Sometimes, I forget to thank the people who make my life so happy in so many ways. Sometimes, I forget to tell them how much I really do appreciate them for being an important part of my life. Today is just another day, nothing special going on. So thank you, all of you, just for being here for me!
1. Once in a while, they think about death and loss
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I’m not just
being perverse—contemplating endings really does make you more grateful
for the life you currently have, according to several studies.
For example, when Araceli Friasa and colleagues asked people to visualize their own deaths, their gratitude measurably increased.
Similarly, when Minkyung Koo and colleagues asked people to envision
the sudden disappearance of their romantic partners from their lives,
they became more grateful to their partners. The same goes for imagining that some positive event, like a job promotion, never happened.
This isn’t just theoretical: When you find yourself taking a good thing for granted, try giving it up
for a little while. Researchers Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth Dunn had
55 people eat a piece of chocolate—and then the researchers told some of
those people to resist chocolate for a week and others to binge on
chocolate if they wanted. They left a third group to their own devices.
Guess who ended up happiest, according to self-reports? The people
who abstained from chocolate. And who were the least happy? The people
who binged. That’s the power of gratitude!
2. They take the time to smell the roses
And they also smell the coffee, the bread baking in the oven, the aroma of a new car—whatever gives them pleasure.
Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant finds that savoring positive experiences
makes them stickier in your brain, and increases their benefits to your
psyche—and the key, he argues, is expressing gratitude for the
experience. That’s one of the ways appreciation and gratitude go hand in
You might also consider adding some little ritual to how you
experience the pleasures of the body: A study published this year in Psychological Science
finds that rituals like prayer or even just shaking a sugar packet
“make people pay more attention to food, and paying attention makes food
taste better,” as Emily Nauman reports in her Greater Good article about the research.
This brand of mindfulness makes intuitive sense—but how does it work with the first habit above?
Well, we humans are astoundingly adaptive creatures, and we will adapt even to the good things.
When we do, their subjective value starts to drop; we start to take
them for granted. That’s the point at which we might give them up for a
while—be it chocolate, sex, or even something like sunlight—and then
take the time to really savor them when we allow them back into our
That goes for people, too, and that goes back to the first habit: If
you’re taking someone for granted, take a step back—and imagine your
life without them. Then try savoring their presence, just like you would
a rose. Or a new car. Whatever! The point is, absence may just make the
heart grow grateful.
3. They take the good things as gifts, not birthrights
What’s the opposite of gratitude? Entitlement—the attitude that people owe you something just because you’re so very special.
“In all its manifestations, a preoccupation with the self can cause
us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel that we are
owed things from others and therefore have no reason to feel thankful,” writes Robert Emmons, co-director of the GGSC’s Gratitude project. “Counting blessings will be ineffective because grievances will always outnumber gifts.”
The antidote to entitlement, argues Emmons, is to see that we did not
create ourselves—we were created, if not by evolution, then by God; or
if not by God, then by our parents. Likewise, we are never truly
self-sufficient. Humans need other people to grow our food and heal our
injuries; we need love, and for that we need family, partners, friends,
“Seeing with grateful eyes requires that we see the web of
interconnection in which we alternate between being givers and
receivers,” writes Emmons. “The humble person says that life is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed.”
4. They’re grateful to people, not just things
the start of this piece, I mentioned gratitude for sunlight and trees.
That’s great for me—and it may have good effects, like leading me to
think about my impact on the environment—but the trees just don’t care.
Likewise, the sun doesn’t know I exist; that big ball of flaming gas
isn’t even aware of its own existence, as far as we know. My gratitude
doesn’t make it burn any brighter.
That’s not true of people—people will glow in gratitude. Saying
thanks to my son might make him happier and it can strengthen our
emotional bond. Thanking the guy who makes my coffee can strengthen
social bonds—in part by deepening our understanding of how we’re
interconnected with other people.
My colleague Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the GGSC’s science director and another co-director of our Expanding Gratitude project, puts it this way: Experiences that heighten meaningful connections with others—like
noticing how another person has helped you, acknowledging the effort it
took, and savoring how you benefited from it—engage biological systems
for trust and affection, alongside circuits for pleasure and reward.
This provides a synergistic and enduring boost to the positive
experience. Saying ‘thank you’ to a person, your brain registers that
something good has happened and that you are more richly enmeshed in a
meaningful social community.
5. They mention the pancakes
people are habitually specific. They don’t say, “I love you because
you’re just so wonderfully wonderful, you!” Instead, the really skilled
grateful person will say: “I love you for the pancakes you make when you
see I’m hungry and the way you massage my feet after work even when
you’re really tired and how you give me hugs when I’m sad so that I’ll
The reason for this is pretty simple: It makes the expression of
gratitude feel more authentic, for it reveals that the thanker was
genuinely paying attention and isn’t just going through the motions. The
richest thank you’s will acknowledge intentions (“the pancakes you make
when you see I’m hungry”) and costs (“you massage my feet after work
even when you’re really tired”), and they’ll describe the value of
benefits received (“you give me hugs when I’m sad so that I’ll feel
When Amie Gordon and colleagues studied gratitude in couples, they
found that spouses signal grateful feelings through more caring and
attentive behavior. They ask clarifying questions; they respond to
trouble with hugs and to good news with smiles. “These gestures,” Gordon
“can have profound effects: Participants who were better listeners
during those conversations in the lab had partners who reported feeling
more appreciated by them.”
Remember: Gratitude thrives on specificity!
6. They thank outside the box
But let’s get real: Pancakes, massages, hugs? Boring!
Most of my examples so far are easy and clichéd. But here’s who the
really tough-minded grateful person thanks: the boyfriend who dumped
her, the homeless person who asked for change, the boss who laid him
We’re graduating from Basic to Advanced Gratitude, so pay attention.
And since I myself am still working on Basic, I’ll turn once again to
Dr. Emmons for guidance: “It’s easy to feel grateful for the good
things. No one ‘feels’ grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home
or good health or has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement
In such moments, he says, gratitude becomes a critical cognitive
process—a way of thinking about the world that can help us turn disaster
into a stepping stone. If we’re willing and able to look, he argues, we
can find a reason to feel grateful even to people who have harmed us.
We can thank that boyfriend for being brave enough to end a relationship
that wasn’t working; the homeless person for reminding us of our
advantages and vulnerability; the boss, for forcing us to face new
“Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth,” writes Emmons in his Greater Good article “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times.” He continues:
So telling people simply to buck up, count their blessings, and
remember how much they still have to be grateful for can certainly do
much harm. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not
mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology.
Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle
into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain,
recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.
That’s what truly, fantastically grateful people do. Can you? For more reasons to practice gratitude, check out this infographic created by Here’s My Chance.