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What’s a Healthy Amount of Gratitude According to Science?

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Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation and thankfulness. There are countless studies on the potential benefits of gratitude. However, trying to cultivate it through practices such as counting blessings doesn’t always work and may even cause harm.

As it turns out, trying too hard to be grateful isn’t healthy for us.

Here’s how to get the benefits of gratitude practices without the potentially harmful effects.

The Potential Benefits of Gratitude

Gratitude can help us in many areas of life. Here are just a few of the potential benefits:

Even though these studies demonstrate notable benefits, some research points to potential pitfalls of too much gratitude.

Can You Overdose on Gratitude?

One study by positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues showed that people who wrote in gratitude journals once a week for six weeks had a boost in emotional well-being while people who were instructed to do it three times a week didn’t experience a boost at all.

There are a few possible explanations for this timing effect. When we try to count our blessings too often, we might run out of ideas and start to think we don’t have much to be grateful for. We might also feel worse because we feel guilty or indebted to others for the things we do have. Lastly, if we do it excessively, we might get bored with the practice and find it less meaningful.

Gratitude and Law of Attraction Practices

When it comes to using a gratitude list for manifesting our desires — a practice that’s encouraged by law of attraction teachers and popular books such as The Secret — overdosing on gratitude could be a real possibility.

According to law of attraction teachings, if you are grateful, you’ll attract more good things to be grateful about. A rampage of appreciation is a practice created by law of attraction author Esther Hicks. It involves noticing and preferably writing down everything you appreciate in your life and surroundings. The list can be fairly lengthy and is meant to create positive emotions and a sense of momentum. The practice is supposed to enhance well-being, raise your vibration, and attract the things you desire because you are a vibrational match to them when you feel good.

As you can imagine, when someone wants to manifest something urgently, they might take this practice into overdrive and start to feel worse if things don’t improve in their lives. They might also run out of things to “rampage” about and feel inadequate. Another concern is that they might worry that if they don’t feel grateful enough or engage in the practice, their desires won’t manifest. See my previous article if you’d like to learn more about the law of attraction and mental health.

Toxic Positivity

Over-emphasizing gratitude can also make us feel like we should always appreciate what we have. Trying to focus on gratitude or being told to do so when we’re in pain might make us feel shame or additional painful emotions.

This is an example of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is the idea that we should have a positive mindset rather than validate or experience our emotional pain.

Toxic positivity can harm our mental health as well as our relationships. This is especially true if we’ve been through a traumatic experience and aren’t emotionally in a place where trying to see a silver lining is helpful. Maybe we’ll never be there, and that’s also ok. Empathy, support, and self-compassion can be much more important than trying to look on the bright side.

In other words, validating our emotions is a healthier option when gratitude isn’t coming easily. To read more about toxic positivity, check out my recent article.

Unhealthy Levels of Gratitude in Toxic Relationships

While having gratitude in relationships seems like it would always be beneficial, we need to be careful about cultivating it in relationships where the power dynamics aren’t healthy.

For example, having gratitude can cause harm in abusive relationships. Research shows that it can make victims feel overly tolerant and therefore less likely to seek a way out. 

Gratitude can also harm us in a variety of group settings. For example, studies show that it can lead to complacency in situations where we need to challenge a system that isn’t working. Research shows that gratitude could discourage lower power groups from advocating for their own best interests. 

Another alarming study showed that gratitude can make us more susceptible to obeying instructions to exact harm and engage in ethically questionable behavior. Participants in the study who were induced to feel gratitude were more likely to obey instructions to grind worms in a grinder. The study showed that feeling grateful can actually make us more obedient and vulnerable to toxic social influence.

Cultural Considerations

Culture may also play a role when it comes to determining how much gratitude is too much. In one study, researchers found that South Korean participants benefited significantly less from engaging in gratitude practices than American participants. The researchers suggest that this might be caused by mixed feelings regarding gratitude and indebtedness due to differences in cultural perception.

What You Can Do Instead

To get the benefits of a gratitude practice without the potential negative effects, try the following strategies.

1. Focus on quality, not quantity

If you want to start a gratitude practice, keep it short and sweet. For example, just count three blessings once a week.

