How to be grateful when we should be grateful, but aren’t.

Getting that sweater from Grandma can inspire groans, but it should inspire gratitude.  Let’s assume we know that this is a time when we should feel grateful, but are not grateful.   The question is: how can we generate gratitude for a gift that does not originally inspire gratitude?

My passion is in understanding and promoting gratitude.  Research on gratitude is accelerating like a sail boat entering a hurricane.  There are however, a few gaps in what we know about gratitude.  One gap I’m particularly interested in exploring is how we generate gratitude, and how to be grateful for things that we do not, at least initially, appreciate.

We do know that gratitude is (more or less) a product of how much we need something, and how much effort it took to give it (Tesser et al., 1968; Emmons, 2004; Wood, 2008).  What I’m going to talk about now is focused here on gratitude in the context of gift-giving.

So how do we generate gratitude for grandma’s Christmas sweater?  Let’s work from the assumption that you should be grateful for the sweater, you are in a state where you know you should be grateful, but you do not feel grateful.

I should state up front, that I do not know of any research that has examined what is the best way to generate gratitude in these circumstances, so I am extending other basic findings to apply to the scenario outlined above.

If gratitude is part need, and part effort, maybe we can start by focusing on the need.  What type of need does the sweater fulfill?  Can it fulfill a basic need (i.e. food, shelter, protection)?  If it does, think about how the sweater will feel on a cold day, or under the specific circumstances when it will be useful. Okay, so you have a lot of sweaters, this one cannot fulfill a basic need, what next?  Think now of whether it can fulfill a psychological need (i.e. being taken care of)?  Think about what it means to have others taking care of you, focus on your self and your needs to belong.  For the sweater, even if the gift does not have a functional utility, it does represent some quantity of care offered by another person.  Thinking about a gift as it may fulfill multiple needs is good too.  The general principle is to think about the things we have as fulfilling important needs of one sort or another.  Focus on how the things we have fulfill the needs we had.

Now let’s focus on the effort involved in the gifts.  We have all heard the adage that “It’s the thought that counts.”  I tend to think this is true, but it matters a lot in how we think about the thoughts of the person providing a gift.  It will reveal that when we think about others thoughts in gift-giving, we are actually thinking about how others are working to fulfill our needs.  In this way, need and effort are not independent of one another, they are mere shorthand for how we can think about the things we receive.

Now let’s consider the effort involved in the sweater.  Consider, for the sweater,  what grandma did to give you this gift.  Think about your grandma, at the moment she is picking the sweater, thinking of you and your sweater-needs, trying to help you. Think about what she was considering as she was working to be thoughtful and to produce a nice gift for you.  Think about her thinking about you in a nice way.  This will increase your perceived thoughtfulness for the gift, which has been shown to predict gratitude (Algoe et al., 2009).  Do not consider her ulterior motives, how she should have been smarter and bought you a nice shirt or shoes or something.  You probably cannot know your grandma’s mind, or her true intentions, so think warmly about her in the simple act of thinking nice things about you and picking out the sweater.

As an aside, I also like to think about modern gift-giving in this way.  Much of what we receive for gifts comes in the form of gift-cards or online shopping.  Do not diminish someone’s thoughtfulness when they buy things for you in this way.  For online shopping, the same principle for increasing your perception of thoughtfulness can occur.  Think about the person, browsing, clicking links, looking at images and thumbnails, then selecting and filling out credit card and shipping information.  They are thinking of you during this time, and most of the time, they are hoping you will like what they bought for you.  People really tend to overestimate ulterior motives and overthink what they think they know about other people’s minds.  Don’t be a mindreader, if someone buys you a gift, or produces a gift, take it, consider it and enjoy it.  Can you really expect yourself to know exactly what someone was thinking when they bought the gift?  Give them the benefit of the doubt and picture them trying to help you in some way, and think about the gift in a way that shows its use to you in helping you live your life.

Some caveats:  Think carefully about if you really should be grateful for a gift.  I don’t want to backtrack here too much, but we can admit that some gifts are given carelessly, and are genuinely useless.  I would argue that we can still find a way to generate more gratitude for these gifts, without much of a downside.  Just don’t think that because you received one of these gifts, that you need to do a grand repayment–keep to the normal script of thank you cards and verbal thanks.

There are also those gifts that are indeed clearly meant to leave you indebted to the donor.  Another caveat: what I have to say below is mostly conjecture.  I would argue that these happen less often than we like to think, but I have a few suggestions for dealing with them anyway.  First, don’t take it personally, or think that the person is really out to get you.  If they really are just hoping to manipulate you, and you can be sure of it, that is probably more about their own misgivings than about anything wrong with you.  There is also an element of choosing how indebted to feel.  If you really don’t care about the person, and if they provided to you an expensive gift.  Don’t consider their perspective at all, enjoy the gift, go about your life.  Don’t worry about repaying right away.

And finally, no matter how you feel, don’t use this opportunity to inflict your opinion on those who have given you things by not reciprocating or being mean after they’ve given you something.  That is the definition of pettiness.  Gift-giving is a vulnerable, challenging endeavor; be gracious at all times around gifts.  No matter what: Say thank you, send a note, give a nice gift in return when it is appropriate.

Gratitude is its own reward, it feels good, it makes you healthier, it draws you closer to others.  You know when you should be grateful, now hopefully you know more about how to be grateful.