December 12, 2023

A Report on “The Enemies of Gratitude”

By Leonard Chan

I recently listened to a radio program called Hidden Brain. The episode was called “The Enemies of Gratitude” and the guest was Cornell University Psychologist Thomas Gilovich. The topic of the program was on Professor Gilovich’s studies of gratitude – chiefly, the barriers that prevent us from feeling more grateful. After listening to the program, I thought that reporting to you about Professor Gilovich’s studies would be appropriate for the Holiday Season.

If you are among the people that doesn’t believe they have a deficit on gratitude, that’s really great. But please read on to learn more about this interesting topic. Perhaps Professor Gilovich’s studies are the key to feeling more grateful not only during the holiday season, but always, and not just for you, but for your loved ones too.

Thank you very much for reading on.

First of all, why is gratitude important?

There are studies that show the positive effects of gratitude. One study shows that gratitude increases well-being, reduces the need for doctor visits, enhances feeling of social connection, and improves sleep. Other studies show an association between gratitude and lower depression, decreased envy, an increased sense of meaning in life, higher life satisfaction, and an increased ability to delay gratification. If you’re feeling grateful, you’re not only grateful for the cause or the person that made you feel that way, but you’re more likely to also be generous to strangers (people pass their good fortune forwards).

One paper by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley states that, “Gratitude also functions as social glue that nurtures the formation of new friendships, enriches our existing relationships, and underlies the very foundation of human society.” (The Science of Gratitude)

Rather than studying just the ways to increase gratitude, Professor Gilovich chose to figure out the factors that reduce or hinder people from feeling grateful. By understanding these road blocks, it is hoped that we could get to a place where we’re more grateful.

In this radio program episode and in a video lecture on this subject, Professor Gilovich describes three barriers or enemies to gratitude.

1. Adaptation – The Hedonic Treadmill

The concept of adaptation is that the effects of something negative or positive fade over time. As it applies to gratitude – the feeling of gratefulness diminish with time. Gilovich give a quick example of a person having something good happen to them and then saying that “I’m never going to sweat the small stuff again.” Fast forward a few months and the small stuff are still driving the person nuts.

Other examples are given, including a video clip of an interview comedian Louis CK gave on the Conan O’Brien Show about “Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy.” Louis CK describes a scene on an airplane of a person that discovers that he has high speed Internet (back when this was new) and is so amazed by this. A while later when it stops working, the passenger complains. When you feel entitled to a benefit, you no longer feel grateful for it.

Gilovich also discusses how material things we are happy with bring us less joy over time. He give an example of someone buying a painting he likes, hangs it on the wall, and over time isn’t even aware it’s there.

In Professor Gilovich’s lecture and paper he goes into greater detail about the differences of material things and experiences, and how experiences bring us more satisfaction that endures. Why is the enjoyment of experiences so enduring? Gilovich gives three reasons.

1) Our experiences connect us to other people more than purchases of material items. Our social connections are also more enduring. If a material item can be thought of in more experiential terms it may also brings more lasting satisfaction. An example was given of a bicycle – If you think about the places you go with it, the places you’ve been, and the people you rode with, you’re more pleased with the bicycle. So there are some material items that can also provide experiential gratification. Gilovich didn’t get specifically into the experience of gift giving, but I imagine that these sorts of material purchases, for others, may also be satisfying and enduring.

2) Our experiences contribute to our identities. Material things are outside of us, whereas experiences are a part of us. Professor Gilovich says, “We are, in some sense, the sum total of our experiences.” Because experiences are engrained in us, they endure.

3) Experiences are evaluated on their own terms. Material things are subject to comparisons. Take the example of a car purchase that brings you some satisfaction, but then may sour when we start to compare the purchase to other people’s car purchases. Experiences also get compared, but are much less prone to the envy you may have from the comparison of your material items. Gilovich uses the example of a trip – we may compare our trip to other people’s trips, but our enjoyment of the experience is not diminished.

Gilovich asks, “Do we similarly adapt to the good things that we do for others?” An example of Mother Teresa was given: she’s satisfied that she is helping others and is not on a hedonistic treadmill. Doing good for others count as experiential acts.

So one way to combat Adaptation is through experiential pursuits rather than materialistic pursuits.

2. The Headwind/Tailwind Asymmetry

We are more aware of the barriers and hardships that face us than the things that support us from behind.

An actual physical example that acts as a metaphor for this is the headwind we face when we’re bicycling or running. We notice it a lot more when the wind is blowing in our face than when the wind is at our backs.

What tailwinds do people recognize or possibly remember? They tend to remember people that helped them. Gilovich gives the example of thank you speeches at the Academy Awards – people thank others that supported them, rather things like their good fortune (being rich, being gifted, etc.).

3. Seeing Shared Burdens as Unusually Burdensome for Oneself

We tend to think we have it harder than others because we’re paying more attention to the barriers that confronted us and not so much the problems of others. This sort of distortion can build resentment or a belief in entitlement for one’s self, which Gilovich says is the opposite of gratitude. Although Gilovich didn’t give this as an example, I think the demonization of immigrants and minorities fits this.

Professor Gilovich uses the example of tax policy – when taxes go up equally for everyone, people think it hurts them more than others.

The host of Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam, asks Professor Gilovich if the exercise of merely seeking out information can be the antidote to this enemy of gratitude.

Gilovich didn’t use the term confirmation bias, but his answer goes on to say something about how the search for information could lead you to finding what you anticipate the answers to be. The mind is setup to find things that may make you feel envious, entitled, and resentful.


Hidden Brain’s host, Shankar Vedantam, goes on to say,

“What all of these (enemies of gratitude) have in common is that we have a self-centered view of life. Even worse, we don’t realize that we are seeing the world through a narrow keyhole of self interest. In order to feel gratitude, we need to take a wider, more expansive view. For a few lucky people, this expansive world view comes easily. This allows them to bathe in the good feelings of gratitude and enjoy its many psychological benefits. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls this winning the cortical lottery. Tom says that while this might be true, it may be useful to think about the ability to take on an expansive world view, as a skill – something that could be learned with practice… The barriers of gratitude in our lives are plentiful. Some arise from within us, others we learn from those around us. Collectively they can keep us from noticing what is good in our lives and reaping the benefits of gratitude.”

In Shankar Vedantam and Tom Gilovich’s ending discussion, they talked about the importance of expressing your gratitude.

People may feel unable to express their gratitude or may delay it because they are afraid of getting it wrong, but the details are not as important as the gesture of gratitude. They’ll appreciate the time and effort you put into the thanks. It’s how you make them feel, that’s important.

Expressions of gratitude makes all parties feel good. Even people watching or observing the people expressing thanks, feel good, especially if it’s heart felt.

I hope that in some way, reading this article has helped you get in touch with your gratefulness. Thank you everyone!

List of Sources and Interesting Resources

- Hidden Brain Program: The Enemies of Gratitude

Thomas Gilovich's video lecture on "The Enemies of Gratitude"

Cultivating Gratitude and Giving Through Experiential Consumption by Gilovich, Walker, and Kumar

The Science of Gratitude by Greater Good Science Center at UC Berekeley

- The Power of Positive Thinking by Johns Hopkins

Optimism Linked to Poor Decision-Making and Lower Cognitive Skills - Neuroscience News

The Difference Between Gratitude and Thankfulness by Psychiatric Medical Care Communications Team

Hedonic Treadmill: Hedonic Adaptation reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

The Wisest One in the Room a book by Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross