Things happen anyway, whether good or bad. Why put extra effort into trying to respond positively when certain things happen? Why be grateful?
Life gives us many reasons for satisfaction, but also for dissatisfaction. It gives us lemons, as the English expression goes, but we aren’t always able to turn them into lemonade. In fact, the enemies of well-being are found everywhere, whether loss, diseases, or hostile circumstances.
Every day launches a new challenge to the balance of life and it is difficult to keep a smile on your face, and to always practice the game of joy.
Some can rise above their problems, successfully cultivating optimism. Others become permanently dissatisfied. From their perspective, something is always missing. Or, if not missing, then it is too much, too little, too late, too early. It’s everything but just right.
Many of us recognise this pattern. It describes parents with sky-high expectations, demanding teachers, moody friends, stubborn husbands and wives, or neighbours outraged by even the smallest sound of the key in the lock.
Some can even recognise themselves in the description. They count themselves among those who believe that the grass is never green enough. They cannot taste joy without finding at least one flaw, and turn ingratitude into a lifestyle.
No matter which side of the fence we are on, dissatisfaction affects us in one form or another. Illness, poor health, and poor social relationships are just some of the side effects of dissatisfaction.
Gratitude can be developed by writing
In trying to determine its causes, researchers interested in the “poison” of ungratefulness conducted a few studies. Their results show that there are a wide range of factors that influence our willingness to be grateful: genetics, brain structure and activity, family environment, and certain personality traits (such as narcissism). To different degrees and in various ways, they all contribute to our desensitisation to positive interactions and situations.
More important than identifying these factors, however, is our ability to “reprogram” ourselves—the ability to improve our profiles. Writing is an effective tool for activating a spirit of gratitude. According to experts, keeping a diary of gratitude or periodically writing appreciative responses to kind gestures from others increases the chances of experiencing gratitude. By writing, gratitude can be developed like muscles trained in the gym. Through training, it makes us happier and better. Expressing gratitude intensifies the activity in the area of the brain responsible for anticipating the effects of our actions on others, helping us to feel the benefits of personal generosity as a reward, and therefore to be more selfless.
Gratitude is also closely linked to hope. An experiment at Hope College, Michigan, highlighted the relationship between the two. Participants who were asked to note their current reasons for satisfaction and the occasions in which their past hopes materialised beyond expectations, recorded a higher degree of optimism about their future.
The general conclusions revealed an important truth: the ability to appreciate the reasons for joy, the gifts of life, and the generosity of other people significantly influences our expectations. The mechanism also works in the opposite direction. When we do not have high hopes, we become incapable of gratitude, even when reality gives us reasons to the contrary. This creates a vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecies.
A lack of change pulls us down
Although tempting, a lack of change can pull us down. Psychologist Jennifer Delgado found that the habit of not cultivating satisfaction in relation to ourselves and those around us leads to five major risks: unhappiness, persistent negative thoughts, emotional fragility, feelings of worthlessness (due to the lack of an essential purpose) and health problems.
The most predictable effect of ingratitude is unhappiness, deeply ingrained into one’s everyday life. The refusal to see the glass as half full, and to give thanks for the good in the midst of evil, leaves us with a heavy burden.
An equally powerful effect is the consequent difficulty of giving up harmful thoughts and emotions. According to Delgado, unfavorable conditions do not prevent the expression of gratitude. In fact, it is when happiness crumbles and hopes fade that we most need the healing power which gratitude brings. As a lifeline in stormy times, gratitude transfers attention from loss to gain, and from obstacles to opportunities, helping us to overcome crisis situations, and even the helplessness generated by trauma.
Ungratefulness also affects our emotional health. Compared to those who often say “thank you”, ungrateful people have a higher risk of developing certain addictive behaviours or disorders such as depression and anxiety. At the same time, they tend to have difficulty finding a purpose in life, accepting themselves, and achieving a satisfactory degree of emotional independence. Studies show that exercising gratitude encourages us to search for existential meaning, and provides the necessary resources to fulfill it: lucidity, motivation, energy, and enthusiasm.
Physical health also fluctuates depending on whether or not we are satisfied. The stress derived from feeling dissatisfaction can cause certain medical conditions. Sleep disorders are an example of this. The frequency of negative thoughts that prevent us from falling asleep decreases when we have a grateful attitude, and the quality of our sleep increases significantly.
The worst side effect of ungratefulness is the deterioration of human relationships. Unsurprisingly, those who are dissatisfied do not enjoy a good reputation among their peers. Sometimes the only thing they “enjoy” is loneliness. There are exceptions, but most of the time, people who only see the worst in everything are not remarkably attractive to those around them. On the contrary, they are avoided, labelled as lacking in credibility, modesty, and a sense of realism.
The seeds of dissatisfaction bear poisonous fruit
Perhaps an ungrateful attitude does not entirely describe your personality. But dissatisfaction does not have to take over completely before we understand that, once planted, the seeds of dissatisfaction bear more and more fruit. If today we treat with indifference the simple favour of a friend or a gesture of kindness, tomorrow we may ignore an even greater reason for gratitude.
The spirit of gratitude is like a lifeline, it helps us survive when the waves of life wash against it. It doesn’t matter if we have many shortcomings, if our friends treat us in the wrong way, or if the days are more gloomy than flooded with sunshine.
While we may see arguments to the contrary, we always have reasons to be grateful and to express gratitude. Beyond our natural predispositions, we also have the possibility to deliberately cultivate gratitude—to fortify it. Let us delve into the meaning of personal experiences and appreciate the source of special or small joys, every day. Let’s treat people who are good to us with respect. Let’s be content with ourselves—and learn to make that lemonade!
Genia Ruscu holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.