties. Feeling grateful inspires positive action, which makes others grateful and take positive action. It’s a virtuous cycle.
We covered a lot of ground here, so allow me to leave you with a summary that can act as a starting point as you start to develop your own gratitude practice:
Get a notebook. Write down one original thing every day that you’re sincerely grateful for. This can be something you received, or something that you gave. Each week, take time to reflect on the things you’ve written down. If you see an opportunity to thank somebody for something you’re grateful for, be sure to do so. Add a Task in your Bullet Journal so you don’t forget. Once you’ve taken the action, you can use it as that day’s gratitude entry.
Try this for a month and reflect on how consistent you were. If you were consistent, begin adding an item. Keep a daily record of one thing you’ve given, and one thing you’ve received.
If you don’t keep it up, don’t despair. Begin again. Experiment with your intervals until you find something you can comfortably sustain. Find a way to keep showing up, and give yourself permission to figure out what does not work for you.
That is how you keep S.C.O.R.E.. It may not be the best acronym because it implies that you can win or lose. That’s not the case. There is no winning or losing at gratitude. There is playing or not playing, practicing or not practicing.
By not playing, you risk going through life unaware of, indifferent to, or resentful of the positive. You risk becoming antigrateful, a bitter affliction suffered not only by you, but by those closest to you.
By playing, you’re not ignoring the negative, or pretending that it doesn’t exist. When it comes to gratitude, there is no opponent. You don’t play against antigratitude. You play for awareness. That’s why gratitude is a game that can’t be won: there is no end to the amount of things to be grateful for. When you choose to play, you’re choosing to open yourself up to the countless things that make life worth living. Imagine what you could find with a little practice?