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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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