The skeptic's guide to gratitude in an especially brutal year
How to reap the benefits of gratitude, without sugarcoating 2020.
The week before Thanksgiving, the United States recorded its 12 millionth coronavirus case. The CDC has, in turn, advised people not to travel for Thanksgiving. A holiday usually spent surrounded by others is going to be spent in small groups, or even alone.
Gratitude can be challenging to feel even in the best of years. In 2020, even during a season when we’re supposed to count our blessings, it's even harder.
But this year could also be the time when we have the most to gain from gratitude.
Phil Watkins is a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University who studies gratitude in times of difficulty. He suspects that this year, many are faced with the temptation to fall into despair, hopelessness, or even anger — anger over lives lost during the pandemic, economic recovery, injustice, and deepening political divisions.
All of this bad plays into humans’ internal negativity bias, or a propensity to “learn from, attend to, and use” negative information over positive information, as a 2008 review paper published in the journal Psychological Bulletin explains. Gratitude, Watkins says, is a powerful way to pull ourselves out of that negative spiral.
It's not about ignoring or sugarcoating disaster. It's about training ourselves to find the good that can be overshadowed by our brains attuned to the bad.
“I think with what’s going on in our country [the negativity bias] is just a really easy bias to let take hold of us and we start drowning in the bad stuff,” he tells Inverse. “I think gratitude helps us overcome that bias."
The solution: gratitude exercises. These range from writing a letter to someone you feel grateful for, to reflecting on what your life would be like if you hadn't met someone you appreciate.
And if you find yourself rolling your eyes at gratitude exercises, Watkins’ research suggests gratitude haters, skeptics, and, in short, people who feel gratitude isn’t for them at all, have the most to gain from giving it a try.
Gratitude for skeptics
In 2014, Watkins ran a randomized controlled clinical trial on gratitude among undergrad students. He divided students into three groups.
The first was asked to recount three neutral memories, like how students walked to campus each day. The second recalled three things that went well in the past 48 hours and wrote about why those things made them feel “better than most” or like they stood out. The third group — the gratitude group — wrote about why those positive experiences made them feel grateful.
After one week, those in the gratitude group had significantly higher ratings of well-being than those in either of the other groups. They were also better able to recall positive memories than those in other groups. However, the results didn’t become significant until five weeks had passed.
It was then that a curious finding emerged: those that seemed to benefit most from gratitude were the haters.
Those with the lowest gratitude scores at the beginning of the exercise improved their well-being scores more than those who were grateful before the experiment. There was also a modest, but negative relationship between enjoying the exercise and improvement. The students who reported they enjoyed the exercises the least actually gained the most from the exercises, Watkins says.
“Probably, it’s the skeptics that have the most to gain from gratitude,” he explains.
What haters can gain from gratitude — Studies have linked experiencing gratitude to lower levels of stress, anxiety about death, better sleeping habits, fewer physical ailments, and more time exercising.
Gratitude interventions have also been associated with improvements in depressive mood (like in Watkins’ 2015 study) but reviews have called gratitude’s effects on depression and anxiety “relatively modest.”
However, the most powerful effects of gratitude that held up in a 2017 analysis of 38 gratitude studies weren’t the physical effects — they were the emotional ones. The authors write that gratitude can help bolster well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, foster a grateful disposition, and increase general positivity about life.
“The research shows pretty clearly that gratitude is a very important part of happiness,” Watkins explains.
Still, there are people who say gratitude just “isn’t for them,” Watkins says. And he’s sympathetic to the fact that, when faced with great adversity, it’s unthinkable to reframe suffering as a positive. But that’s also not what gratitude is actually about.
"The research shows pretty clearly that gratitude is a very important part of happiness."
Research suggests that gratitude exercises, like gratitude journaling, can make people better at applying emotional reappraisal, or the ability to control feelings about a situation. It’s the ability to change the emotional meaning of a situation, even a negative one.
In other gratitude exercises (Watkins calls these “gratitude reappraisal exercises”) he asks people to focus on a negative memory – like a memory from the pandemic, for instance. He instructs students to write about the memory and its consequences. The idea is not to reframe the negative moment as a positive, but to focus on the consequences and see if there’s any positive hidden in there: a resilient reaction, a new relationship, a renewed focus.
Ultimately, he says it’s helped people find closure.
“The memory is not as intrusive,” he says. “It doesn't intrude on people's consciousness, and they feel a lot better when they do recall the memory.”
The process doesn’t always feel good in the moment. Gratitude, in some ways, is a lot like exercise. The first time out, it might not feel great.
“A lot of people don’t like it, but just because it doesn’t make you feel good immediately after you do it, doesn’t mean it’s not good for you,” he says.
But just like working out, there are ways to turn gratitude into a regular habit. It’s the habit that yields dividends.