Gratitude Types of Gratitude Attitude of Gratitude Notice Feel Think Do Science of Gratitude Illusions of Gratitude The Gist Gratitude Practice & Exercises Gratitude Resources

Gratitude can alter the way we see and interact with the world around us.

And, our perception of gratitude can alter how we experience gratitude.

On this page, explore the illusion of ~insincere gratitude~ and how your beliefs may be contributing to or inhibiting your experience of gratitude.

This page is divided into two sections:

  1. A broader examination of the unintended consequences of a polite society on our experience of gratitude, and
  2. A collection of beliefs people hold about gratitude that can limit our experience of it.

By familiarizing yourself with the myths you may be buying into, you can better understand how your beliefs aid and hinder your gratitude practice, and continue down the path of developing a gratitude practice or attitude of gratitude.

Note: Our view on gratitude is heavily influenced by culture and other contextual pieces of our lives. Your experience of gratitude as a child has shaped how you experience gratitude as an adult — including affecting how often you say ‘thank you.’ Some of the beliefs outlined on this page may stand out more or less to you, depending on factors like religious/spiritual beliefs, nationality, affluence, etc…

To dive in more to the cultural differences of experiencing gratitude, see the Types page.

Gratitude Isn’t Always Genuine

Sarcasm, guilt, and good manners do not count when it comes to practicing genuine gratitude and making connections with others. Insincere gratitude like automatically saying ‘thank you’ when someone holds the door open for you isn’t what is meant by ‘practicing gratitude’ and therefore doesn’t lead down a path to experiencing the benefits of gratitude.

In this section, we’ll explore some examples of insincere gratitude and some tips to add more authenticity to your habit of saying ‘thank you.’

Examples of Insincere Gratitude

Reluctant/Forced Gratitude

  • “It’s the thought that counts”
  • Being forced to write a thank you note even though you don’t like the sweater Grandma got you
  • Saying thank you to someone who didn’t really help you


  • “At least I have it better than that guy”
  • “You should be grateful for your food because there are children starving in Africa”
  • When someone sarcastically says “You’re Welcome” before you’ve said thank you.

Dwayne Johnson – You’re Welcome (from Moana/Official Video)
What I believe you’re trying to say…. Is: thank you!

Automatic Gratitude

  • Thanking someone for holding the door for you.
  • Tipping (in America)
  • Thanking the barista when they hand you the coffee you paid for.
  • “What do you say to grandma, hmm?”
  • Gratitude eliciting holidays: Thanksgiving, Mother’s day, Father’s day, Grandparent’s day.

When gratitude isn’t backed by empathy and/or validation, it can come across as insincere.

In a gratitude context…

Empathy is understanding and reflecting back the feelings and intentions of another person.
Validation is recognition or affirmation that a person’s actions, contributions, or gifts are worthwhile and acceptable.

Without empathy or validation:

  • When your partner cooks you dinner, and you respond with “Thanks, I am so glad I didn’t have to cook!”
  • When someone passes along a book to you and you respond with “Thank you for the book.” or “Thanks but I don’t read much.”
  • When you donate to a non-profit, they send a thank you note that asks for more money at the end—a tactic that has been researched and can actually decrease the amount donated by repeat donors (Sudhir, et al. 2019).

With empathy and/or validation:

  • “Thank you for meeting my need for ease tonight and taking your time to prepare this meal for us.” OR “I appreciate you learning new things and developing your skills in the kitchen
  • “Thank you for thinking of me when you finished this book and passing it along to me!” OR “Thank you for sharing with me! I’m excited for us to connect over this book.”
  • When you donate to a non-profit and they send you a story of the impact your specific donation had, like “Your donation provided 347 cans of dog food to our shelter, and your support is valuable to us and the dogs!

“Thank You” Backfires When Used in This Way
BrainCraft asks: is there such a thing as too much gratitude? And can gratitude ever do more harm than good? Research has found when gratitude is perceived as insincere, the gratitude expressed has no effect on the receiver, or actually has a negative effect.

The Illusion of Thanksgiving

Myth: the time and place for gratitude is once a year…on Thanksgiving.

If you live in North America, you are familiar with the trend: every year when the weather starts getting colder, everyone — from your boss to your podcast host — starts talking about thankfulness in a performative way.

Different countries celebrate different holidays where gratitude is shared like Harvest Festivals in the UK, Erntedankfest in Germany, and Labor Thanksgiving Day in Japan. (For more on traditions similar to Thanksgiving, see the Types of Gratitude page).

While Thanksgiving and harvest festivals can be reminders to practice gratitude and connect with friends and family, gratitude expert Robet Emmons says for gratitude to be effective and add value to our life, it needs to be a regular practice (R. Emmons, 2008). Going around the table sharing thanks once a year isn’t going to make any huge difference— the time and place for gratitude is all the time (or whenever it feels genuine).

Fun Fact: The “Mother” of Thanksgiving

The most widely taught origin story of Thanksgiving in the U.S. details a feast between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. While this origin story is debated and questionable, a little known fact is the national holiday was actually established in 1863 thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was a writer and activist who, following the civil war, advocated to President Lincoln to create a unifying holiday for everyone to celebrate together and be grateful. Hale believed gratitude could unite the country — and could start to heal the divisions formed by brothers fighting each other throughout the war. Hale wrote over 30 letters to the White House advocating for the holiday, and Lincoln named Thanksgiving a national holiday (Norwood, 2017).

