self improvement

Why Being Generally Grateful is a Bad Idea

Everybody knows that you should be grateful for what you’ve got. We have all heard that we should develop an ‘attitude of gratitude’ but the problem is that we aren’t often told how to do that properly. Because we aren’t told how to, we try to be generally happier with our lot in life, which gives us the tiniest spike of happiness, but it’s often not enough to get us hooked on the gratitude habit.

In light of this, I started to ask myself the questions, why should we feel gratitude? What benefits are there to having a feeling of appreciation for the things that are in our lives?

The simplest and most straight-forward answer to these questions is that being grateful in general provides no distinct or measurable benefit whatsoever, other than of course, the previously mentioned slightly increased feeling that life can’t be so bad if you have something to be grateful for.

So, if being grateful in general for your lot in life doesn’t provide significant benefits, are there more effective ways of being grateful? The answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’ but you will have to read on to understand exactly how.

According to the Roman philosopher Cicero, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” If you believe some of the studies that have occurred in the past 15 years or so, then you may well begin to agree with him. An interesting side note to the reason that we don’t have a lot more research into gratitude is that until in the late 1990’s very little had been conducted into it with psychologists preferring to focus on ‘troubled minds’ up until then. That all changed when Dr Martin Seligman coined the phrases ‘Positive Psychology’ and ‘Authentic Happiness’.

So what does the research tell us?

According to Robert Emmons (a world leader into research into gratitude) there are 5 key benefits to actively practicing gratitude:

Increased Happiness: The active practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%.

Sustained Happiness: Actively practicing gratitude over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not longer.

Reduced Materialism: Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they are less likely to judge their own and the successes of others in terms of possessions accumulated and are less envious of other people.

Increased Prosociality: Being pro-actively grateful increases the capacity to be empathic and to take the perspective of others. Grateful individuals are recognised as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks.

Other Benefits: Emmons’ research showed that cultivating gratitude can bring other health benefits, such as longer and better quality sleep time which in turn leads to better concentration.

When people realize these benefits are available, the natural next question is “So how do I actively practice gratitude?”

One of the simplest ways of actively practicing gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal.

As part of his research, Emmons asks people to write something they feel grateful for. He recommends that you make entries 4 times a week, for as little as 3 weeks. His research shows this is often enough to create a meaningful difference in one level of happiness.

At first much of the research was reliant on self-measured and reported, feelings of well-being; if people felt better they told the researchers that they felt better.  More recently Emmons focus has turned to measuring objective data such as cortisol and stress levels, as well as heart rate variability.

Another researcher into the field of gratitude, Dr Richard Davidson has been spending his time monitoring brain activation patterns. His research backs up the claims of Seligman and Emmons showing how the active practice of gratitude can rewire activation patterns in the frontal lobes.

I thought that it would be cool to conduct my own experiment.

I have been keeping my own gratitude journal for the last three months and I can say categorically without doubt that I do feel happier because of it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it has turned me into an ever smiling optimist. To be more accurate, I would say that rather than worrying if my glass is half empty or half full, I’m now just grateful to have a glass in the first place.

Here are some specific tips for those of you who may be interested in keeping a gratitude journal for yourselves.

  • Go deep rather than wide. I feel happier when I nail the reason for my gratitude. So for example I feel better writing “I’m grateful for the way that the sunshine made me feel warm today I was expecting it to be cold”, rather than “It was sunny today”.
  • People trump things. I find that when I am grateful towards people it has more of an impact than when I am grateful for a thing or situation. So for me “I am grateful for the way that my wife Lucy always seems to find a way of making things fun”, beats “I’m grateful I have a car”.
  • Do it with purpose. I have kept a journal for many years but keeping a gratitude journal meant that I had to specifically look for things to be grateful for and I had to make sure I was clear about why I was grateful.
  • If I’m stuck I take the double negative approach. So I look at an aspect of my life and ask myself “How much less happy would this area of my life be without this person in it?”
  • Enjoy and remember surprises. Try to record events that were unexpected or surprising, as these tend to elicit stronger levels of gratitude due to the pleasant emotional attachment they generate.
  • Avoid becoming a gratitude junkie.

That last one is really, really important. I found that when I started keeping the journal I quickly became obsessed with trying to find positives in EVERYTHING. So for example I even made one entry that said, “Hurt my ankle today, I am grateful that I can feel the pain and that it isn’t paralysed”. Another example of trying to find the positive in the trivial was, “Opened the refrigerator door and found I had enough milk to last the day without having to go to the store”.