2. Don’t put too much pressure on your gratitude practice 

Gratitude is not a competition and there are no trophies for having the best “attitude of gratitude.” Also make sure that you don’t put undue pressure on your gratitude practice to deliver certain outcomes. In other words, don’t use it solely to enhance your manifestation results. 

3. Don’t force it

If counting your blessings doesn’t feel effective, try another gratitude practice such as writing a gratitude letter. If that doesn’t work, just put it away for now and try again at another time.  

4. Savor the feeling

When you do feel gratitude, let it linger for a few seconds or even minutes to really wire in the feeling. This will make it easier to access the feeling in the future. 

5. Be realistic

Make sure that you don’t use a gratitude practice to bypass facing difficult problems or to see only the good in toxic relationships and situations. Being able to see clearly helps us use our best judgment and take action to change things that aren’t working.

 
The Bottom Line

Beware of over-optimizing and overdosing even when it comes to gratitude! If we strive too much for something, we might never reach it or harm ourselves in the process. 

By definition, we cannot and should not experience gratitude at every moment of the day. While we can treat it as a mindset, a trait, a moral virtue, a manifestation aid, or a well-being practice, it’s still a feeling. And, like all feelings, it has its place.

I’d love to hear from you: Have you ever struggled with gratitude practices?

Ask Dr. Kress
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I’ve never seen gratitude from this perspective. I don’t always feel grateful and feel guilty about it because my yoga teacher and therapist always talk about how important gratitude is. I will cut myself some slack from now on and maybe it will come back. Thank you.

You’re welcome. We don’t always feel gratitude and that’s ok. So glad you found some self-compassion Eileen!

Dear Dr. Kress,

I found your website just couple of days ago. I wish I’d found it sooner! Thank you for your expertise and being…human.

I’m 45 years old woman. I have this burning desire to share my unfortunate story with law of attraction materials. I have read some of the articles from you website that I found very calming, healing.

I don’t regret basically anything in life, but I do regret I lost many years to this loa craze. I read so many (too many) loa articles, books and did (and paid) courses. I lost myself…and certainly didn’t attract the things I wanted! I’d say I became “worse”.
It’s an irony that “self-improvement” did not improve me but made me quite crazy, anxious, obsessed.
I have become allergic to the words manifest and abundance.

Once I did a loa course for finances. The teacher adviced us to focus on the tree leaves. That would, apparently, make us “align with abundance”. I don’t know how focusing on tree leaves makes us attract more money?! If loa would work as these gurus say, then focusing on tree leaves would make us attract…more tree leaves :) How silly.
Or to focus on the abundance of the nature. I’m a biologist. So in a way nature is rich and abundant but I understand that nature is meant to be in balance, not so much in abundance. There’s constantly competition of resources between species, that’s how the nature maintains its balance.

It’s been haunting me for years when one loa guru said, that “you cannot break the law of attraction”. How come then it commonly happens?
Recently in my country was the finale of the tv program Big Brother. This one young woman won it. She had been unemployed because of the pandemic, called herself “poor”, was worried about finances, didn’t believe she would win Big Brother. But she did (and won very large sum of money). She was a lovely, energetic, fun, entertaining person. So according to loa gurus, she should have been 100% sure that she would win, see herself as the winner, and feel herself rich. She did none of those things. She focused on current reality; felt poor and didn’t believe she would win. Isn’t this exactly “breaking the law of attraction”??
I have been in similar situation. Was unemployed, zero income, in panic, fear, desperation…then got my dream job! I wasn’t “aligned” emotionally/vibrationally with it at all! But I prayed. I think there are forces stronger than us, to help us, when we are too weak and scared…Thank God!

When I have tried to “confront” the loa gurus, they have responded (attacked) with sarcasm, blaming me for negativity, becoming very defensive. Of course. That’s about their income. Common sense is free, and I lost it along the way :(
If their material doesn’t work for me, their solution is to sell me more…more programs, more coaching. That’s how I “lost” myself. And before this madness, I used to be pretty normal person, graduated from university, so I had believed I’d have enough analytical, smart thinking. I feel they prey/appeal to desperate, lost people, like I was :( And I became even more lost.