Hale is coincidentally also the writer of the children’s rhyme Mary had a Little Lamb!

Fostering Insincere Gratitude

A cycle of insincere gratitude is fostered in childhood, when parents force their reluctant children into saying ‘thank you.’ Often, parents attempt to teach gratitude by forcing grateful behavior. Instead of fostering an attitude of gratitude, this teaches children the moral obligation of gratitude and that can follow us through to adulthood.

According to the Greater Good Science Center, the experience of gratitude has four parts, yet parents often neglect to teach all four:

  • What we NOTICE in our lives for which we can be grateful
  • How we THINK about why we have been given those things
  • How we FEEL about the things we have been given
  • What we DO to express appreciation in turn

Parents often focus on children having good manners and saying ‘thank you’, but skip over the other parts of the experience (Hussong, 2017)

“I remember the first time I got to go trick-or-treating with a friend as a kid. I was probably 5 or 6 years old. Before leaving, my mom had drilled into me ‘ALWAYS SAY THANK YOU’ so I got it into my head: ring the doorbell, receive the candy, say thank you.

The first house I got to, I rang the doorbell and a lady answered the door and I held my bag open for candy. Before giving me the candy she said ‘Well? What do you say?’

‘THANK YOU!!’ I replied, smiling because I remembered what my mom had told me.

‘Um, no.’ She said, ‘I haven’t given you any candy yet! What do you say before you get the candy?’

I had no idea. All I knew was: ring the doorbell, get the candy, say thank you. ‘Um… Happy Halloween?’ I said.

‘You’re supposed to say: trick or treat! Silly!’

My mom had been so careful to teach me how to say thank you that she forgot to teach me to first say trick or treat. Skipping over the experience of Halloween and noticing why I was saying ‘thank you’ caused my thank yous to become insincere and automatic — polite manners instead of genuine gratitude for the kindness of strangers.”

—Maddie M., former mechanical gratitude child

Antidotes to Insincere Gratitude

So, how can we change insincere gratitude to genuine thankfulness?

Putting the “You” in Thank You, with Dr. Sara Algoe
Gratitude Researcher Sara Algoe says one thing we can do to make gratitude impactful is to put the “YOU” back into thank you. Why gratitude stands out above other positive psychology practices is because we are able to bring other people into our expressions and associate something someone else did for us with the feelings we are experiencing.

How to Talk with Kids about Gratitude
Greater Good Science Center created this animated short to demonstrate the gratitude tool of Notice, Think, Feel, Do.

In receiving a pair of socks we can talk about how warm and stylish the socks are, AND we can talk about how considerate the other person is in thinking of us when they found these socks and having the nice thought to buy them for us.

Deeply receiving gifts can turn what is typically reluctant, guilt-driven, or automatic gratitude into genuine gratitude.

Here are some questions to ponder (or discuss with kids) to help foster a fully grateful experience when receiving gifts*:


  • What gifts or things in your life are you grateful for?
  • What “gifts” in your life are you overlooking or taking for granted?


  • Why do you think the person did that or gave you the gift?
  • Was the gift owed to you because of something you did?
  • Do you owe the person anything in return?
  • Do you think the gift was genuine and sincere?


  • When I first saw the gift, I felt…
  • Now, when I see the gift, I feel…
  • Why do you think you feel ___?
  • What feelings behind material things are you grateful for (i.e. feeling of love behind a gift from a loved one).

*See the NVC feelings list


  • How can you show how you feel about the gift?
  • How can you share your feelings with others?

**Gifts can also represent acts of service, feelings, support, nature, experiences, etc…

Another antidote for strengthening the authenticity of our gratitude is to examine and understand the beliefs we may be holding about gratitude and begin to develop a mindset that will serve us on the path to a genuine gratitude practice that brings benefits and joy.

Gratitude Beliefs and Alternatives

Did you realize you had beliefs about gratitude??

Do any of these feel familiar to you?

  • “I feel like people just say ‘thank you’ out of obligation.”
  • “I don’t have anything to be grateful for right now.”
  • “One day, you’ll look back and appreciate this part of your life.”
  • “I don’t believe in God, so who would I thank for the weather?”
  • “God is responsible for all the goodness in my life.”
  • “If I celebrate every little thing, I’m afraid I’ll stop striving for more.”
  • “Who would I thank if I’ve worked for all I have?”
  • “I don’t have time for fluff, I have work to do.”

Some beliefs about gratitude hold more traction than others. In movies and TV, gratitude is often shown as a simple-yet-life-altering platitude when, finally, the main character has a humbling/life altering/eye opening experience and thanks his savior/neighbor/friend/family and instantly fixes his life and his relationships.

Freaky Friday
A mother and daughter switch places and can only switch back until they have found gratitude and understanding for one another.

It’s a Wonderful Life
When George is on the brink of ending his own life, an angel shows him all the things he takes for granted and what life would be like without him there.

Les Miserables
Jean Valjean was shown kindness by a priest in his darkest hour and spends the rest of his life taking care of others in a life led by Godliness.

In real life, gratitude is much deeper and harder to grasp.

