How to Be Selfishly Grateful for Your Own Betterment

The science of gratitude offers some surprising lessons on how to live a better life. It turns out that being selfishly grateful may just be the kindest thing you can do.

When you head to sleep tonight, you’ll do so with this article indelibly etched in your mind, thankful to have come by it. You’ll wake in the morning, renewed and jubilant, with a newfound spring in your step. As you pull back the curtains, you’ll give thanks for another beautiful day on planet Earth.

Buzzing with appreciation for the important work that awaits you, you’ll rush to the office before you’ve even given breakfast a second thought. Your surprised team will arrive to find you gleaming from ear to ear. “You’re awesome!” you’ll bellow, as you high five each and every one of them.

I’m kidding, of course. This post won’t be a life-wide manifesto of gratitude, nor an endorsement to behave like the sociopath I’ve just described. Mornings, weather, colleagues, relationships, conversations – come to think of it, life – can be shit. We simply cannot live our lives in a constant state of gratitude, while surrounded by so much shit.

But there is, nonetheless, an extraordinarily powerful case for the right kind of gratitude. Being thankful for the meaningful things we have, and the meaningful things people do, can have hugely positive effects on our well-being and happiness – and that’s backed by science.

Triggered gratitude

The trouble is it doesn’t come naturally.

Most of us have manners, of course. We say please, sorry and thank you when appropriate (and if you’re British, even when it’s not appropriate). But we’re highly skilled at taking the things that matter most for granted – not all the time, but a lot of the time. That usually applies until something stands in the way.

Let me give a personal example. For the best part of 3 months I’ve been struggling with my health. I briefly mentioned this in my 6-month update, thinking the problem would pass. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. A couple of months have gone by and my symptoms remained unresolved. It isn’t likely to be serious, but it’s impacting my quality of life – for now at least.

Before I had this health problem, I never once considered the value of feeling well. I simply didn’t appreciate it. And while my experience pales in comparison to more serious diagnoses, it’s provided some much-needed perspective.

Alas, nothing quite refocuses our gratitude like a challenge to what we take for granted. Gratitude for the big things – good health, family, friends – is so often brought back into focus by the unexpected. A health scare, a near miss, even a death: they realign perspectives.

All too often, when it comes to the important stuff, we exhibit triggered gratitude.

The science-backed benefits of gratitude

The question, then, is how do we break this cycle of triggered gratitude? And before that, why should we break it at all?

As I’ve attempted to address these questions, I’ve dived head first into the science of gratitude. And it turns out there may be more benefits to gratitude than meets the eye. From making us happier and more optimistic through to increasing activity in important brain regions, gratitude is full of surprises.

#1: Minimal effort can yield extraordinary results for well-being

There is wealth of evidence identifying an association between gratitude and improved well-being. Take one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003. Researchers compared the well-being of 200 participants who for 10 weeks either kept a weekly list of things they were grateful for, things that irked them, or neutral things. They then conducted weekly follow-up surveys to assess participant well-being.

The results showed that the gratitude group rated their life more favourably than the other two groups. But on top of a more optimistic picture, the gratitude group also experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness and spent nearly 1.5 hours more exercising each week.

What’s remarkable about these results isn’t just the physical and behavioural impact; it’s the minimal effort with which they achieved it. Participants didn’t have to behave like our high-fiving sociopath I described earlier. Instead, they simply turned their outlook to one of positivity and gratitude, making brief lists of things they were grateful for during the week. Things like “wonderful parents”, “waking up in the morning healthy” and “supportive partners”.

Studies are also increasingly looking at the role such gratitude exercises can play for those suffering with mental health problems. Two researchers at Indiana University looked at the impact of writing weekly gratitude letters to someone else each week for participants receiving psychotherapy. Split into three similar groups, the results again showed that those regularly expressing gratitude had significantly improved mental health.

Of course, there are always caveats to such conclusions, but an accumulating mass of recent research is mainly supportive. Inwardly and outwardly expressing gratitude seems to make us happier and healthier.

#2: Gratitude might reduce financial impatience

We’ve seen already that gratitude may play some role in encouraging us to exercise more. That’s suggestive of a role for willpower in the gratitude equation.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. Do you remember the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment? (To recap: kids were told they could either eat one marshmallow now or get two marshmallows in 15 minutes if they waited while the tester left the room. (They actually used cookies and pretzels as well, but I digress). In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who resisted the temptation to double up their marshmallows (and cookies and pretzels) had better life outcomes: higher SAT scores, superior educational attainment, a lower body mass index (BMI), you name it.)

