6 Obstacles to Gratitude and How to Overcome Them
Feeling grateful is awesome!
Not only is it a pleasant experience, but a highly beneficial one too.
The benefits of gratitude include better physical health, stronger relationships, greater happiness, enhanced resiliency, sharper thinking, reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and so on.
Unfortunately, gratitude doesn’t come easy. We don’t just wake up in the morning with a feeling of eternal gratitude.
The truth is, certain facts about human nature act as powerful roadblocks which prevent us from experiencing gratitude. And unless we overcome those, we won’t feel grateful and we won’t benefit from perhaps the most powerful emotion that exists.
In this article, we’ll discuss six obstacles and how to overcome them—so that we can reap the rewards of gratitude and lead a healthier, happier, and more successful life.
1. The Brain’s Negativity Bias
Quick history lesson: To pass on their genes, our ancestors had to be good at two things. 1) Avoid things that were dangerous—“sticks” such as saber-toothed tigers, starvation, or attacks from other clans. 2) Get things that were good—“carrots” such as shelter, food, and sex.
While carrots and sticks were both vitally important, there was one crucial difference between the two: Fail to get a carrot today, and you’ll have another chance tomorrow; fail to avoid a stick today, and you might never have another chance to get a carrot ever again.
For millions of years, sticks carried much more urgency and importance than carrots. After all, the very survival of our species depended on recognizing sticks quickly, reacting to them intensely, remembering them, learning from them—basically becoming hypersensitive to them.
As a result, the human brain developed a built-in negativity bias. And even though most of our lives today are very safe, the bias still operates in the same way it did millions of years ago.
And so the brain is constantly on the lookout for potential dangers, scanning the environment and alerting us of anything that has the potential to harm us. Put differently, the brain zooms in on the negative and slides our attention past the positive.
“The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones,” writes Rick Hanson in his book Hardwiring Happiness.
We can do 99 things right and one thing wrong, and at the end of the day, chances are we’ll remember the thing we did wrong while neglecting the 99 things we did right.
This bias lies at the core of why we’re not experiencing gratitude more often. Alerting us of things to be grateful for is simply not something brain naturally tends to do. That’s why, in the absence of deliberate efforts to focus on the positive, we lapse into negative thought patterns—we complain, take things for granted, and slip into victimhood.
If we’re serious about generating more gratitude in our lives and benefit from its myriad rewards, we need to constantly train our minds to become more aware of the goodness in our lives. So, to overcome this obstacle, we need to practice things like gratitude journaling or reframing.
2. Habituation and Novelty-Seeking
The negativity bias is not the brain’s only mechanism keeping us from experiencing frequent bouts of gratefulness in our lives. There are at least three more: habituation, novelty-seeking, and comparison. Let’s focus on the first two here.
Habituation is the process which desensitizes you to products, events, people, or anything else that you’re in constant contact with.
It’s easy to feel grateful for our new iPhone, car, or relationship—until they become an intrinsic part of our lives and we hardly notice them anymore. In other words, we have a natural tendency to take things for granted.
Once our minds get accustomed to the things we have, they start focusing on things we don’t have. This is true for possessions, people, jobs, experiences, events, and so on. We start chasing after the next promotion, the next car, or the next relationship because we’ve habituated to what we have.
On top of that, our brains are suckers for novelty. “When we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way,” writes UCL psychologist Emrah Düzel. “This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards. The brain learns that the stimulus, once familiar, has no reward associated with it and so it loses its potential. For this reason, only completely new objects activate the midbrain area and increase our levels of dopamine.”
New objects increase our levels of dopamine, often referred to as the motivation neurotransmitter. Anything that’s new excites and motivates us. Anything that’s old? Not so much. In other words, our brains crave novelty.
And so our natural tendency is to get bored with what we have and yearn for what we don’t have. Not exactly a recipe for gratitude, is it?