Keep the journal for the things that you are genuinely grateful for. Emmons research shows, it is better to make 5 specific / detailed quality entries a week than 30 lesser more general ones.

In my work as a professional speaker I conduct informal research into emotional intelligence and attitude I often create little formulas to help me remember key life lessons. With regards to gratitude I have created a lovely little formula that for me sums up the key. The formula is:

e + f + g = H

For me it means that when my (e)xperiences are (f)ocused on specific (g)ratitudes they make me (H)appiest.

So have you got something to be grateful for? If you do, please feel free to share it in the comments box below


Steve Houghton-Burnett is a professional speaker and entrepreneur. Through his work he gives people the courage and confidence to challenge and choose their own attitude and behaviours. He shares his informal research at


24 Responses to Why Being Generally Grateful is a Bad Idea

  1. I find gratitude comes much easier when you have a generally positive mindset. The reverse is true as well. Back during the days when I was an extremely negative person, gratitude was nowhere to be found. No amount of journaling would have changed that.

    When you see only the negative side of things, it’s near impossible to be grateful . . . you don’t feel you have anything to be grateful for.

    Despite what the research says (and I confess, I have not studied it), I believe that gratitude is an effect, not a cause. So while attempting to increase happiness by trying to be grateful (when you really aren’t) may increase it by a tiny bit, the return on investment will be small.

    A better bet is to work on changing your outlook. When you begin to become more positive, happiness then gratitude will follow. Happy experiences are what make us grateful. My formula would look like this . . .

    H(e) = g


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  3. Steve H-B says:

    Hi Trevor and thanks for the feedback.

    I take on board your point. I guess I wrote the post with the assumption that the people reading it would have the intention of being happier. After all I’m not sure that someone negative would be seeking out sites like PTB?So I assumed that the audience would already be ‘positive’ and would be looking for ways to help with being as positive as they possibly can be.I also assumed that they would have heard ‘somewhere’ that gratitude is one of the ways of being happier, but like me when I tried to get specific help on how to be grateful, they would come up with lots of general advice and not specifics which is what I’ve tried to provide here.I’d like to understand your formula so I will try and contact you so that we can discuss it. I may even ask if you are prepared to write a piece about it for my blog.

  4. alik levin says:

    I like the formula at the end. And I like the idea of keeping of journal of 4 entries a week. I will give it a shot.

  5. Steve H-B says:

    Hi Trevor

    I guess that I assumed that the people reading PTB would already be positive as I’m not sure negative people would put the time and effort into finding and reading site like PTB?

    The other thing that the post assumes is that the people reading the article are like I was. I was positive and I’d heard ‘somewhere’ that being grateful helped this. But I wasn’t sure how to be grateful in a way that would have a lasting effect which is what I hope the article gives.

    I like your formula and I’d like to understand it, so I will reach out to you and make contact so you can explain it to me. If it has value I’ll probably ask you to write me a guest post for the Simple Life Formulas blog about it.

  6. Steve H-B says:

    Hi Alik

    I’m glad that you like the post and the formula. As it says at the end of the article I use the formulas as ‘memory pegs’ but I don’t insist that people use my formulas, I’m happy for people to create their own. Whatever works for you in helping you to remember the life lesson works for me :-)

    Do give the gratitude journal a go… do it for a minimum of a month and go for quality specific entries over quantity general ones

  7. Hi Steve,

    Terrific post!  I love this topic and find that focusing on gratitude is a very powerful way to shift out of negative states.  So often we are presented with good ideas but aren’t given a tangible way to apply it…I love the idea of a gratitude journal : )    

  8. Steve H-B says:

    Hey Sheila

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. You’ve hit the nail on the head. I’d read loads of stuff about how being grateful made you happier but I never found a ‘How To’ that made sense to me.

    So I experimented a little and the post is the result of that experiment.

    I just visited your web site and I love the Rainbow Framework’ idea and it has given me some ideas for when I re-launch my blog site in February!

  9. Hi Steve,

    I actually think that negative or hurting individuals might make up a decent chunk of the readership here. Usually, it’s those who are not happy with their lives that seek out the kind of help Pick The Brain has to offer. I wish I had stumbled upon a place like this back during my negative days — I might have turned the corner a bit sooner.

    If you’d like to reach me feel free to use the contact form on my blog. I’d love to hear from you. I like your mission of gathering people’s stories — we all have them.


