What is Gratitude and How Does it Work?

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People talk a lot about expressing gratitude. As I write this (on Thanksgiving day) it dawned on me that I had a superficial understanding of why and how we should be thankful.

I don’t like doing things just because they are trendy. I like doing things because they add value. So I’m breaking down the word Gratitude so we can get at the root of why it’s worthy of adding to our repertoire of personal growth tools.

Gratitude is an emotion. Not a habit. Not an exercise. A feeling. A feeling of happiness triggered by the acknowledgment and appreciation of something outside of yourself that positively touches, moves, or impacts you. This is important to understand because, like most of our emotions, it can’t always be easily turned on or off at whim.

If someone walked up to you and said “be disappointed, right now” you would struggle with that request. In order to feel disappointment your mind would have to search your memory for specific instances in which you were let down or your expectations weren’t met.

Similarly, you can’t be thankful without just cause. Mindlessly regurgitating mantras is an inauthentic exercise as it attempts to force you to feel something that you don’t.

You can cultivate gratitude but your efforts should be rooted in calling to mind meaningful moments in which you were genuinely appreciative (or being aware when these moments take place in the present). Don’t just list out a bunch of stuff in your gratitude journal if they weren’t actually meaningful. Sometimes nice things happen to us but it doesn’t automatically mean we care about or appreciate them.

Moreover, in order to be more thankful you need to experience more situations that you genuinely appreciate. This may sound anti-minimalist but it isn’t. It’s just being realistic.

At some point you will exhaust the number of past meaningful moments you can think of. You can continue to reflect on those things but I imagine gratitude is similar to happiness in that the effect wears off over time (read here for more background on this).

That means in order to continuously feel gratitude you’ll need:

  • more serendipitous situations where good (and meaningful) things happen to you, and the mindfulness to recognize them when they happen. The main issue here is that these things are out of your control and may or may not happen on a regular basis.
  • to live your life in a way that helps you cultivate a state of enduring thankfulness. This means putting yourself in a better position to have good (and meaningful) things happen to you. This is within your control.

The root of the word gratitude is the Latin term grat which means pleasing. When considering how to cultivate enduring thankfulness in a way that’s within your control, focus less on superficial wants and desires and more on designing a lifestyle that helps you maintain a perpetual state of meaningful pleasure. For example:

  • having a sense of purpose
  • living according to your values
  • pursuing simple pleasures
  • seeking the good in situations

All of the above are important because they require an understanding of what you deem to be good, pleasurable, and meaningful. If you don’t know what is significant to you, you won’t be able to recognize and appreciate these things when they happen.

Gratitude, like other positive feelings, has many proven psychological, physical, and social benefits. But if you just go through the motion without understanding how this emotion actually works, you’ll miss out on these benefits.

Unfortunately a lot of gratitude resources miss the big picture by encouraging well-intentioned but overly simplistic exercises. Chanting mantras, saying thank you, or writing down a bunch of nice things that happened to you today only gets you so far.

At some point in the past something outside of me (perhaps a book or conversation) planted a seed in my mind. Because I had the wherewithal to grow that seed I’ve put myself in a position to experience many more good, pleasurable, and meaningful moments than I could have ever imagined.

As a result, these days I wake up many mornings with a deep feeling of gratitude because that seed encourged me to design a life of consequence. When I reflect on the progress I made from where I was to where I am now, I feel thankful that a combination of circumstances outside of my control, amplified by my own actions, got me here.

So this is my definition of gratitude based on my personal experience:

Gratitude is a feeling of happiness that comes about when you are conscientious of how external circumstances positively impact your life. Cultivating more gratitude depends on experiencing more good, pleasurable, and meaningful moments, that are worthy of thankfulness. This requires understanding what’s good, pleasurable, and meaningful to you, recognizing when good, pleasurable, and meaningful things happen, and exerting some level of influence on your environment to increase their odds of occurence. 


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