Why Americans are bad at gratitude

be thankful

“I’m thankful for myself, my work ethic, and my flawless skin-care regimen. What about you, Aunt Karen?”

According to gratitude researcher Robert Emmons, anyone who gives this speech before Thanksgiving dinner is not only (probably) a narcissist but doesn’t understand gratitude at all. By its very nature, gratitude is directed outward – toward people, things, or a universe that has benefitted us.

Even when we say we’re grateful for something that seems internal, like our health, what we really mean is that we’re happy with our good fortune. We’re not patting ourselves on the back for eating salads for lunch. The way Emmons sees it, we cannot be grateful to ourselves. Proud or happy, perhaps, but not grateful.

As a result, gratitude means admitting that we’re not fully independent – which can be a scary thing. “In both extraordinary circumstances . . . and in more mundane affairs, we are dependent on countless others. Insomuch as we value our own autonomy, acknowledging dependence can be intimidating,” writes Emmons in his book Thanks!

A study published in the 1988 British Journal of Social Psychology found that Americans aren’t as comfortable with gratitude as other cultures. According to Happier Human, only 20% of Americans rated gratitude as constructive and useful, and only 10% experience it regularly and often. In contrast, 50% of Germans value gratitude and 30% feel it regularly.

This aversion was particularly palpable for men: one-third of American men preferred to conceal gratitude, some rated it as unpleasant or humiliating, and older men found it hard to express openly.

“Gratitude pre-supposes so many judgments about debt and dependency that it is easy to see why supposedly self-reliant American males would feel queasy about even discussing it. We don’t like being reminded that we needed help. We don’t want to be beholden to our saviors,” explains Emmons.

Seen this way, gratitude seems to run against many themes in American culture, like independence, individualism, and self-sufficiency. Good luck – that goes above and beyond what we deserve and inspires gratitude – suggests that meritocracy isn’t the only force at work in the world.

“We (especially in this society) do not like to think of ourselves as indebted. We would rather see our good fortunes as our own doing (whereas the losses and sufferings are not our fault). Like the emotion of trust, [gratitude] involves an admission of our vulnerability and our dependence on other people,” Emmons writes.

But Emmons’s recommendation isn’t for us all to sit around the fire and sing Kumbaya, arms linked as a symbol of our eternal dependence. The reality is more nuanced than that. Yes, we are interconnected to and interdependent on many other people, and relationships are a major source of happiness in life. To flourish, we need to find people whom we can trust and then accept their love and support. But it’s still our job to take responsibility for and determine the course of our lives. 

“Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness,” he writes. “Life becomes complete as we are able to give to others who are now in need of what we ourselves received in the past.” 

Photo by Flickr user Cindi Albright

Year of Happy two linesWant to learn gratitude and 11 other happiness habits? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 1 to help you get happier in 2015. Learn about the science of happiness and apply it to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!

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