The solution to this obstacle is to retrain our minds to get better at focusing on and appreciating what we have. So, once again, the key to overcoming this obstacle is to deliberately practice things like reframing, gratitude journaling, doing the what-went-well-exercise, and so on.
3. Our Inability to Acknowledge Dependency
"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants," said Isaac Newton.
Gratitude, especially for men, isn’t exactly a popular emotion. In one experiment, psychologist Shula Sommers asked participants which emotions they liked to experience and which they dreaded.
While gratitude ranked generally low in desirability, for some men, the experience was downright unpleasant, even humiliating. Older men in particular found it hard to express it openly, and over one-third of American men reported a preference for keeping feelings of gratitude to themselves. This wasn’t the case for a single woman.
None of us is fully self-sufficient, and we never will be. Denying that truth is self-deceiving and a formidable way to undercut gratitude.
The truth is, we are all depending on one another. This is what Eastern philosophers define as interdependence. “The idea of interdependence is central to Buddhism, which holds that all things come into being through the mutual interactions of various causes and conditions,” said Daisaku Ikeda.
If it weren’t for the sun, the trees, the air, the light, your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents, and so on, you wouldn’t exist.
Even if you succeed in life all on your own, without the help of anything or anyone else, you’re still dependent on others. For if you succeed, you depend on others not succeeding. Unless there are losers, how can you be a winner? Unless there are poor people, how can you say you’re rich? Unless there are plain people, how can you claim you’re beautiful?
Forget this notion of self-sufficiency; we all need one another. The earlier we accept that, the better.
4. Comparing Ourselves to Other People
Comparison is probably part of human nature. As far as social comparison goes, modern psychology differs between two types. Upward comparison is when people compare themselves to people who are better than they are, while downward comparison is when people compare themselves to those who are worse than they are.
In the modern world, most of us tend to slip into upward comparison. The media rarely displays unsuccessful, old, overweight, plain, or just regular ol’ people. Instead, they bombard us with success stories, ripped abs, perfect bikini bodies, and so on.
If we consider that we see these images portrayed everywhere, is it really a surprise that many of us have trouble feeling grateful? Do we have six-pack abs we could be grateful for? Do we have perfect smiles we could be grateful for? Do we drive a Porsche we could be grateful for? Do we make boatloads of money we could be grateful for?
Most of us possess none of these indicators of success. And by focusing our attention on what we don’t have, we fail to appreciate what we do have. The wrong comparisons can downright kill our chances of experiencing any sense of gratefulness.
“In one experiment on gratitude conducted in my laboratory, we actually created a comparison condition to gratitude by asking participants to write down each day five things that they didn’t have that they wished they had,” writes Emmons in Thanks!. “Over time, this group experienced significantly less gratefulness and joy than those who were assigned to other conditions.”
Another study asked one group of people to finish the sentence “I wish I was ____.” The other group was to complete the sentence “I’m glad I’m not ____.” Those who completed the second sentence were significantly more satisfied than before.
So, what can be done about this? How can you stop comparing yourself to other people, especially people who are better off than you?
Perhaps the best strategy is mindfulness—becoming aware when you’re comparing yourself to others, accepting it, watching those thoughts in a non-judgmental way, and either wait until they pass by themselves or mindfully move into some sort of healthy distraction.
5. Harboring Grudges
No life is without adversity, and one such adversity is when someone wrongs, attacks, or hurts us. The resulting injury may be emotional, sexual, or physical, and it may involve an insult, offense, desertion, or betrayal.
Being hurt leads to hate, anger, resentment, disgust or other negative emotions. That’s okay in the short-term, but by holding on to this negativity for weeks, months, years, or even lifetimes, we harm ourselves, not the person who hurt us.
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned,” said the Buddha.
If we’re preoccupied with negative thoughts and emotions, we can, by definition, not experience gratitude at the same time—it’s impossible to feel positive and negative emotions simultaneously. In this way, holding on to grudges or harboring resentments act as powerful barriers to gratitude.
