When life’s got you down, gratitude can seem like a chore. Sure, you’ll go through the motions and say the right things — you’ll thank people for help they’ve provided or try to muster a sense of thanks that things aren’t worse. But you might not truly feel grateful in your heart. It can be like saying “I’m happy for you” to someone who just got the job you wanted. The words and the feelings often don’t match.
This disconnect is unfortunate, though. It comes from a somewhat misguided view that gratitude is all about looking backward — back to what has already been. But in reality, that’s not how gratitude truly works. At a psychological level, gratitude isn’t about passive reflection, it’s about building resilience. It’s not about being thankful for things that have already occurred and, thus, can’t be changed; it’s about ensuring the benefits of what comes next. It’s about making sure that tomorrow, and the day after, you will have something to be grateful for.
One of the central findings to emerge from psychological science over the past decade is that certain emotions serve socially adaptive functions. When we experience emotions like compassion, admiration, and shame, they drive us to alter our behaviors toward others. As Adam Smith intuited long ago, these innate feelings, or moral sentiments, impel us to act in ways that benefit our fellow humans — to engage with them in behaviors that foster the common good. And in the case of gratitude, the evidence couldn’t be clearer. In the face of loss, tragedy, or disaster, few psychological mechanisms can do more to benefit an individual’s or a society’s ability to thrive.