The Myths of Gratitude

  1. Most gratitude is insincere and just good manners.
    “I feel like people just say thank you out of obligation”
    Alternative: The feeling of gratitude is subjective and the attitude of gratitude is a skill that can be developed.
  2. Gratitude isn’t possible in the face of adversity.
    “I don’t have anything to be grateful for right now.” “Life is too hard to think about fluffy stuff”
    Alternative: Gratitude can look different during hard times, and it can still be found.
  3. Gratitude is a form of toxic positivity.
    “There are starving children in Africa so just be grateful for what you have.”
    Alternative: Gratitude is a tool, not a fix-all solution.
  4. There has to be someone to thank.
    “I don’t believe in God, so who would I thank for the weather?” “God is responsible for all the goodness in my life”
    Alternative: There doesn’t need to be someone to thank, but there can be. When there is no one to thank, feeling gratitude can be tied to feeling awe.
  5. Gratitude leads to complacency.
    “If I celebrate every little thing, I’m afraid I’ll stop striving for more.”
    Alternative: Practicing gratitude can actually help us be more successful at reaching goals by encouraging patience, perseverance, and easing burnout, as well as inspiring prosocial behavior.
  6. Gratitude gives away all the credit.
    “Who would I thank if I’ve worked for all I have?”
    Alternative: Thanking a support system can be empowering rather than self-effacing.
  7. Gratitude doesn’t belong at work.
    “Here we go again, I don’t have time for fluff, I have work to do”
    Alternative: Gratitude can boost productivity at work and helps employees feel more valued and satisfied with their workplace.

1. Most gratitude is insincere or just good manners.


  • You hold the door open for someone and they say ‘thank you’
  • You hold the door open for someone and they don’t say ‘thank you’
  • You give someone a gift and they say ‘thanks’
  • You donate to a cause you’re passionate for and they send you an automatic email saying ‘thank you for your donation’


  • “I feel like people just say thank you out of obligation”
  • “They didn’t say ‘thank you’ and that is really rude”
  • “There is nothing special about this thank you note”
  • “Most of the tips in this section are how to make my expressions more genuine, but how do I make other people more genuine?”

The belief that gratitude is just a way of having good manners but doesn’t have much meat behind it is a very common mindset, particularly for those who have never really thought about gratitude as a tool/practice before.

‘Thank you’ can show up as an empty platitude and obligatory manners, making it a simple and unnecessary expression.

Good manners and platitude stem from one type of gratitude — the behavior of gratitude: saying ‘thank you’ when someone does something or gives you something. The behavior of gratitude can be transactional and automatic, making it come across as insincere.

Alternative belief: Gratitude is more than a behavior. The feeling of gratitude is subjective and the attitude of gratitude is a skill that can be developed.

The truth is,  gratitude can show up as empty platitudes and good manners, but in developing a practice of gratitude that aims to bring about benefits and joy, we are aiming for genuine feelings of gratitude that can lead to a new way of being.

The difference is a choice:

Someone gives you a gift and you say ‘thank you’ — as a behavior, this exchange is fueled by societal norms and good manners and can either be sincere or insincere.

Someone gives you a gift and you feel grateful — either for the gift or for the person existing in your life. This is a feeling that you make the choice to experience.

Take Action — Fake It Until You Feel It.

Actively try to have the attitude, and soon it will start coming naturally.

As AJ Jacobs explains in his Ted Talk, sometimes to get to feeling gratitude regularly, you need to “Fake it until you feel it.”  

Jocobs says, “what I found was that if you act as if you’re grateful, you eventually become grateful for real.”

A quick exercise you can do to help you fake it until you feel it is to write down some quotes you like and put them on sticky notes around your home. When you see the note, it can be a cue for you to take a minute to notice how you are feeling and think of something to be grateful for.

For a list of quotes, see the Gratitude Resources page.

Ready to jump into actively developing your gratitude skill?

Start here:

But what about other people?
How do I make my partner (or friend, parent, child, etc.) express/feel more genuine gratitude towards me??

In short, you can’t…
As a subjective feeling, you can’t make anyone feel gratitude towards you.

But you can teach others how you like to receive gratitude, express your need for validation and affirmation and communicate about how gratitude can show up in your relationship.

For more on how you like to receive gratitude, see the Types of Gratitude page.

Below are some other sections of A Meaning of Life that are helpful in developing skills in communication and expressing needs:

2. Gratitude isn’t possible in the face of adversity.


  • You just found out a loved one died.
  • You’ve been diagnosed with a serious health condition.
  • You lost your job.
  • An important relationship ended.
  • You are experiencing homelessness.
  • You don’t have enough money to pay the bills and buy groceries.


  • “I don’t have anything to be grateful for right now.”
  • “How can I thank God for anything when he put me in this situation?”
  • “Life is too hard to think about fluffy stuff.”

Thoughts that may sound like gratitude but are insincere or toxic positivity:

  • “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all…”
  • “Some people have it far worse than me so I should be grateful to have X, Y, Z.”
  • “Thanks for nothing! Glad I don’t have to deal with that BS anymore! Good riddance!”

How would you practice gratitude in the moment? Without ignoring your grief/suffering/pain??

AND how to make it genuine and not just some fluff on top of a bad day??

In the worst moments, it can feel impossible to find something to be grateful for.

Some may believe that practicing gratitude is a privilege. Or, only people who have everything they need have time/space to be grateful for all they have.