The antidote is forgiveness. Instead of holding on to negative emotions, forgiveness asks us to let go of them, and, ultimately, replace them with feelings of understanding, love, and compassion. These feel a lot better than resentment or hate, and are fully compatible with gratitude. Forgiving is something you do for yourself, not for the person who wronged you.
My favorite way of being more forgiving is the realization that people do what they think is right. They just do the best they can. Oftentimes, they simply don’t know any better and are oblivious to the suffering they create for themselves and others. If I were in their shoes with the same beliefs, the same upbringing, the same thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, I would act the same way. To go a step further, I personally believe that human beings, you and me included, don’t have free will. I’ll talk more about this in the next section on entitlement and humility.
If you’re struggling to forgive a person who’s done something unthinkable, it may be massive barrier towards gratitude for you. In that case, I suggest checking out thorough forgiveness programs such as Robert Enright’s Forgiveness Process Model, Everett Worthington’s REACH method, or Fred Luskin’s Nine Steps to Forgiveness.
6. A Sense of Entitlement
Oscar Wilde said it best: “Everyone is worthy of love, except him who thinks that he is. Love is a sacrament that should be taken kneeling.”
A sense of entitlement is perhaps the greatest obstacle to gratitude.
“Research has shown that people who are ungrateful tend to have a sense of excessive self-importance, arrogance, vanity, and a high need for admiration and approval,” writes Emmons in Gratitude Works!. “At the more pathological end of the scale are narcissists, people who are profoundly self-absorbed and lack the empathy needed for entering into deep, satisfying, mutually enhancing interpersonal relationships.
At the more ordinary end of things are people who just feel entitled—to good grades, exemption from having to follow the rules, and special treatment of all kinds.”
Entitlement leads to feelings of being wronged or cheated, which produces anger, frustration, resentment, and even more entitlement. It cuts the very roots of gratitude. If you feel you deserve everything, why should you be grateful for it? It’s rightfully yours, after all!
Unfortunately, entitlement and its evil twin narcissism are on the rise. In their book The Narcissism Epidemic, Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge report that entitlement increased by 30% over the last 15 years in children, adolescents, and young adults.
They mention five causes for this epidemic: A focus on self-admiration, child-centered parenting, celebrity glorification and media encouragement, the attention-seeking promoted on the Internet, and easy credit.
So, what can be done about this? Oddly enough, one prescription Campbell and Twenge prescribe is gratitude, while another practice for minimizing narcissism is “paying attention to the wider social connections in the world. No one can exist without massive amounts of support from others. Writer Rebecca Walker was mesmerized when she saw the Dalai Lama speak on this topic. As Walker relates, His Holiness ‘was talking about the myth of independence. If you are so independent, he asked, who grows your food? Who sews your clothes, builds your house, makes sure that water comes out of your showerhead? How were you even born? The fact is, he said, we have not done one single thing alone, without the help of a small army of others, and yet we walk around talking about the necessity and supremacy of independence. It’s completely irrational.’”
Who sews your clothes, builds your house, or grows your food? We’ve talked about interdependence as a way to overcome this idea of self-sufficiency. It’s just as helpful in tackling the sense of entitlement.
Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of all time, supported this notion: “From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other—above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.”
Perhaps the greatest antidote to entitlement is some good ol’ humility—defined as the quality of having a modest or low view of one's importance.
Humility isn’t low self-esteem or low self-confidence. It’s admitting that, considering the world and the universe at large, our petty desires, needs, wants, and problems are not that important.
A humble person sees the world more accurately, has a clear (not underestimated!) sense of their achievements and abilities, is able to acknowledge mistakes, flaws, and shortcomings, displays an openness to new ideas, advice, and contradictory information, keeps things in perspective, displays low levels of self-focus, and appreciates all things in life regardless of their subjective importance.
