Well, why don’t you, you ungrateful wretch?
Appreciation seems such a half-hearted emotion, the sort of declaration you’d expect to see on a barrel-scraping greeting card: “I appreciate you.” Which would be a good card to send, when that’s the best that can be said. Appreciation is the anaemic, weakling cousin to the chest-bursting emotions of love and anger. Appreciation never moved mountains, and no one ever cried into their pillow listening to a song about appreciation.
Yet appreciation – gratitude for what you have, or what someone has done for you – is a powerful and underrated tool: it can make you feel so good that your blood pressure goes down, it can lower stress hormones and give you a stronger immune system and generally make you happier. Appreciated workers give that bit more. Lack of gratitude, however, can make you feel locked in a never ending cycle of dissatisfaction. You are constantly looking out for what you lack.
So why don’t you appreciate what you have? You may never have been taught how to appreciate – it is a specific skill. You may think doing so is dumb, lazy, laurel-resting, boastful or fate-tempting, or that you shouldn’t look so much at what you’ve got but what you could still have. (Isn’t that ambition?) You may be out of practice, ground down and grumpy. Or you may simply have accumulated too much stuff to appreciate what you have, because having tangible products in your life – that TV, the smartphone, the car – actually just makes you want more because the thrill of acquisition is short lived. And, ultimately, possessions make you less grateful than actual simple-pleasure experiences such as family gatherings or sitting next to someone you like and watching a film together.
Let’s take each of them in turn. Although there is some evidence, in studies with chimps, that gratitude is hardwired in us, as a reciprocal social tool – you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours – the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein believed that we learned gratitude and its bitter sibling, envy, at the breast (it’s always the mother’s fault). If the two halves of ourselves never reconciled to become ambivalent we could find ourselves forever coveting what someone else has.
You probably know a few people like that. And when you’re busy looking at what someone else has you can’t really see what you have: all lusting after over there, no looking over here – ergo, no appreciation.
But the good news is that appreciation can be taught/learned. If children are shown how to deal with difficulties by flipping a situation round (looking for the silver lining) they can become more resilient adults – the idea is you can’t control what happens, but you can control how you look at a situation and deal with it. Unappreciative adults can learn too. It’s simply a question of practice, of flexing a different mind muscle.
However, it doesn’t work just by being told you should be grateful for what you have. That doesn’t make you appreciative, it just makes you defensive. And to be appreciative you need to be reflective. What works is what therapists call “reframing” or what you and I would call looking at things differently and of course – some common sense here – it doesn’t work for everything. A counsellor I know advises always approaching a difficult situation “from a place of gratitude”. It sounds trite, but it’s a simple – and surprisingly successful – tool to apply to a scenario.
In the last decade, there have been more books and studies on gratitude than ever before. (If you’re sick of Mindfulness the new “ness” is gratefulness.) The Greater Good Science Centre at the University of California, Berkeley is the epicentre in the study of gratitude and has various springboards to help get you started.
The short version is: stop complaining so much, look around you, keep a gratitude diary (which, luckily, can be kept in your head). Instead of looking at what you haven’t got, look at what you have got. It’s all about refocusing. By doing this and really practising looking at what’s good in your life – every day! – you can retrain your brain to work differently and you too could stop being a moaner and become an appreciator.
You can see people trying to be appreciative. They photograph their dinner and their stuff and put it on Instagram and Facebook: “I’m so lucky,” the post may say. But this isn’t always about being appreciative, (and if you react to it with envy, well, I refer you back to Klein). Barbara Ehrenreich argued against the selfish side of gratitude in the New York Times last month, just as half the world was knuckle-deep in thank you cards. Ehrenreich said that gratitude could end up being a transaction between “you and you”, which is true if you don’t use appreciation to spread a little something good. Some people have a different spin on gratitude, which is that it’s less about looking at what you have, more about what you can do for others: being grateful for being able to help. That’s a step too far for me.
What about teenagers, who are so often prefixed with the word “ungrateful”? In her book The Gratitude Diaries (How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Transformed My Life), Janice Kaplan quotes one professor of psychology at Yale who says: “Teenagers have a sense of entitlement that fights gratitude. If they code it that parents or the community or the world is obligated to provision them with the things they want, then the parent is just living up to their obligations. That’s not a mindset that creates a grateful disposition.” In other words entitlement does not breed appreciation.
The good thing about all this is that experiences have been shown to engender more gratitude than mere things, and these experiences don’t need to be expensive. A purchase can cause excitement, but the more we see it, the less it excites. We get used to it in a process called habituation (unfortunately this also applies to people – we get used to them and what they do, and need to “re-see” them in order to appreciate them). But experiences can grow in the mind to become golden and precious. Just scrolling through your own life quickly now, which bits do you feel appreciation for? I’ll bet it’s something that happened, rather than something you bought.
But the problem with all this is that appreciation seems so passive, doesn’t it? Isn’t that the inverse of what we’re now taught? Shouldn’t we always strive for more, better, bigger?
Being appreciative requires perspective, and that works both ways, you need to appreciate what you’ve got, but you also need to realise when you’re being treated badly. Being appreciative doesn’t equal becoming a doormat, you still acknowledge and experience negative feelings, you can still be assertive, you just look at certain things differently. I have to tell you that, during the course of researching this article I started doing this and it really does work, even for a fiery, feisty, vengeful Italian like me. The more you appreciate, the more you see to appreciate and the more appreciative people are to you. Try it.
This article first appeared in The Guardian as part of the Autocomplete series of essays, on 20 January 2016.