“We chase extraordinary moments instead of being grateful for ordinary moments until hard shit happens. And then in the face of really hard stuff — illness, death, loss — the only thing we’re begging for is a normal moment.” — Brené Brown

“Every Moment is a Gift” ~ with Br David Steindl-Rast ~ A Sacred Films Production
Gratitude expert Brother David Steindl-Rast explains:

Can we be grateful for everything? NO. But we can be grateful in every moment.

In reality, we can’t all be Benedictine Monks…

Instead of being indiscriminately grateful, it may be easier to look at gratitude differently.

After a tragedy, gratitude can look more like:

  • Noticing a child smiling and being grateful they are finding joy.
  • Remembering past ordinary moments and realizing how special those moments were.
  • Experiencing support from family and friends and expressing gratitude to them.

Alternative belief: Gratitude can look different during hard times, and it can still be cultivated — it’s even been researched to actually help with those hard times.

Research shows gratitude can actually make us more resilient in the face of hardship by creating a buffer of positive emotions to combat depression.

Hope, optimism, future time perspective, resilience, and gratitude all significantly related to life satisfaction (p < .01) among homeless youth (Rew et al., 2019).

Additional studies have been conducted with college students (Wood et al., 2008), breast cancer patients (Algoe & Stanton, 2012), veterans with PTSD (Kashdan, et al. 2006), victims of a bombings (Smith, 2014), and survivors of terrorist attacks (Fredrickson, et al., 2003). Overall they have concluded that gratitude has a positive correlation to social support, and a negative correlation to stress and depression.

This means that during hard times, more gratitude comes hand in hand with more social support and less depression.

Social support has been researched to lower stress levels and aid in recovery (see more about this in the friendship section), so one possible explanation of the link to gratitude is that rather than gratitude leading to more social support and less depression, people who have more social support tend to be less stressed / depressed and have more space to practice gratitude.

Oliver Sacks
In the last two years of his life, author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a collection of essays titled “Gratitude” where he details coming to terms with aging, dying, and his life. In one essay, he explains receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis and he writes: “I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the diagnosis” (Sacks, 2019).

We Asked Homeless People: What Are You Thankful For?
The Wally Show asks people in line for a mobile shower and clothes drive: what are you thankful for?

Some responses:
– Family and friends
– God
– Having a place to stay in the cold
– Getting to see a child after time apart
– Living, waking up everyday
Even in the hardest times, one can still have hope.

Tania Luna: My story of gratitude
Tania shares three stories of living a grateful life.
—The story of her own childhood and the gratitude she felt finding a penny on the ground of the homeless shelter where she lived and being so excited to buy a piece of gum.
—The story of her husband’s childhood of homelessness and owning nothing but a shoebox of comics and G.I. Joes.
—And the story of her dog and the gratitude they feel when they go for walks as a family.

“We cannot be grateful for all that a given moment brings us; yet, in any given moment, we can be grateful for something. The gift within the gift of any given moment is opportunity.” ~ Br. David Steindl-Rast

Want to dive into developing a grateful mindset in every moment? Check out these pages:

And, for more on noticing what we take for granted, Try This:

The Can of Beans Exercise


  • Can of white beans (or any canned beans)
  • Can opener
  • Spoon

Instead of preparing a meal, your dinner for the night is this can of beans. Do not warm the beans up, do not pour them into a bowl. Open the can and eat them straight using the spoon.


  • How do the cold beans compare to your normal dinners?
  • If you could only eat this cold can of beans for the rest of your life, what food(s) would you miss the most?
  • What other aspects of your life could you apply this same idea to? (i.e. walking to work instead of driving, not using electricity for a day, having to boil all your water or only having cold water available…etc)
  • While eating the beans, what can you find in the experience to be grateful for besides “I’m grateful I don’t need to eat beans every meal”?
  • If you were in a situation to only be able to eat beans for every meal (whether that be a financial necessity or you were in a survival situation) how would your perspective of the beans change?

Why the Beans?
The purpose of this exercise is to appreciate the little things in life like a nicely prepared meal. Comparing the can of beans to your usual dinners will help you realize how much you take for granted and ground in the opportunities for gratitude you may be missing just during dinner. Additionally, it may help you think about gratitude differently. While you eat the beans, you may think “Thankfully I don’t have to eat beans everyday” whereas if you did have to eat beans everyday, you may think “I’m grateful for these beans I have each day to fill my belly.”

3. Gratitude is a form of toxic positivity.

This belief can come up really anytime in life when negative emotions may come up and one is teaching someone to keep a positive mindset or is striving to keep a positive mindset themselves.
(i.e. a kid fell off their bike, a relationship ended, someone failed, etc…)


  • “At least I didn’t break both of my legs!”
  • “This trauma is going to make you so much stronger”
  • “There are starving children in Africa, so be thankful for the food you have”
  • “One day, you’ll look back and appreciate this part of your life”
  • “Let’s say Grace, because no matter what happened today, God helped put this food on our table”

As a child, if you were taught to “always look on the bright side” then you may take statements like “we can be grateful in every moment” as a form of toxic positivity.

This belief is tied closely to the belief that gratitude can’t exist in the face of adversity because it minimizes “bad” feelings.

Sad? Be grateful for what you have!
Hurt? Be grateful you aren’t hurt even more!
Someone died? Be grateful that at least you got some time with them!

The platitudes that people say in hard times like “everything happens for a reason”  or “look on the bright side…” can be a naïve form of positive thinking.

