Does Gratitude Have A Place In Psychology?

Gratitude is not a term you generally see in psychology textbooks. It’s one of those values that are more closely connected to morality and religion. We all know we need to be grateful, but this isn’t necessary because it’s healthy for us psychologically. It is a core tenet in the controversial field of “positive psychology,” but it serves as an example of why that field is so controversial.

Therapy focuses on breaking down distortions in your life. You begin to see things as they are, not as you have been hardwired to see them, but also not how you wish you could see them. It is in therapy that people start questioning whether they should be truly grateful to their parents. This can be essential to transitioning from living a life to please your parents to the life that is actually best for you.

Furthermore, if you only focus on what you’re grateful for in your life, you will fail to identify issues that need to be seen to.

Breaking down gratitude can also have immense social benefits. Governments which force their constituents to show gratitude towards them cannot be democratic. Even in the US, many people have achieved a more nuanced understanding of different kinds of people by questioning whether gratitude is really appropriate on Thanksgiving.

On the other hand, people who only see the “bad” things in their lives tend to struggle with depression and anxiety. They may struggle to maintain relationships, if all they see is the inevitable betrayals of friends and partners.

Psychology, and therapy in particular, requires a commitment to seeing life without blinders.

Is gratitude really good for you? Or is it just a social necessity? With the festive season upon us, let’s explore how to approach gratitude with a healthy perspective.

What Is Gratitude?

Before going any further, we need a definition of gratitude that we can work with.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines gratitude as:

        the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness

What stands out is that gratitude requires a second party. You are thankful for something, and willing to show appreciation and return kindness. When another person has done something for you, they are the second party. When you are grateful for something “life” has given you, the higher power you believe in or the universe itself might be the second party.

The Problem With Gratitude

The problem with gratitude, especially for those of us with a more cynical nature, is that other factors can make it difficult for us to feel this way. Are you able to force yourself to feel gratitude to a coworker who did the bare minimum for your Secret Santa gift? What about someone who is clearly doing something for you because they want a favor in return? You may be willing to do the favor for them, but you’re unlikely to feel thankful.

Forcing yourself to see past these factors might feel noble, but it isn’t good for your mental wellness. At best, you will be faking it. At worst, you will be the target of manipulation or simply grow resentful.

Moreover, if you don’t believe in a higher power, you may well struggle to find an outlet for your gratitude for those gifts that have no giver.

However, before we write off gratitude as a social rite, let’s talk about a term that is often used as its synonym: appreciation.

Appreciation

The Oxford English Dictionary defines appreciation as:

    recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something

or

    a full understanding of a situation

The first definition is not really independent of the second. Appreciation essentially refers to seeing things for what they are. When you recognize and enjoy the good qualities of something, you’re not necessarily ignorant of everything else. You can appreciate how good a chocolate tastes while being fully aware that too much of it will harm you. You can appreciate it while being fully aware that Nestle made it not for your benefit, but for their profit. You may even be aware that they once did business with Grace Mugabe, the wife of former Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe.

So too, you can appreciate the $10 iTunes voucher you received from your coworker, while being aware that their effort in no way matched the hours you spent racking your brain for the perfect gift for your own Secret Santa.

Appreciation In Context

In an episode in Season 5 of Doctor Who, the Doctor and Amy meet Vincent van Gogh. As a parting kindness, they take him on a trip to the future to a van Gogh museum to show him how much he will be appreciated in the future. He is brought to tears.

However, Amy is shocked to learn, when they return to her time, that van Gogh committed suicide in spite of their gift. She despairs that they didn’t make a difference at all. It is this context that gives birth to this wonderful quote:

The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.

It is often the case that, in trying to decide whether or not to be grateful, we weigh the good against the bad. But most of the time, they don’t need to be weighed against each other.

On the other hand, that does not mean that gratitude cannot be healthy. If gratitude is borne of appreciation, rather than the other way around, it can be a validating feeling and experience. You can be grateful for that gift, while being a little bit annoyed. You can be grateful for an act of kindness, while being wary of the person’s motivations.

Taking It All In

Certain mindfulness schools have a slightly different approach, which is making its way into modern psychology. 

In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for example, individuals are asked to radically accept everything, pain and pleasure included, without judgment. You stop looking at pleasure and happy feelings as objectively good, just as you stop seeing pain and distressing feelings as objectively bad.

Instead, you appreciate everything in your life. You recognize it all as part of the experience of existing. Without the judgments, you begin to see what you are really feeling. You may be hurt by someone, which is why you are angered by what they have given you. This allows you to separate them from the hurt they caused, and their offering from any ulterior motives. You start seeing things a lot clearer, rather than getting caught up in the narrative your mind has already created.

Mindfulness in psychology is a much broader discussion, but in terms of appreciation it can be crucial. This type of appreciation is indeed radical, but often necessary for those who have suffered from depression and have for a long time seen just how “bad” the world can be. Learning to view life without judgment allows you to appreciate it for what it is. You don’t put on rose-tinted glasses, but neither do you continue wearing a dirty pair.

Appreciation and gratitude definitely have their place in psychology, although not in an indiscriminate way. This festive season, and in general, try to see things for what they are. Appreciate the “goodæ without repressing the “bad”. And, if you’re courageous, try appreciating the “bad” as well.

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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