Also sinister are the free master classes…usually they are actually long sales pitches. At the end of one of them, the teacher said, now you have two choices, continue doing what you have always done (and be “doomed to fail”) or do my way and participate in my course. Isn’t this demeaning, manipulative? (then I did participate in the course, which was the one about the “tree leaves”!! I’m none the wiser, none richer).

Summer 2017 I hit the rock bottom. Looking back those times, I think I would had needed some emergency mental help.
I experienced some sort of derealization. I was at the stable and met this woman, younger than me, and she was a teacher, dog owner, horse owner, a mother, married…And I was 42 no children, never been married, no job, mentally really unwell. I realised, all this time I had been consuming the loa materials obsessively…other people had been LIVING their lives.
I had some grandiose sense of self, felt superiority, that I knew some secret of the universe that other people didn’t know…and yet my life was much worse than many so-called normal people have. It was a horrible and good wake-up call to me!

I also did a loa based course “7 weeks to attract your soulmate”. Embarrasing, it’s been several years ago and still haven’t attracted the soulmate. Other course participants acted as “vision keepers” but to me it started to feel like “prision guards”.
As if I would own it to some people (that I’ve never even met personally) an explanation, why I still not yet have found the soulmate. Or any partner at all. Part of me hopes I’d never done that course. I feel so embarrased, failed, pressured.
After the course ended, I did meet one man. Naiively I believed, this MUST be “the one”. After promising start…he turned out to be a malignant narcissist. Took me couple of years to heal from that emotional torture. I’d say loa taught “in the wrong way” or incomplete way…can be dangerous, as this story proves. I had this false sense of security, that “now I have done the soulmate course, logically this man is the soulmate”. I think narcissists prey vulnerable people with an “urgency to love” and initially he played the role of a “soulmate” very well. This was a very dangerous experience. Not only he was a narcissist, but also a professional criminal. Does the course teachers take any responsibilty about the “results” this kind of a course can produce? Nope!

Also I have been scared for years, when one loa guru adviced NOT to take any action. That (taking action) would “show the universe, we don’t trust it, if we try to figure it all out by ourselves”. Now I see how silly that is. Some action is always required! Like this young woman who won Big Brother…she had quite a good chance winning it, because she actually participated in it! Winning Big Brother is impossible, if you just sit at home and think about it.

Also I don’t like when the gurus say that loa is scientifically proven. If something is scientifically proven, it means an experiment can be repeated countless of times and always get the exact same results. It would be impossible to do such an experiment, because this is…life. Everyone and every circumstance is unique, with so many “variables”. This is life, always somehow mysterious…Even if loa works in theory, what’s the use if it doesn’t work in reality?

I have never used alcohol or drugs. I do not have any mental health issues. But I did experienced abuse in childhood.
I do not try to “manifest” anything anymore, I found it exhausting and crazy-making. The worst thing: I found it doesn’t work.
But I do have goals; nowadays I only do plain good old goal setting. That requires some work, and not magical thinking and magical practices. I’m much more happy and balanced this way!

It makes me feel afraid how I let myself become manipulated so easily, why I didn’t never question the validity of the materials? I blindly accepted everything. I feel gaslighted. Isn’t it what this was? They made me question my reality and replaced it with their version of reality. I feel I need detox from that cult-like industry. I’m upset I believed 100% what I now consider to be lies and even paid for such courses! And still they insist that they are right and I am wrong.
I’m still dealing with confusion, cognitive dissonance etc. I just want to be normal again. What should I do?

Thank you for sharing your story Anna. I think that many people could relate to it. We can spend years trying to use manifestation practices to attract something without success only to realize that others are living their lives and achieving goals without using the practices. If you’re interested in learning more about the topic, my course Healing from Negative Manifestation Experiences is currently on sale with the discount code HOLIDAYHEALING. It addresses the types of things you mentioned. If you’re experiencing a financial hardship and are interested, I’d love to gift it to you. Just email my team at info@drannakress.com and let them know that you’re the one who left a blog comment. If you’re not interested in yet another course about manifesting, I get it! I think that psychotherapy is a great place to discuss our experiences with manifesting. There are also some podcasts and books that have a more critical perspective on the “cult-like industry” you mentioned. Sounds Like a Cult and Twelfth House might be good podcasts to check out. I hope you find this helpful and that you know that there are many others who’ve gone through the same experience. I wish you the best!