Monty Python – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
(Satirical) Stranded on the cross? It’s simple! Always look on the bright side of life and everything will turn out fine.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Trailer
Kimmy Schmidt: the most naïve positivity there is. Freed from an underground bunker after 15 years, Kimmy moves to New York full of positivity and hope and lacking understanding of the world around her.

Toxic positivity happens when people believe that negative thoughts about anything should be avoided. Often, sentiments like the above statements and below quote from Buddha can be taken too far— invalidating feelings and leading to feelings staying bottled inside.

“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.” –Buddha

The concept of toxic positivity is explored more in the Hope section — check it out:

Alternative belief: Gratitude is a tool, not a fix-all solution.

Like all mental health interventions, gratitude as a practice may work for some, and may not work for others. And, in terms of minimizing bad feelings, research shows that while gratitude can help focus on the positive, it doesn’t take away the negative.

Research shows gratitude can boost positive emotions, but has little effect on reversing negative emotions.

  • In one study of gratitude in the workplace, researchers found those in the gratitude condition increased in positive affect by 9.8% while the control group increased only 2%. However, when looking at negative affect, both the gratitude group and the control group decreased in negative affect by 14%, showing gratitude wasn’t specifically to blame for the decrease (Kaplan et al., 2013).
  • In another study of how gratitude affects the brain, researchers found gratitude practice was positively correlated to oxytocin production, but was not correlated to decreasing cortisol (Algoe & Way, 2014).
  • A meta analysis of gratitude interventions evaluated the efficacy of gratitude on well-being. Across 3 studies, researchers found gratitude was positively correlated to increasing well-being. In one study, between the gratitude condition and the control, there was a significant difference in positive affect (.18 vs -.03) while the group showed the same results when measured for negative affect (.07) (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

Optimism and Pessimism can both be constructive, but both perspectives have unsavory counterparts that do more harm than good for those that wield them.

In a gratitude context, instead of ignoring our suffering and turning to all positive things, we can use gratitude as a tool to draw attention to the fact that there are some good things going on even though there are also bad things going on.

There are starving children in Africa so just be grateful for what you have.” → shifts to → “In the sea of challenge and trauma I’m swimming in, I can see a few good things that are occurring as well.”

Toxic Positivity: Be grateful for everything!

Attitude of Gratitude: I cannot be grateful for everything but I can practice gratitude habitually throughout the day.

Try This — Shift your Thinking (don’t stamp down your feelings)

Situation/thought Potential Shift
“At least I have it better than that guy.”
“Lots of people in the world have it way worse than me and I should be grateful for what I have.”
I can remind myself that I am not alone in my suffering, and while others may have it worse than me, there are also others that share the same suffering I have.
I realize everyone feels down sometimes, it is part of being human, and I connect with our shared suffering.
I reflect on how fortunate I am to have basic things in life like food, clothing, and shelter.
“The world is so terrible these days, it feels like there is no hope.” I can open my heart to the widespread suffering in the world and it may be intense, but I can find moments of joy and peace throughout.
I can see the hard things in my own life and in the lives of others – such as pain, illness, poverty, injustice, stress, loss, and unhappiness – while also seeing clearly the things that are beneficial, beautiful, and enjoyable in life.
Driving by a car accident, thinking “Thank God that’s not me.” or “This road is so dangerous.” “I hope everyone is ok.”
Breathe in the tragedy/stress/fear of being in a car accident, breathe out calm healing thoughts.
Take a moment to reflect on how fleeting life is, and how much we take for granted daily.

What thoughts and shifts can you think of?

Want to dive into developing a grateful mindset in every moment? Check out these pages:

4. There has to be someone to thank.


  • You get to the top of a mountain and the view takes your breath away
  • The sun is out and it is a beautiful day
  • You bite into an apple and savor the sweet juicy natural goodness
  • A loved one beats the odds and recovers from an accident/illness


  • “I don’t believe in God so why would I thank anyone for this mountain created by tectonic plates?”
  • “Who would I thank if I’ve worked for all I have?”
  • “Thanks global warming for this beautiful day”
  • “I need to thank the doctors that saved their life”
  • “Oh, thank god” (as an insincere/automatic expression)

Often when talking about gratitude, God/religion/spirituality comes hand in hand. Culture and background can play a huge role in how one experiences and expresses gratitude, and religion is a big part of that. See the types of gratitude page if you are curious about how gratitude can show up differently in different cultures around the world.

Gratitude and positive psychology researcher Robert Emmons defines gratitude in two steps:

  1. Affirmation of goodness in our life.
  2. Recognizing the source of goodness is wholly or partially outside oneself.

The first step makes sense — “I have an apple and it is delicious”
The second step can become a gray area if there doesn’t seem to be a specific person or group to recognize.

You can recognize a person as the source of a gift, but who can you thank for how good an apple tastes? Or your life circumstances? Or the weather?

The result can be cynical…

The Simpsons — Bart’s prayer
Dear God: We paid for all of this stuff ourselves, so… thanks for nothing.

Or, the result can be overly time-consuming…
In biting into a delicious apple, we can attribute that apple being in our hand to hundreds of people involved in the growing, picking, distribution, and selling of the apple.

My journey to thank all the people responsible for my morning coffee | A.J. Jacobs
Author and NPR contributor A.J. Jacobs set out to say thank you to everyone responsible for his daily cup of coffee — turns out there were hundreds of people to thank. He made the realization that he takes basic things in his life for granted — like water —  and spurred him to have a more grateful outlook on life.