  10. Steve H-B says:

    Never thought of it the way that you have Trevor, thanks for opening my eyes to the possibility of the negative readership. It just goes to show how dangerous assumptions can be!

  11. Silviacapn says:

    I feel grateful for finding people who work and research and share this kind of information so that we all can use it and grow happier. Thank you for the time you spent on helping us creating a better life.

  12. NMPatricia says:

    At the risk of sounding a bit over the top, this was one of the most profound and useful posts I have seen in a long while. I have done the gratitude list. I have had counselors do it with me (as in, what are you grateful for – your car?) I wrote a list last night with specifics as to why I was grateful for something. I limited it to 5 things so it wouldn’t be overwhelming. And it was awesome. This was very useful. Thanks.

    And, in regards to your conversation with Trevor, there are times that I  read PTB when I am positive and negative. The only time it really helps is when I am in a half way positive mood. Negative – it all sounds like rubbish. Just my humble opinion.

  13. Michael Dunkley says:

    i think of it as priming the pump, as you realise you can’t fake gratitude, but deeply we all want to have lives so positive we’d be grateful for them.
    so you teach yourself about its power by ‘adopting’ it, until your life turns around and you start to feel gratitude sneaking up on you of its own accord, my gf and i call them ‘gratitude attacks’, when sometimes you just get a wave of appreciation of your particularity, you were hungry, now you’re full…

    gratitude is just short for a great attitude, after all.

    great post, thanks

  14. Steve H-B says:

    Hey Silvia it was my pleasure and my gratitude journal is helping me to have a better life as well!

  15. Steve H-B says:

    Thank you so much for the feedback. It makes putting the effort in to writing a blog post worthwhile.

    I also like your take on the ‘type’ of people that read PTB and I can see that there are many people (myself included) who can swing between the highs and lows. I think for me it’s about where your ’tilt’ is – I know that my natural tilt is on the more positive side but that doesn’t mean I don’t ever let the negative vibes kick in.

  16. Steve H-B says:

    Michael in all the time I have worked in this space I have NEVER heard or realised that gratitude is a compilation of “Great Attitude” and even if it doesn’t turn out to be etymologically 100% accurate it is the way that I will think of it from now on – THANK YOU

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  18. Gratitude is such a tough topic to grasp.  I think you did a great job of explaining the importance and how to really do it.  Now I have something to shoot for. 3 weeks seems very doable to test the results.

  19. Steve H-B says:

    Hey James long time no speak (and all my fault I know). Thanks for stopping by and thanks for taking the time to comment. Please do try it – it genuinely worked for me and I’d love to hear how it works for you.

  20. Kristin Maillard says:

    Thank you for this article Steve.  I have been keeping a daily gratitude journal for nearly 2 years.  I write five things I am grateful for.  But your comments about going deep and people trumping things turned a light bulb on over my head.  Even though I keep my gratitude when I am down, I find I do NOT make the effort to go deep or be thankful for people.  It turns into a ho-hum list of “what doesn’t suck” instead of a real, heart-felt recognition about what is truly a blessing in my life.  Thanks for those tips.

  21. Steve H-B says:

    Kristin I’m so glad that the post has helped an experienced journal keeper like yourself. Try it and I promise it will pay back huge dividends for you. Also try the double negative approach I mention in the article when you really can’t find something to be grateful for the normal way, that really works for me.

  22. Jorge Blanco says:

    I think being a gratitude junkie is like rationalizing things. This particular experience, though negative, is still good because… Thank you for saying that we shouldn’t be like that. That gratitude is not about rationalizing things, it’s about the real feeling of gratitude you get for certain experiences. It may be just one single experience in one day or a week. I was wondering, did you make it a point to have an entry in your grateful journal every day?

  23. Steve H-B says:

    Hi Jorge some good points and a great question.

    I did make a point of putting at least one entry in the journal every day BUT I didn’t force myself to write 2 or 3 entries every day. That’s how I started out but then I realised that some of them weren’t really gratitudes, they were me bending things to make them sound like gratitudes.I also repeated some gratitudes on different days and that also helped me to realise that some of the things I am grateful for are permanent features of my life. The irony was that until I had undertaken this exercise I would have been more likely to overlook these things (as the old saying goes… familiarity breeds contempt).So for example when I was in a low and I found being grateful hard, one of the things that I regularly came back to was my gratitude that my wife Lucy, understands me and seems to understand when the right time to “shake me up”  is and when the right time to “leave me be” is.

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