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Struggling with Gratitude

written by Shannon Polly 5 November 2014

Shannon Polly, MAPP '09, is a facilitator, speaker and coach in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a boutique consulting firm, Shannon Polly and Associates, where she applies positive psychology to leadership development. She also co-founded Positive Business DC (@positivebizdc) and she has facilitated resilience training for the U.S. Army. Full bio. Shannon's solo articles are here, her articles with Louisa Jewell here, and her articles with Genna Douglass here.

I just came back from taking my youngest daughter to the emergency room (ER). It wasn’t a huge deal. Just a raisin up the nose, but apparently the Ear-Nose-and-Throat (ENT) clinic only services ears. Noses have to go through the ER machine. Coming home with a healthy kid should have made me feel very grateful. I should have felt grateful that it only took me 2 hours and 15 minutes to discover that there was, in fact, no raisin in her nose any more. I’ve averaged 4-5 hours every other visit to the ER. Plus I really should have felt grateful that when I left my wallet in the hospital bathroom, someone returned it to security with EVERYTHING in it. The nurse said that in eight years she has never seen a wallet returned before.

I have read the research on gratitude. I’ve taught gratitude to C-suite executives and Army sergeants. Yet I left the ER feeling more annoyed that my cautious husband had strongly suggested we check this out (three months after a pediatrician visit also found no raisin) than grateful that all of these good things happened.

So why is that? Do I just suck at gratitude? Maybe so. It’s one of my lower strengths on the Values in Action Character Strength Survey. (Take it for free at the VIA Institute on Character). It’s a pretty damning accusation for a positive psychology practitioner, or as my friends call me, the happy expert. Or is it just negativity bias? Hedonic adapation? Or is gratitude just difficult?

Do You See What I See? The Negative

I have a coaching client that described seeing the world as a glass half empty. His wife was annoyed by his viewpoint. He asked me if there was something wrong with him. He seemed reassured when I discussed the negativity bias.

We are all hardwired to see the negative first and to weight it more heavily than the positive. That caveman who was appreciating the beauty of the lone flower outside his cave while his relative was scanning the horizon for predatory beasts was probably eaten and didn’t pass on his genes. So there are adaptive benefits to scanning for threat. But the problem is that our brain equates scanning for threat and missing a deadline as the same thing. The same cortisol rushes through our systems, wreaking havoc when it is over expressed. Living in gratitude seems like a good antidote.

We Adapt… to Almost Everything

But we adapt to the good in our lives. That new car doesn’t make us as happy for as long as we think it will. Dan Gilbert has pointed out that humans are very poor at predicting what will make them happy. Ed Diener discusses the diminishing well-being returns as income increases past a certain point. Tim Kasser shared at the Canadian Positive Psychology Association Conference that focusing on material goods makes us less empathetic to other people.

It seems that hedonic adaptation can apply to gratitude as well. The most famous validated positive psychology intervention is the ‘Three Good Things” exercise where every night you write down three things that happened to you, what they mean to you, why they happened, and what you can do to get more of that good thing. Research has shown that this exercise leads to better health, better sleep, better relationships, and so on. But Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade found that when people did it every day, it made them less happy than if they did it once per week. It seems that people adapted to the gratitude exercise.

Don’t get me wrong. Gratitude works. Look at any of the research from Bob Emmons. I have seen grown men reduced to tears when they started to see the good things in their lives and what they weren’t appreciating about their own families. But it isn’t easy for everyone. One size does not fit all.

I’m More Well Off Than Other People

One strategy that helps is downward social comparison. On the trip of a lifetime to India, I remember standing outside the Taj Mahal thinking how amazing this structure was, how I had finally seen one of the wonders of the world, when a little boy with no legs and one arm rolled up to me on a piece of wood with wheels. He was begging for money. It was such a shocking juxtaposition that I was frozen, not knowing how to react.

I came back from that trip and thought, “I am never going to Starbucks again. I am donating all of our money to charity. I am going to make a change in the world!” Then I adapted. I went back to Starbucks. I haven’t changed the world, yet. But I haven’t forgotten that moment.

Downward social comparison doesn’t always work to induce gratitude, however. I was overwhelmed with sleep deprivation after the birth of my second child and not feeling so grateful at my good fortune in parenting two healthy children. That well-meaning woman who saw me struggling probably should have refrained from sharing that story about her friend whose child passed away at birth. That was heartbreaking, but it made me feel judged, not grateful. I think that gratitude is a strength that needs to be worked on individually. It can be encouraged by others, but not forced.