In March 2020, Jeff Gerson was admitted to New York City’s NYU Langone Tisch Hospital suffering from COVID-19. He was intubated the next day, and when he woke up a month later, Gerson had no recollection of his recovery, but still wanted to thank the heroes who saved his life. So he tracked down the names of all 116 doctors, nurses, and therapists by looking through his insurance records and treatment charts. Then, he sent a letter of thanks naming each one.
Read the full article here.

Attribution MAY be a part of gratitude, but it isn’t the whole story.

Alternative belief: Gratitude doesn’t require attribution.

We can be grateful for things in our life without knowing who is directly responsible. Gratitude isn’t always about thanking someone; it is also a feeling, a virtue, and an attitude, a way of being to appreciate your situation and the world around you. Instead of thanking someone else for what we have, the mindset in this situation may be to take stock of the goodness in life and realize the things we take for granted.

In the context of thinking there needs to be someone to thank, there are 3 paths:

  1. Tracking down hundreds of people and thanking them all (very time consuming, but likely to be genuine and rewarding)
  2. Thanking God (Dependent on believing in a higher power, which may not work for everyone)
  3. Recognizing the beauty and goodness in everyday life and having an attitude of gratitude — being grateful in the moment for the events and situations that have placed us where we are, whether that be in a coffee shop on a Monday morning sipping a delicious drink or on top of a mountain watching the sunset over a beautiful vista.
Circumstance Shifted Thoughts
You get to the top of a mountain and the view takes your breath away “I appreciate how many little things needed to work together to create this natural beauty”
The sun is out and it is a beautiful day “I’m so grateful I get to spend time outside today”
You bite into an apple and savor the sweet juicy natural goodness “Wow, I am really enjoying this apple and I’m glad I get to savor it for a minute”
A loved one beats the odds and recovers from an accident/illness “I took for granted the time we had together and I’m grateful to have more time”

You can learn about all the forms gratitude might take on the Types of Gratitude page.

Try This: Compare Two Paths of Gratitude

Get a sheet of paper and write down 5 things you are grateful for from the past week with lots of space in between each entry.

Under each entry, make two columns.

In the first column, list people who can be appreciated for their role in the thing happening — the path of thanking everyone responsible for the entry.

In the second column list the events/circumstances/Awesome things that led to that entry happening — the path of the attitude of gratitude.

You can get very specific or leave it to 3-5 things per column, whatever feels more connective to you.

Example: I am grateful for getting to watch my niece perform in her ballet recital.

Thank all the People

  • My sister and brother in law for raising a joyful and creative person and fostering her uniqueness.
  • The dance teacher for having so much patience
  • My boss for giving me the time off to go see the recital
  • My husband for sitting through the 2 hours of 7 year olds dancing with me

The Attitude of Gratitude

  • Living close enough to family to have experiences that foster connection
  • Having a flexible job and the privilege to take a day off work
  • Having a healthy family who can participate in things like dance recitals
  • The confidence my niece has to be able to get up and dance in a theater full of people

You can dive deeper into the Attitude of Gratitude here.

Another alternative belief: Feeling gratitude for nature is tied to the feeling of Awe.

Awe, ignited by the experience of profound beauty, among other things, can evoke the feeling of being super-connected to other people, to nature, to humanity, and to the universe as a whole. When we stop and smell the roses, appreciate a sunset, or are blown away by a view at the top of a mountain, we have the opportunity to experience awe and have gratitude for the world as it exists and the miracle that is the Earth.

Want to get into the nitty gritty of Awe?
There is an entire Awe section!

5. Gratitude leads to complacency.


You have a routine and are not facing any particular challenges and you feel at ease with where you are at in life.


  • “If I celebrate every little thing, I’ll stop striving for more/better things.”
  • “What I have is enough, why strive for more?”
  • “I appreciate myself the way I am, why change?”

Being grateful and having desires for more seem to contradict each other. If you are happy with what you have, why would you want more?

When we can be grateful in every ordinary moment, why strive for extraordinary??

Those who buy into this myth may think: the more we accept where we are in a given moment, the less inclination we may have to make changes.
In other words, some may think that as gratitude and acceptance increases, motivation decreases.

In a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast, Brené Brown discusses: “where is the line between self-acceptance and complacency?”
There is definitely a gray area between self acceptance and complacency (for example, the mindset of “I love my body the way it is, so I don’t need to exercise”)

Brown explains “I don’t think you can truly change for the better — in a lasting, meaningful way, unless it is driven by self acceptance…Self-accepted complacency is an oxymoron.” When people are accepting of themselves and their situation, they are driven to continue feeling that way.
Listen to the full podcast: Apple Podcasts

Alternative belief: Practicing gratitude can actually motivate us and help us be more successful at reaching goals by encouraging patience and perseverance and easing burnout.

  • Gratitude aids patience — One interesting 2016 study asked participants questions like “Would you rather have $X now or $Y in Z days?” Where Y was a larger amount and Z was a variable number of days. The study found that participants who felt gratitude were willing to wait nearly twice as long for the reward compared to participants in the happy or neutral groups (Dickens & DeSteno, 2016).
  • Gratitude fuels perseverance — In a cross-sectional study, researchers found gratitude and patience to be an effective buffer to suicidal thougts and concerns of life meaning and struggles (Schnitker et al., 2021)
  • Gratitude eases burnout —  A study in China found practicing gratitude to be a useful intervention in minimizing school teacher burn-out (Chan 2010).

