A Gratitude Upgrade
Part 3 of 3
  • Pete needed a job. But he bristled when his dad told him he had arranged an interview for him, “I’ll find my own job,” Pete said. 
  • Molly’s husband called her to the kitchen phone, “I’m dialing my mom,” he said, “We just got a check from her in the mail.” A feeling of dread washed over Molly and she went upstairs, pretending not to hear.

Clearly, Molly and Pete had trouble receiving kindness in these situations. Perhaps they needed a “gratitude upgrade.”  How about you?

Are You a Poor Receiver?

Even grateful people say thanks only out of habit sometimes. A bad day, a sour mood, anger or some other distraction can occasionally hinder anyone's gratitude.

But some people simply don’t feel comfortable receiving kindness from others. Are you one of these people?  Do you feel awkward or embarrassed when it’s time to say thanks? Do you sometimes feel obligated instead of thankful? 

Robert Emmons, psychology professor and gratitude expert, explains that it may be difficult for some people to become “good receivers” because it involves a humbling of oneself. When you express your gratitude, you are recognizing a dependence on the other person, a need for others, “Humility is a key to gratitude,” he writes.

As you’ve seen in parts one and two of this series, gratitude benefits both the other person and you. It helps you maintain mental and physical well-being as well as healthy relationships. So, although it may not always be easy, it’s important that you learn how to receive kindness with a grateful attitude. 

But how can you experience gratitude if you often find yourself disconnected from it?

Opt For the Upgrade

Have you ever heard someone say that if you act a certain way, the feeling will follow?  Psychologist William James expressed this idea when he said that “by regulating the action…we can indirectly regulate the feeling….” 

The same goes for gratitude. You may not necessarily feel grateful. But, says Robert Emmons, that isn’t the same as practicing it. 

Consider Jean’s recent experience in the grocery store check-out line. A young male employee bagged Jean’s groceries haphazardly, “I was really annoyed,” she says, “and I didn’t feel like saying thank you, but I thought he might be having a bad day, so I said thank you anyway.” 

To Jean’s surprise, the bag boy didn't respond. Although the boy seemed unaffected by her thanks, Jean was not.  “I was no longer annoyed,” she says, “I remember actually thinking—oh well, I’m just glad there was someone here to bag my groceries, even if he was unfriendly.”

“Being grateful is a choice,” Emmons writes. When you choose to practice gratitude, regardless of your initial feelings, you will gain from it.

The Practice Plan

You can learn to be a “good receiver” when you take conscious steps to improve your gratitude.

*Write it down. Assignment: “List five things you’re thankful for.” 

Most likely you’ve been asked to complete a similar exercise in a class, at a group meeting, at church or at home around the dinner table. Why is composing a list of blessings such a popular activity? Because it works! Psychologists often use similar assignments in their research because people find them easy and enjoyable. And since participants usually show an increase of gratitude following these activities, psychologists consider regular list-writing a “classic gratitude intervention,” according to the Clinical Psychology Review. Try making your own list periodically and see if it works for you.

If you find yourself needing some heavy-duty gratitude practice, try the “gratitude visit,” made famous in the world of psychology by Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement. To complete this exercise as described in Seligman’s 2005 report, write a letter to someone who has been “especially kind” to you and whom you have failed to thank properly. Then deliver the letter in person. When pre-teen and teen-age students participated in this exercise as part of a study, they “reported greater gratitude” even two months after completing it. 

*Think positive.

Whenever you’re less than grateful, it can help to focus on the positive by remembering times when your situation was worse. Maybe you dislike some of the menial tasks that are part of your job. Change your thinking. Instead of focusing on how much you hate mopping the floors, remember when you had no job. Be glad you now have the opportunity to work.

*Use your imagination.

Tired of the same boring food in the house? Imagine that you have no food. Do you ever wish your mom would stop bugging you to take better care of yourself? How would you feel if your mom didn’t care about you at all?  Maybe you’re dissatisfied with your life and find it difficult to be happy. If this is the case, imagine you’d been born as a different creature—or that you’d never been born at all. As Emmons says, take time to reflect on the blessings of being human and alive!

*Talk to yourself.  

When you’re working to increase your gratitude, it’s often helpful to use a special meditation technique, Emmons suggests. Ask yourself three questions:

  • “What have I received from ______?” 
  • “What have I given to _____?” 
  • “What troubles and difficulties have I caused?”

Take time to give honest answers and notice the results.

You might also consider making a promise to yourself. A vow to practice gratitude, Emmons notes, will increase your chances of following through. For example, “I promise to say thank you to someone at least once every day.” Write down your vow and hold yourself to it.

*Remember: It’s the thought that counts.  

Expanding your gratitude means learning to look beyond the actual gift or favor and recognizing the person’s intentions. You may not like the hideous sweater your aunt knitted for your birthday, but you can be glad that she thought of you. Regardless of the gift, learn to appreciate the person and his or her kindness toward you.  

Effective Messaging

Need a little help getting your message across? A brief “thank you” and a smile may be sufficient. And if that’s all you can muster, then, by all means, start with that, but as you practice feeling grateful and expressing it to others, you may want to add a bit more substance.

Make your message specific. A brief, “Thanks for the favor, buddy,” is better than nothing, but adding specifics shows you’re not just saying thanks out of habit. Notice how much more sincere the following message sounds: 

“Hey, Bob. Thanks for loaning me your car over the weekend. You really helped me out of a tight spot. I know it was an inconvenience for you, and I really appreciate it.”

Note how the second message specifically mentions Bob’s favor and how it helped his friend. It also recognizes Bob’s effort and generosity.

Your honest, personal thoughts also add an extra touch of appreciation. Consider these examples:

“It must have taken you hours to knit that sweater.”

“You remembered that blue’s my favorite color!”  

“I would never have finished the project on time without your help.”

What if words really aren’t your forte? Then say thanks with your actions. Many times you can’t repay the kindness shown to you; most people probably don’t expect it, but a small gift or act of gratitude can sometimes express your appreciation as clearly as words. Even a hardy handshake or a hug adds substance to your message.

Whenever you find yourself being ungrateful, there’s a lot you can do about it. Opt for a “gratitude upgrade” so you can reap the benefits. Choose to act grateful, and feelings of gratefulness will follow. Find ways to say thanks more effectively. 

Keep practicing, and express your thanks—a lot!

 Written by Beth Prassel-Sieg


Part 1:
Give Others a Boost with Gratutude

Part 2:
Brighten Your Life with Gratefulness

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A healthy outside starts from the inside. Robert Urich