How to feel gratitude


carrot and measuring tape

Our minds have an inherent tendency toward finding fault. In psychology, this is called negativity bias. As psychologist and regular Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, PhD, has pointed out, this results from our evolutionary heritage:

Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

But we’re no longer hominids, and life no longer involves a struggle for physical safety and security — unless, for example, you’re in the armed forces and serving in a combat zone. So most of the time, for most of us, our negativity bias simply impoverishes us emotionally, making us think that our lives are much worse than they actually are. For we are, for the most part, blessed with wealth, security, and abundance that our hominid forebears quite literally could not have dreamed of.

Because the mind has negativity bias, though, we tend to lack appreciation for the blessings we have in our lives — no matter how abundant they are — and focus on what’s wrong, or what we think’s wrong (which is often not the same thing). And so we often walk around in a troubled and stressed state, even though basically 99.9% of our life is going just fine.

The Indian teacher Naropa described the negativity bias when he said “Samsara is the tendency to find fault.”

In order to feel a sense of security and wellbeing, we need to consciously remind ourselves of what’s going right in our lives. We need to reassure ourselves, and calm down the inner hominid who’s constantly on the alert for problems, and who often invents them when they don’t exist. In Buddhism, this practice is called “rejoicing in merit.”

  • We can offer the mind reassurance by expressing gratitude. At the start of my meditation practice, these days, I often become aware that I am in a building, safe and protected from the elements, and I say (inwardly) to the building, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that I have plumbing, and electricity, and internet access around me, and I say (inwardly) to all these things, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my body is whole, and basically functioning. The heart is beating: “Thank you.” The lungs are breathing in air: “Thank you.”
  • Even if there is illness present I know my body has the resources to heal itself, and I say to my body, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my senses are intact, and I say “Thank you.”
  • Even if a part of my body is in pain, I focus on the fact that it’s still functioning. I have back problems, and so I remind myself that my back is basically functioning well: it’s keeping me upright, allowing me to move around, and protecting the spinal cord. So I say, “Thank you.”

By the way, it’s important to actually make the sound of the words “Thank you” in your head. There’s something about articulating gratitude in the form of words that makes the emotion of thankfulness more real.

This practice doesn’t deny that there are problems in our lives. We may not have a job. We may be in debt. But we can balance our concern about these things with an appreciation of what’s going right in our lives.

By focusing on what’s going right in, we take our awareness away from the things that we image to be wrong, or that we imagine could go wrong, and come to realize that we are indeed blessed. When I do this simple practice, which only takes a few minutes, I feel an immense sense of gratitude and joy.

What about you?

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Yes! I am finding that even if that felt sense of gratitude doesn’t always last much longer than it takes to say the words, it becomes much easier to remember how much I truly do have to be grateful for and that I really am “all right, right now” (another of Rick Hanson’s gems) when I’m feeling threatened by one of modern day life’s sticks.

    Thanks for the reminder :)

    • Thanks, Janet. Perhaps more important than the actual feeling of gratitude is the habit of focusing on the positive. Every time we choose to rejoice in what’s going right in our lives, we’re creating and strengthening neural pathways devoted to the exercise of that habit. Over time, we don’t find ourselves dwelling on the negative quite so much.

      (Of course some people have a habit of ignoring the negative even when they should pay attention to it, but that’s a whole nother blog post!)

  • […] in meditation I have a practice I sometimes do of saying “thanks” for all the things that are going right. I notice that the […]

  • Thank you for posting this article. I stumbled across it whilst searching for ways of improving my ability to feel gratitude, because I need to feel and express it more often. I thanked the Universe for this too.

  • I am really glad that i found this article. And honestly Thank You for making me feel that there is a way out of negative thinking. I have been suffering from that almost three years now. And i am 33… Some days are better and some not. When is bad i often cant find good in anything arround me. And that makes me sad and brings me down… Reading this gives me hope to keep trying. And i will. Any advice you have for me please go ahead and drop a line!thank you all….

  • […] Click to read more » […]

  • Both sides of the coin are only differed by what is on each side. One side isn’t better than the other. Give thanks to both sides, with out one you don’t have the other. I make a practice of giving thanks to the so called Bad as well as the Good….When I give gratitude to the so called Bad, it just dissolves it into nothingness. There is no good or bad, this is an illusion created by the mind, it just is.
    love and blessings Robert

  • This is such a great article

  • […] came across this article on feeling gratitude, which is essentially a Western psychological article on a Buddhist site.  I […]


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