Gratitude: Helpful or Harmful?

RAFT Team, November 15, 2021

Gratitude quotes surround us these days. Especially now, as we approach the holidays, gratitude talk is everywhere. You’ll find “thankful” or “blessed” on pillows, mugs, artwork, and in your inbox. Gratitude benefits are touted and gratitude challenges are given. It's hard to keep up with it all! But the science also reveals there’s a potential dark side to gratitude. What?!! Yes, keep reading.

What Is Gratitude, anyway?

Well, people will describe it in many different ways. From a mood, an emotion, or even a cultural construct. (Who Well, people describe it in many different ways. From a mood, an emotion, or even a cultural construct. (Who would have guessed there were so many opinions on the matter?!) In Berkeley’s well-known white paper on gratitude, the authors defined it as a two-step process:

  1. Recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome
  2. Recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome

What Influences Gratitude?

Not everyone experiences gratitude in the same way or even for the same things. Have you ever wondered what that’s all about? It can depend on personality, upbringing, spirituality, belief system, and culture. But there are some pretty basic factors that influence the feeling of gratitude as reported by Berkeley’s paper:

  • The perceived intentions of the benefactor (i.e., whether the benefactor was acting out of pure altruism or because of selfish motives, such as wishing to improve their reputation)
  • The apparent cost to the benefactor
  • The perceived value of the gift/ favor to the recipient
  • Whether the gift or favor was provided by choice or by obligation
  • The extent to which the receiver believes in free will
the science of gratitude says journaling can increase resilience

Does Gratitude Help People?

Studies about the science of gratitude will confirm that yes, gratitude helps people. It can also help when you work in a high stress environment. Here’s a few scientifically proven benefits of gratitude to consider:

Can Gratitude Be Harmful?

Have you ever wondered if gratitude could be a bad thing? Sometimes, yes. Life isn’t always peachy. In fact, sometimes it’s really, really difficult. Gratitude can be unhealthy if you force gratitude instead of giving yourself time to process emotions. 

Gratitude can also be harmful in an unequal power dynamic, especially when it’s demanded by the one with power. Manipulation in disguise like this can further entrench those with less power. And sometimes it’s used as a way to incur a debt. Gratitude shouldn’t feel obligatory.

So what can you do to guard yourself from this type of “bad” gratitude? Life is best lived in balance. Make space for yourself, guard your heart, and be compassionate to yourself. This will help keep you on track, healthy, and continually growing.

the science of gratitude says spiritual can help you be more grateful

How Can I Grow My Gratitude?

Life is busy, even more so during the holiday. Gratitude platitudes surround us, which can either encourage you towards more gratitude or make you feel guilty for not being grateful enough. You may choose to add a gratitude practice in this season. It may seem like you have too much on your plate to add one more thing. Or life may be extra tough right now. Below are some affirmations for difficult times:

  • This is stressful, so I will take extra good care of myself.
  • I will stay present-focused and take this one day at a time.
  • I will focus on what I can control and release the rest.
  • I will try to be kind and gentle with myself.
  • When I’m struggling, I will ask for help. 
  • When I feel overwhelmed, I will choose a healthy way to cope.
  • My body and mind need to rest and recharge, so I will let myself rest without judgment.
  • I am stronger than I think.

So whether you’re excited about the holidays or dreading them, remember to be gentle with yourself and strive to keep yourself healthy, both mentally and emotionally. Gratitude and the science around it can be a powerful tool in the process.