It’s convenient to think of gratitude as an emotion that should come over us naturally, when the time is right, without our forcing it or making a fuss over it. Convenient because this view leaves us nothing to do but wait until the emotion spontaneously transpires. But if you believe that gratitude promotes well-being, that it can make a person kinder and happier, then you might consider gratitude as a thing you’d want to increase in your life even if the increasing takes deliberate effort. 

When you want to have more of a thing, you can create the thing, or you can conserve the thing. This dichotomy is true of money: if you want to be richer you can make more money or save more money. But what if you want to be “richer” in gratitude? Does a similar distinction between creating and conserving apply, or do emotions just not work this way? 

If you browse the literature on mindfulness, personal development, or positive psychology, you will find lots of exercises for creating gratitude. You might be asked to smile more. You might be asked to meditate on the topic of thanks. You might be asked to keep a gratitude journal, writing a list of the good things that happen to you each day. 

But what would it mean to conserve gratitude? Can we become more grateful if we focus on saving or protecting the gratitude we already have? Does this even make sense?

The idea of being stingy with gratitude, hoarding it for special occasions, is antithetical to gratitude’s very meaning – if anything, gratitude is a generous feeling and one that begets more of itself. But there’s another way to unpack the idea of “conserving gratitude” that does make useful sense.

The reality of gratitude is that when we feel it, we might not hold onto the feeling for long. Although gratitude is not something we expend, it is still something that can be lost, drained, or inhibited. So we can become more grateful by turning our attention to what inhibits gratitude – what makes us ungrateful – and learning to avoid those things.

What’s an example of a gratitude inhibitor?

Let’s say you’re having a fine day. You appreciate the gift of being alive – great! Then you spill some milk and start to feel angry and upset. Your perfect day is ruined. From then on, you can’t be happy about anything.

In this example, the spilled milk is not the gratitude inhibitor. The inhibitor is the assumption that you shouldn’t have spilled the milk. It’s the assumption that you shouldn’t have had an accident or made a mistake. It’s the expectation of perfection, the idea that perfection is your right. Once that right is taken away, you feel violated – attacked by reality, so to speak – and closed off to positive interactions with the reality that was so unfair to you.

By saying “I’m not perfect and perfection is not my right,” you can neutralize the inhibitor. Once you’ve accepted imperfection, perhaps you can feel grateful that you had some milk to spill in the first place.

I first started thinking about the idea of a “gratitude inhibitor” after a fight with my partner.

One day, a difference of perspectives led to a misunderstanding which turned into accusations and shouting. After the fight, my feelings were hurt and I couldn’t return to normal. I knew my partner and I would recover from this rough patch like every conflict we’d had in seventeen years, but that didn’t help. Why did I feel unhappy for days on end? How had my sadness become so intense?

I saw that my temporary anger was obscuring my gratitude for the person I had chosen to spend my life with. I couldn’t feel thankful for my partner at the same time I felt so mad. If you had asked me whether I still counted our relationship as a blessing, I would have said yes. But the answer would have been a cerebral one at the time. I wasn’t able to experience the gratitude in my heart in the very same moment I was experiencing the anger. The anger was the inhibitor, a powerful one.

I could see that the fight, with all its shouting and exasperation, wasn’t actually the thing that had made me miserable. The fight was like spilled milk. By itself, it wasn’t so bad and it didn’t have to make me miserable.

What caused the misery was the anger that built up within me in the hours and days after the fight. The anger obscured the gratitude that had been a longstanding source of happiness for me. The anger took that source of happiness away.

If anger inhibits gratitude, then forgiveness is a way to neutralize the inhibitor. In my case, forgiving my partner was a path back to experiencing the gratitude that had always made me feel so good.

Forgiveness is hard. But it can benefit you as much – maybe even more – than the other person, so self-concern is a good enough motivation to try it.

Another inhibitor is comparison. Today’s weather might be decent. But if yesterday’s weather was nicer, we think “Today isn’t as nice as yesterday.” Or “Today’s weather isn’t as nice as I was expecting it to be.” The comparison leads to a feeling of loss. The sizing up of “what is” in relation to “what was” or “what could have been” leaves us feeling cheated. Why do we have to compare in the first place? As soon as we stop comparing, we stop losing. We neutralize the inhibitor. We reclaim our appreciation of “what is,” whatever it happens to be.

In conclusion, there are two ways we can pursue gratitude. We can try to create more of it within ourselves, and we can try to hold onto it longer by noticing and avoiding the things that take it away. ■

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