In addition to encouraging patience and perseverance and easing burnout, gratitude also inspires prosocial behavior, compassion, and optimism. 

Instead of thinking: “When I have ___ I’ll be happy.” 

We are able to think: “I am happy,  which motivates me to ____(hang out with friends, do something nice for someone else, help my team succeed, etc…).”

“If you focus on what you have, you’ll end up having more. If you focus on what you don’t have, you will never ever have enough.” – Oprah Winfrey on the topic of Gratitude Journals

Gratitude is an effective antidote to falling into the hedonic cycle (see picture below). When we focus on the good things we have, we are less likely to be dissatisfied and more likely to be happy with what we have. Gratitude helps us get off the hedonic cycle and reset.

Looking for resources on getting off the hedonic treadmill?
Check out: Happiness as a Hindrance

The below mental subtraction exercise can be useful in identifying all the small steps that are needed to reach big goals. In celebrating small steps along the way, we are encouraged to keep going, and the realization of how easy it would be to miss goals can make the goal feel even more rewarding.

Try This~ Mental Subtraction

  1. Think about an event in your life that was significant (getting a job, starting a relationship, birth of a child, etc…) or a person who is special to you (partner, mentor, etc…). On a piece of paper make two columns.
  2. In the first column, write down all the small decisions/events that needed to happen in order for the significant event to happen.
  3. In the second column, write down the possible events and decisions that could have gone differently and stopped the significant event from occurring.

Example — Event: Getting Starting a new relationship with a partner

Small circumstances that made it happen

  • Meeting partner at work
  • Going out for happy hour together and chatting more
  • Exchanging numbers and communicating outside of work
  • etc…

How things could have gone differently

  • If I had decided to take another job
  • If I had not recently ended previous relationship
  • If either of us had been busy during the happy hour where we got to chat
  • etc…


  • Imagine what your life would be like now if any of the “How things could have gone differently” entries had happened.
  • Imagine what your life would be like if the significant event had never happened.
  • What benefits would be missing from your life if that event had not happened?
  • Allow yourself to notice all the little things that added up to the significant event and appreciate how the benefits you felt were not inevitable.

Find the printable version of this exercise here:

6. Gratitude gives away all the credit and makes people too modest.


  • You win an award
  • You look around at your life and realize how far you’ve come
  • You put on an art show and as the patrons come through you say thank you to them


  • “There is no one to thank for this but myself”
  • “Who would I thank if I’ve worked for all I have”
  • “Expressing gratitude gives away all the credit”
  • They should be thanking me for this experience!”
  • “Gratitude doesn’t acknowledge my own effort”
  • “People should take more credit for their accomplishments”

Maybe you’re thinking that if you are constantly thanking God or mom or a mentor for where you are today, how can you be self-empowered?

The crux of this belief is that gratitude is disempowering.

You may be worried that since we often thank others for things that happen to us, practicing gratitude could compromise your ability to build confidence in what you believe you are capable of on your own.

When we believe our actions have an impact on the outcomes in our lives, we increase our sense of agency and ultimately foster effort towards goals.

This concept is explored more in the Self-Efficacy and Autonomy page.

Truth: Practicing gratitude or thanking a support system is not the same as being self-effacing or not taking credit.

In fact, since gratitude requires us to recognize the role other people play in our life, it can actually be empowering to express gratitude due to the vulnerability involved with admitting our reliance on others.

An example of gratitude without being self-effacing can be seen in award speeches. When people accept awards, it is common for them to thank people who helped them get to where they are — mentors, parents, peers, etc… This action is celebrated and expected, and you wouldn’t get any points for accepting an award and only thanking yourself.

What doesn’t happen is people thanking others for their own performance — the performance was done on their own, and this is implied and celebrated by them going home with the award.

Gratitude researcher and author Robert Emmons says:

 “I see [gratitude] as a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”

Memorable Oscar Speeches
Some people thank family, some people thank God, some people thank everyone, but everyone thanks someone.

P&G ‘Thank You, Mom’
Using examples of Olympic athletes looking back at the support they received from their moms, P&G highlights: “It takes someone strong to make someone strong.”

Try this: Write an Award Speech

Have you ever accepted an award?
If you were to get an award out of the blue tomorrow, what would it be for?

Pretend you’ve just been awarded “World’s Best _______” (you fill in the blank!)
Write a 1 minute award speech that thanks at least 3 people. Have fun with it! For added connection, send or read your award speech to the people you have thanked — they will appreciate it and it will foster a connection between you.

Here is an introduction and some prompts to get you started:
I am overwhelmed with gratitude to have been selected to receive the World’s Best ______ Award. Many hours went into practicing ______ and I am honored to be recognized for my hard work.This accomplishment is not something that I did alone, and there are many others who deserve to share in this award.

  • I would like to thank ______ for their contribution of  _____.
  • Without _______ I never would have discovered ______.
  • It was with the support of _____ that I was able to ______.

Looking for more on credit and appreciation?