Work It

So if you know that gratitude is good for you but it is still a struggle, how do you work on it?

As part of my downward social comparison, I try to have triggers to remember that I am part of the luckiest 1% of humans on the planet, whether it be a picture of that trip to India, a letter from an orphanage I worked with in Mexico tacked to my office message board, or weekly calendar reminders. You have to work at it. Just like going to the gym.

Then I have to schedule time to give back. Otherwise with two young children it won’t happen. I also have to select a way to give back that I’m likely to do. I’m doing a workshop on resilience for a group that helps improve the psychological, career, financial, and legal well-being of women, men, and their families, regardless of their ability to pay. Many of the women have been subject to abuse. In leveraging a strength of mine, I’m able to give in a unique way which also makes me remember how lucky I am to have a stable home in which to raise my kids.

Finally I try to surround myself with people who are grateful. I had a few pro bono clients when I was going through my coaching certification. One, who interestingly headed a non-profit, had a top strength of gratitude. He made me feel like a million bucks every time we had a session. He was so grateful for the opportunity to be coached for free, and I worked harder for him. My other client was at a high level in a professional services firm. She made me feel as if she were doing me a favor by giving her time while she was getting free coaching. I started to watch the gentleman who headed the non-profit and learn how he did it. How did his gratitude become his superpower? I realized part of it was allowing himself to be helped. He didn’t struggle to control everything. As a result he got more done, and made others feel good for helping him. I heard Bonnie St. John comment in a speech that the most successful people in life are the most helpable.

So what can you do to be helpable? To be grateful? Not to adapt to the best things in life? If I can do it, anyone can.

Editor’s Note: This article was commissioned for the character strength, Gratitude, in the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.



Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370.

Britton, K. H. (2014). Well-being and meaning on a seesaw. Positive Psychology News. Includes links to Tim Kasser’s work.

Britton, K. H. & Maymin, S. (Eds.) (2010). Gratitude: How to appreciate life’s gifts. Positive Psychology News Series.

Diener, E. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Emmons, R. (2013). Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389. Abstract.

Gilbert, D. (2007). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: VIntage.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does.

Pollay, D. J. (2007). Positive psychology progress: Empirical evaluation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5): 410-21.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Child’s nose courtesy of betsyjean79
Predatory animal courtesy of Arno Meintjes Wildlife
Begging child courtesy of prunejuice
Taj Mahal courtesy of Gustible

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Emily 5 November 2014 - 12:48 pm

Really nice piece, Shannon! Thank you.

Layton 5 November 2014 - 2:12 pm Reply
Margaret Greenberg 5 November 2014 - 8:33 pm

Thank you for the reminder Shannon. I love how you take a personal story and then weave in the relevant research…well done!

I must admit, I have always cringed at the term “downward social comparison”. I know that is not your term, but one that we commonly use in psychology. Maybe being grateful isn’t comparing ourselves to anyone other than our own best possible self. However, being grateful requires us to hit the pause button now and then. It’s hard to be grateful when we are busy, busy, busy (oh how I remember what life was like when my kids were little).

You asked what do your readers do to be grateful? When I think of gratitude I think of being grateful for what one has and grateful to others. One of my rituals is when I grab my cup of coffee in the morning, I look out my window to (usually) a beautiful sunrise and I’m reminded of how grateful I am to be healthy, loved, and living in a part of the world where I am free and safe. When it comes to being grateful for other people, call me old fashioned, but I love writing hand-written notes. You must, too, as I remember getting one from you!

Shannon Polly 6 November 2014 - 9:28 am

Thanks, Emily, for reading!

Shannon Polly 6 November 2014 - 9:55 am


Interesting article. MAPPSter Michelle McQuaid did write a book with a title that has a swear word and she cites research that it can make you less stressed.

I’m curious…do other people think that gratitude is a way of covering up anger? Maybe Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener want to weigh in…

Thanks for reading,

Shannon Polly 6 November 2014 - 10:26 am


Thanks for your thoughtful response. Yes, we have social scientist Leon Festinger who coined the term in 1954 to thank for the phrase. And I think you make a great point about comparing ourselves to only our best selves.

I love your morning ritual! Bonnie St. John also said that some of the most successful people have ‘slow time’ in the morning. Maybe that’s why you’ve been so successful! Slow time coupled with gratitude.

And yes, my mother taught me how to write a mean thank you note…and I love beautiful stationary. So that’s another way in.