“Studies reveal that the unassuming virtue of humility, rather than representing weakness or inferiority, as is commonly assumed, is a strength of character that produces positive, beneficial results for self and society,” explains Emmons in Gratitude Works! before showcasing some of the latest research findings, including:
- Feeling humble when receiving praise makes people want to treat others more nicely, increase their efforts, and challenge themselves.
- Humble people tend to be admired and humility is viewed positively by most people.
- Humble lawyers are rated as more likeable by jurors and humble teachers as more effective.
- CEOs who possess a combination of humility and strong professional will act as catalysts from turning good companies into greater ones.
- Humility is positively associated with higher grades at school.
If humility is the antidote to entitlement, how can we get more of it? The greatest way I’ve found to become more humble myself (saying that is almost a contradiction, I know) is the realization that I don’t have free will, as explained by Sam Harris in his book, Free Will.
The basic argument is that free will is an illusion. We all think we have free will—it certainly feels that way—but we don’t.
For starters, you are born anywhere on this planet to random parents. You are then raised, programmed, and conditioned by your parents, society, teachers, and other influences in your world—none of which you had any say in choosing. You end up as a grown-up with a set of ideas and beliefs about the world that you have not chosen.
You are basically running around with pre-installed software that is running your life without you even being aware of it. You may “choose” to go to college, but that’s because your conditioning plus the environment around you tells you to. You may “choose” to raise your hand right now, but it’s only because your conditioning and the environment around you tells you to.
The idea of going to college or raising your hand pops into your mind without any effort or volition of your own. When I tell you to think about the first president of the United States, the name George Washington pops into your head without your permission. When I tell you that your mother is a whatever, feelings of anger arise without your permission. Where’s your choice, your free will in that?
Research on priming illustrates this beautifully. For example, people primed with words associated with the elderly (e.g., retirement) walked more slowly than people who were shown others words unrelated to the elderly. Priming someone with a trait such as “stubborn” makes the person more likely to evaluate someone else’s behavior as stubborn without realizing this effect had occurred.
Another study repeatedly exposed participants to images of luxury items, messages that portrayed consumers rather than citizens, and word associated with materialism (e.g., status, money, or assets). The results? Participants became more competitive and selfish, were less inclined to join in on demanding social activities, and showed a reduced sense of social responsibility. They also registered immediate temporary increases in depression, anxiety, and materialistic aspirations.
The truth is, at any given moment, millions of stimuli are pouring into our senses and affecting us in subtle and unknown ways. We can’t choose these stimuli and we can’t choose whether they work on us or not.
Again, we think we choose our actions, but research into human behavior has shown over and over again that we attribute our actions to incorrect causes. We do something and then perform backward reasoning, coming up with all sorts of possible causes for our actions. If we’re being honest, we do not fully understand what drives our actions.
Consider what it would take to have free will. You would need to know all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need full control over these factors.
When you achieve something great in life, look at the causes bringing this thing into existence and have a close look at your responsibility in them. You may have worked hard, but only because you were conditioned to value a dogged work ethic by your environment. You may have made the necessary social connections, but only because your parents taught you great social skills.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we can’t take credit for our abilities or accomplishments. We had no choosing in the matter. We were just lucky to be born in a certain place, raised in a certain way, and acted on by the environment in a certain way.
We’re barely scratching the surface here, but I hope you see how little power and influence we really have.
This realization or belief has helped me tremendously in my life. When I achieve something, it allows me to stay humble. When I screw up, it helps me stay self-compassionate. When someone else screws up, it helps me feel compassion—sure, they must get punished or put in jail if necessary, but it wasn’t their fault. I can’t possibly be angry at others when I see that their actions are merely the product of their programming and environment.
If we look at our strengths and accomplishments as by-products of our upbringing and the world around us, it helps us let go of thinking how great and smart and awesome we are. We instead accept the fact that we’ve, more than anything else, just been lucky.
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