7. Gratitude doesn’t belong at work.

The situation:

  • Leadership makes everyone write down or share 1 thing they are grateful for during a meeting.
  • A boss continuously says things like ‘I really appreciate all your hard work’ but you have never been suggested for a promotion.
  • Your boss/coworkers never say thank you and there is not a culture of gratitude


“Here we go again, I don’t have time for fluff, I have work to do”
“Oh, its november, so Mr. boss finally remembered to thank us”
“I would much rather get a cash bonus than an appreciation party or thank you notes”
“I just don’t feel appreciated here”

Some believe gratitude is inappropriate in certain environments— like work—because they believe gratitude undermines authority by showing weakness or modesty and doesn’t belong in serious situations.

Four Myths about Being Grateful at Work

Researcher Amie Gordon shares four common objections surrounding gratitude in the workplace and breaks down why they may not be true:

It’s too forced— For example when leadership makes everyone write down something they are grateful for during a meeting for team bonding.

It’s fake — Being told to be grateful will just lead to a bunch of fake platitudes.

It’s fluffy — work is serious and people do not take gratitude seriously.

It undermines authority — Gratitude shows weakness

Alternative belief: Gratitude can boost productivity at work and helps employees feel more valued.

Steve Foran, founder of Gratitude at Work, teaches business leaders how to build and maintain workplace culture based on gratitude. He says gratitude is the key to healthy, productive, achievement based cultures.

Research into gratitude in organizations exists and backs up Foran’s claims regarding gratitude in the workplace:

  • In one study of gratitude in the workplace, researchers found those in the gratitude condition increased in positive affect by 9.8% over the course of the trial while the control group increased only 2% (Kaplan et al., 2013).
  • A survey by Glassdoor found 81% of employees surveyed would work harder for a boss who is appreciative rather than demanding (Glassdoor, 2019).
  • A study of faculty members at a school of nursing found gratitude practices to increase job satisfaction by 17.9% (Stegen & Wankier, 2018)

Douglas R Conant — the former CEO of Campbell’s Soup holds a firm attitude of gratitude and led with gratitude throughout his life. When he became CEO, the company was failing, and he turned it around by shifting the culture to one of civility and appreciation. In the years he served as CEO of Campbell’s, he wrote over 30,000 thank you notes to employees.
Read Conant’s article on leading with gratitude here.

Three Research-Backed Tips for a Grateful Workplace

Business professor Ryan Fehr shares three rules for creating a culture of gratitude at work:

  1. Build a gratitude habit — create a ritual of thank you in the workplace
  2. Draw from many sources — use resources like benefits, seminars, and volunteer opportunities to offer other modes of gratitude
  3. Guard against negative emotions — gratitude at work can backfire and cause emotions like envy and jealousy, so he suggests getting ahead of these emotions.

Ready to make the change to a grateful culture at your workplace?
Check out this “menu” to bring to your team and inspire change:

Mini Myth — When gratitude is forced it isn’t genuine.

Does gratitude work if someone tells me to practice it? Research says yes.

In studies of gratitude (1, 2, 3, more on the science page), participants in the gratitude condition are assigned practices in order to collect data. Benefits and changes are observed and conclusions are taken in an environment where gratitude is “forced.” Forced gratitude doesn’t necessarily mean the gratitude will be insincere. Sometimes, practicing gratitude has a ‘fake it until you make it’ element.


  1. Some gratitude is insincere and just good manners, and it is a skill that can be developed.
    There is nothing special about this thank you note” → shifts to → “While I may have expressed thanks in a different way, I can acknowledge the effort they put into this note and appreciate the thought.”
  2. Gratitude is possible in the face of adversity.
    “I don’t have anything to be grateful for right now.” → shifts to →  “I have the ability to notice things everyday to be grateful for, even if the only thing that comes to me today is that I am grateful I woke up this morning.”
  3. Gratitude is a tool for focusing on the positive without dismissing the negative.
    There are starving children in Africa so just be grateful for what you have.” → shifts to → “In the sea of challenge and trauma I’m swimming in, I can see a few good things that are occurring as well.”
  4. There doesn’t need to be someone to thank, but there can be.
    “I don’t believe in God, so who would I thank for the weather?” → shifts to → “I’m so grateful I get to spend time outside today”
  5. Gratitude inspires motivation.
    “I am happy with what I have, why strive for more?” → shifts to → “I am happy,  which motivates me to ____(try new things, hang out with friends, do something nice for someone else, help my team succeed, etc…).”
  6. Gratitude inspires connection and is empowering.
    “Who would I thank if I’ve worked for all I have?”  → shifts to → “As vulnerable as it may be to admit, I appreciate the people who helped me get to where I am today.”
  7. Gratitude boosts productivity at work.
    “Here we go again, I don’t have time for fluff, I have work to do” → shifts to → “Taking the time to thank me shows Mr. Boss cares for who I am and that inspires me to work hard for this organization.”

Strengthening sincerity when expressing gratitude is a skill we can build.

  • When gratitude is not backed by empathy and validation, it can come across as insincere.
  • To help gratitude feel more genuine, consider acknowledging the person for their contribution rather than focusing on the thing (put the YOU into thank you)
  • The experience of genuine gratitude has four parts:
    • What we NOTICE in our lives for which we can be grateful
    • How we THINK about why we have been given those things
    • How we FEEL about the things we have been given
    • What we DO to express appreciation in turn

Gratitude Types of Gratitude Attitude of Gratitude Notice Feel Think Do Science of Gratitude Illusions of Gratitude The Gist Gratitude Practice & Exercises Gratitude Resources


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