A group of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School decided to run a little adult version of the marshmallow test, albeit using the less endearing incentive of money. Instead of assessing life outcomes, they wanted to see how gratitude affected financial patience. Levels of impatience were assessed by putting a range of different decision scenarios to participants. For example, participants chose between receiving $54 now or $80 in 30 days.

But here’s the good bit. Before making these decisions, participants were randomly assigned to a condition where they wrote about a past event that either made them feel grateful, happy, or neutral, depending on the condition.

Those who had reflected on neutral or happy past events wanted almost immediate payouts, settling for $55 to forego the $80. Those who had written about an event which made them feel grateful, on the other hand, had more financial patience, settling for a higher $63.

Though still not a particularly wise financial decision, the grateful group had significantly more patience than the neutral or happy groups. In practice, this presents some interesting considerations. Could simple gratitude exercises help us foster better self-control? Is it possible that writing a weekly gratitude list could help mitigate against some of the cognitive biases we face in investing, for example? Could an appreciation note help us push for that bit extra in salary negotiations?

These are questions that may have seemed farfetched not long ago, but they may just warrant serious investigation. And they might even be worth trying while we wait for the results.

#3: Our brains go wild for gratitude

When we conjure up grateful thoughts, the brain does some interesting things. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a study to look at brain activity in various regions while subjects imagined their own actions towards another person. One group considered actions that they associated with anger or indignation and another group imagined actions associated with gratitude.

The research found that both the indignant and grateful groups exhibited increased activity in various brain regions, but they differed markedly in the mesolimbic pathway. Bear with me and I’ll explain why this is important.

The mesolimbic pathway is the pathway for dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical released by neurons in the brain. As feelings of gratitude activated sub-regions of this pathway in the brain imaging, it reinforces the idea that gratitude provides a positive dopamine hit.

Dopamine is also great at reinforcing repeated action. That’s one of the reasons that so many of us are addicted to our mobiles. Each time we receive a notification or a like on social media, we get a little dopamine hit that brings us back for more. Granted, dopamine is the menace in that equation, but its function in reinforcing repeated gratitude may help us take advantage of the benefits for our mental and physical health.

We significantly underestimate gratitude

Despite all the benefits, however, sometimes we’re blocked by our own awkwardness and miscalculations. We’re terrible at judging the effects of our gratitude on others. Instead of just sending the damn thing, we grossly underestimate the potential impact of a note of gratitude and often shelve the idea entirely.

Recent research published in Psychological Science looked at this peculiar miscalculation in more detail. Participants in three experiments wrote gratitude letters and then predicted how surprised, happy, and awkward recipients would feel. Recipients then reported how the letters actually made them feel. The results? Writers of the letters significantly underestimated how surprised and positive recipients would feel, while overestimating how awkward they would feel.

How to apply the science of gratitude

And breathe. That’s a lot of research to take in.

While the science points to far-reaching benefits of gratitude, to overcome the internal blockers, we must first be selfishly grateful.

That doesn’t mean behaving like a superficial arsehole for your own gain, but it does mean putting your welfare first. If we cannot make a correct calculation about its effects on others, recognising it can be of benefit to us can help us get over that barrier.

We’re also human. We don’t have the time and energy to be grateful for everything the world throws at us, so we need to identify what matters most.

So here are three simple suggestions which require minimal effort.

  • Write a weekly gratitude list. Backed by ample research, writing a short weekly list of the things you’re most grateful for can yield huge benefits for mental and physical well-being. Here’s your opportunity to focus on what really matters, privately or publicly. Evidence has found that benefits for well-being are consistent in either case.
  • Start mindfulness meditation. Setting aside time to focus on being grateful for the present moment captures the essence of gratitude. Mindfulness meditation should be top of your list for harnessing this focus. Research has also shown there may be extensive neurological benefits to mindfulness meditation. So why not give it a shot?
  • Write a few more gratitude emails. This is nice and easy. Though most of us express our gratitude to others, a few extra notes are an opportunity to take it to the next level. If you’re mulling it over, just send the damn thank you note. You’ll be surprised how much it’s appreciated.

These suggestions aren’t rocket science, but those successful in adopting them exhibit a common characteristic: consistency. Doing these things for two weeks is unlikely to make any difference. Go beyond six weeks, however, and the research starts to back the benefits.

It’s not just about your own betterment after all

To be selfishly grateful is an act of kindness. When we show our appreciation, inwardly or outwardly, we’re happier and healthier for it. And joy is contagious.

Capitalising on the science of gratitude isn’t just for you. It’s for your family, friends and colleagues who will feel better for it, too. Sometimes putting yourself first is the most selfless thing you can do.

So be selfishly grateful for your own betterment. The betterment of others is waiting.

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