Extend gratitude beyond platitudes

19th December, 2019

You know that blur of movement on Christmas morning when children meet presents and presents meet children, scraps of wrapping paper fly into the air and float down, confetti-style, all over the living room? Five minutes later, the presents are all unwrapped, the children sit panting, and everyone wonders what to do next.

It does not happen in the Harford household. For the past few years we have had a rule: you cannot unwrap the next present until you have written a thank-you note for the last one.

At first, this was merely my inner economist thinking about efficient incentives. I want my children to write thank-you letters and this generally requires some kind of bribe. At Christmas, that is easy: we are surrounded by gift-wrapped bribes. Using the next gift to incentivise the previous thank-you letter is an idea so elegant I am surprised it is not ubiquitous.

I then realised that this system had unexpected benefits. It forced us to slow down, to look seriously at each gift, to think about what was good about it, and to reflect on the giver. Gratitude as a chore became replaced by gratitude as a mindful counting of blessings.

The practice of gratitude is fashionable; some people advocate a daily gratitude journal as a way to get a quick shot of happiness. Robert Emmons, who studies gratitude, complains of the spread of “gratitude lite”, the sense of gratitude as an easy means to an end. He is the author of books including Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity (US) (UK), so perhaps he should take some ownership of this trend. But I know what he means about treating gratitude as a mere tool.

Gratitude is, after all, a complex thing. There is gratitude as mindfulness: noticing something good in the world. There is gratitude as politeness: remembering to say thank you to the shop assistant, even if you cannot be bothered to make eye contact. There is gratitude as reciprocity: writers from Adam Smith to Seneca underlined the idea of gratitude as a partial repayment of a debt.

A Catholic friend of mine says that gratitude is hard, like forgiveness. That seems true, when it is an attempt to find the silver lining to a lowering cloud. But gratitude often is, or should be, a simple matter of counting blessings in a world where there are many to count.

Violence and disease are rarer; most people are richer, healthier, and better educated than ever. There are still evils in the world, but not as many as 100 years ago. Why should gratitude be hard?

Nevertheless, it is. There are practical reasons why we pay more attention to what is difficult than what is easy. Problems require solving; non-problems do not. Psychologists call this “the headwinds / tailwinds asymmetry” inspired by the observation that a cyclist never notices when the wind is at her back. So being grateful requires some attention to what we easily ignore.

Mr Emmons has intensively studied the practice of keeping a gratitude journal, and he says that it is worth sticking with the habit, which gets easier. But rather than simply jotting down the same gratitude platitudes each evening, I’ve been thinking about expanding both the depth and the breadth of my thanks.

On depth, consider a study conducted by psychologists Martin Seligman, Tracy Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. Participants were asked to write a letter expressing gratitude “to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked”. Then — this is the squirm-inducing bit — they hand-delivered the letter, read it to the recipient, and had a conversation. The warm glow of this process, for the letter writer, lasted for weeks. I have never hand-delivered such a letter. But I have written one, and it is a powerful experience.

As for breadth, expressions of gratitude are often about or directed to the usual subjects: family and friends, nice weather, good health. It is worth thinking more broadly — as did AJ Jacobs, author of Thanks A Thousand (US) (UK). He started by trying to be mindful of all the people around the world who contributed to the food he enjoyed, saying a sort of secular grace before each meal. But — challenged by one of his children — he decided to go much further, seeking out the many people who contributed to his morning coffee, and thanking them on the phone or in person.

Thanking the barista was easy, but he went on to thank the coffee taster, the lid designer, the pest control expert at the coffee warehouse, the farmers who grew the beans, the steel workers who made the pulping machine, the workers at the reservoir that was the source of the water, and about 1,000 others.

Writing a thoughtful thank-you letter when someone sends you a present requires far less imagination. It is the most elementary expression of gratitude. Still, it is not a bad place to start.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 28 Dec 2018.

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