Thanks, Margaret.

Donna Hemmert 6 November 2014 - 4:24 pm

Unique piece on gratitude, Shannon. I felt uplifted by it.

I like the idea of being “helpable.” Reminds me reading about, in a given situation, a person who is helping feels closer in the relationship that then one who is helped. If that is correct, than being “helpable” should also lead to those in your life feeling closer. 🙂

Thanks for the great article!

Shannon Polly 6 November 2014 - 9:17 pm

Thanks, Donna. Was that Post (Why Good Things Happen To Good People)? Good comment on how people can feel closer to you.

Kathryn Britton 7 November 2014 - 8:06 am

Margaret, You bring to mind Aren Cohen’s article about writing thank you notes after her wedding: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/aren-cohen/200812121313 — If I’m not mistaken, it’s still the most viewed article in PPND by a long chalk.

Relative to downward comparison, I feel some of your discomfort. It’s hard to me to feel better because someone else is worse off than I am. But there’s all sorts of downward comparison, including internal reflections about your own state. You can feel grateful that you are better off (in some way) than you were in the past. Or that you are better off than you could be, if things had turned out differently. I’ve felt grateful after a fall because I didn’t break anything. Or even when I have, that I heal quickly.

Or it could be looking at the present next to the future. There’s that wonderful poem by Jane Kenyon.


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Judy Krings 7 November 2014 - 9:27 am

Right on, Shannon, and love your honesty and candor. You bet Todd Kashdan would appreciate for telling it like it is and giving space for your chagrin. We all have our dark side and need to let negativity rip a bit. Life ain’t perfect, or is our ER system! but I enjoyed hearing how you allowed these emotions and re-framed. Tough to do some days. Isn’t Kashdan and Biswas-Diener’s new book, The Upside to Your Dark Side” an eye-opener? We can’t be grateful all the time. Crap happens.

Having just returned from a dream trip after delivering a keynote in India, I especially appreciate your Taj Mahal photo and story about the child missing his limbs. Gulp. What an oxymoron opportunity to reflect. Bet all your emotions were on alert. Thanks so much!

Kathryn, love the poem. Thanks to you, too.

Yes, gratitude is one of my top strengths, and my Mom’s as well. …I’ll share some any time.

Great blog. Now to check out the thank you note blog as I just had a client asked me the norm and how could she get her daughter’s butt into gear!

Shannon Polly 7 November 2014 - 2:01 pm

What a rich discussion! Thanks for your comments. It has spurred me to be a bit more precise in my language so that I can convey what I mean. And these are fine lines here. Thanks for helping to clarify my thinking and writing.

I did not use the phrase ‘downward social comparison’ to mean ‘schadenfreude’ (happiness at the expense of other’s misfortune), nor did I even mean being glad you aren’t someone else, ‘whew! So glad I live in a house and am not a beggar in India’. What I meant is that disparities exist. (In this case, material disparities exist. I can’t comment on other aspects of well-being.) I am angry about those disparities and that spurs me to take action (re: Layton’s comment above). In addition, it helps to remind me of what I have and should be grateful for and not take for granted. How do you know light without dark?

The other distinction I would make is the word ‘downward’. That seems to be the word that triggers people. It does not imply that I am BETTER than a beggar in India, merely that I have more material wealth than he/she does.

And I think that most humans compare themselves to other people, for better or worse. Maybe at higher adult developmental stages this stops being the case. That would be an interesting place to look.

But this has been a great discussion because I realize in going back to the definition of the phrase it doesn’t encapsulate what I meant. So perhaps it requires new language.

Shannon Polly 7 November 2014 - 2:13 pm

Thank you, Kathryn, for the poem and thank you, Judy, for your comments as well.

What an amazing time you must have had in India, Judy. Congrats!

Here is a poem I came across which ties in to this discussion:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy.
A quickening
That is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you
in all of time
this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist
Through any other medium
And will be lost.
The world will not have it,
It is not your business to determine
How good it is, nor how valuable,
Nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours
Clearly and directly,
To stay open and aware
To the urges that motivate you

Keep the channel open

…..Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille, in Dance to the Piper

Judy Krings 8 November 2014 - 7:04 am

Thanks ever so much for the poem, Shannon. I am copy and pasting both yours and Kathryn’s and printing them.

Ahhh…They put life in perspective and soothe my soul. Great reminders of how fast life does by and our voice matters, just as Chris Peterson, God love him, always said.


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