Gratitude is a highly effective antidote to negative moods and mind-states. But, when we’re expected to be grateful for things we’re not, it can backfire.
When I was six years old (and couldn’t get out of it) Thanksgiving meant my older brother and I would have to put on our church clothes and visit my grandfather’s sister’s house. Our orders were to be on our best behavior, which meant, no “rough-housing.”
Upon arrival we would run the gauntlet of inspection by the grown-ups we referred to as “Aunt” or “Uncle” fudging our actual relativity on the family tree. They’d show the extent of their interest in us by saying such things as:
“Look how tall you’ve grown.”
“How old are you now?”
“What grade are you in?”
“My, you look handsome in your red blazer.”
Then we would descend to the finished basement to listen to our stomachs growl. We’d been admonished earlier not to spoil our appetite.
The adults drank cocktails, which made them loud. Visibility grew fuzzy as the room filled with cigarette and cigar smoke. My eyes began to tear. I would ask my mom for an asthma pill, which slowed my respiration and increased my heartbeat. I took these pills only as necessary because it made for a calm but sleepless night.
Once the turkey was on the buffet table, we’d line up to fill our plates. Mom would call me out for trying to load up on stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and Jello mold. I had to take some turkey and a few other non-negotiable items.
We were then reminded not to get food on our blazers, shirts, or pants, and released to the “kids’ table.” Keeping stain free wasn’t easy. Due to the demographics of the extended family, and the uneven legs of the rickety card table, keeping all food on the plate until it reached the mouth was not a given. We sat in proximity to children just old enough to attempt eating without parental supervision so long as they wore a bib. My brother and me were the only ones in the high single digits, having just enough dignity to resent sitting “at the baby table.” Then there were the disgruntled low double-digit agers: too young to sit with the grown-ups, too old to sit with us. Table talk was strained at best.
Before we could “dig in,” we had to wait for someone to say grace, which meant we starved waiting for everyone to fill their plates and find their seats. We usually polished off the main course in seven minutes. Then the wait would begin for dessert.
Ninety-seven minutes later (ninety minutes of wait time, seven minutes of pie wolfing) came the first gratitude of the evening.
“May we be excused?”
We got to flee upstairs to watch over-the-air broadcast TV. The hosts didn’t watch much TV, and consequently had a poor antenna set-up. It was a challenge coming up with a least objectionable program for a demographic of 4-to-13-year-olds, especially when only a couple stations came in without interference.
My brother and I later gained control of channel selection through troop attrition, but we weren’t thankful. The other kids got to go home before we did. We would take turns braving the cacophonous, smoke-filled basement between shows (if the program was decent) or during commercials (if the program was not).
“When are we leaving?”
I experienced one more moment of gratitude during those Thanksgivings. It was the moment when we stepped out of the house into the bracing air, carrying leftovers, as we made our escape.
The Unintended Consequences of Forced Gratitude
My takeaways from that Thanksgiving:
- We should only give thanks once a year.
- We should be grateful for things we don’t like.
- Not feeling truly thankful for the things that made others thankful made me a bad person.
Today, it’s easy for me to understand why an introverted asthmatic who didn’t enjoy starving and binging would not be grateful for such a Thanksgiving experience.
Decades later, while watching a home movie of one of those celebrations with my significant other, I narrated which relatives and family friends had died from smoking-related cancers, which ones died from alcohol-related illness. It was easy to spot the ones whose lives were cut short through obesity.
Three Good Things
I don’t know if my attitude toward gratitude ever would have changed if I hadn’t come across an exercise called “Three Good Things” twice within one week while taking courses in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and The Science of Happiness.
The neuroscience from the stress reduction side made sense. Taking ten minutes at the end of the day to focus on three things that went well, and writing about why they went well, gives us ten minutes building up the pleasure or contentment circuitry of the brain.
From the positive psychology side, spending ten minutes focusing on things that went well and why helps override our tendency toward hedonic adaptation: taking good things for granted. It also gives us a break from our evolutionary negativity bias, which prioritizes fearing death over loving life.
Trying to force ourselves to feel gratitude for things we don’t like can quickly lead to increased negativity. Reinforcing the habit of looking for three things that went well can help strengthen a positive outlook.
Looking back at my Thanklessgiving scenario:
1. Thanksgiving was the start of a four-day weekend. Toughing out the forced thankfulness event without tearing or staining my good clothes was a small price to pay for relative freedom during the rest of the time off.
2. That moment of escape, when our parents finally acquiesced to our request to go home, really felt liberating. It paid to be persistent in requesting parole.
3. The leftovers were pretty good. Our reward for braving the whole expedition was that we generally got to take home things that we liked, which we could actually enjoy at home.
The Greater Good Science Center’s instructions for the Three Good Things exercise, recommend trying “Three Good Things” every day for a week.
Because it’s more important to actually try the exercise than to use the ten minutes as an excuse to put it off, I’ve developed an express version for my own use.
- Take a minute or two to reflect on three moments (either expected or unexpected) that evoked a feeling of satisfaction today.
- Write down a few words or sentences to help fix each moment clearly in memory.
- Reflect on the causes and conditions that led to the moment.
If step one seems challenging at first, and only negative thoughts come up, you can start with negative things that didn’t happen.
“The device I’m reading this on didn’t break today. I’m glad that the people who designed it made it somewhat durable.”
“I was able to find enough food today. I have no idea how many people were involved in growing it, shipping it, selling it, but I was able to get it.”
“The electricity was out for seven hours today. Wow, am I thankful for the utility workers who got it back up and running.”
Writing these events down with sufficient detail to jog your memory gives you something you can access to arrest and/or recover from a negative mind loop when your brain is telling you nothing good ever happens.
Whether you spend ten minutes or two minutes on this exercise, doing it before you go to sleep will give your brain a chance to incorporate it into your overall worldview. This makes it easier to notice these moments of satisfaction when they arise, and give us greater awareness of the things we can do to bring them about.