Josie Glausiusz’s last On Science post appeared on April 29. This column originally appeared on September 24, 2014.
The ice-bucket challenges of August have vanished from Facebook, and circulating in their place is a new meme, the “gratitude challenge,” in which nominees list everything for which they are thankful: health, job, family, food, “this crispy peaceful autumnal morning.” So I was amused when a journalist friend of mine, Allison Kaplan Sommer, posted an “ingratitude challenge,” asking, “What are you most ungrateful for?” The answers ranged from mosquitoes to cancer, but also included a comment from a reader who wondered why Allison had posted it. Since gratitude has been linked to higher levels of happiness, she wrote, why would Allison propose a challenge that is “scientifically proven” to create depression?
Several studies have indeed linked the expression of gratitude to an increase in happiness. For example, Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside has found that gratitude helps promote well-being and life satisfaction, and other researchers have found that it encourages people to offer help to strangers. But is the reverse also proven? Does the expression of ingratitude cause depression, and have psychologists gathered the necessary data to test the hypothesis? I had no idea, so I emailed Lyubomirsky, who has devoted most of her career to the scientific study of happiness. She wrote back almost immediately, saying, “I don’t know of any research on this or what ingratitude might inspire! However, recently my lab found that gratitude, in addition to making people feel happy, more connected, inspired, etc., also makes people feel uncomfortable, guilty, and embarrassed sometimes.”
That seems to contradict received wisdom. I asked for details, and Lybomirsky sent me a copy of graduate student Christina Armenta’s master’s thesis, which describes the first stage of this research. In her study, Armenta asked 170 employees of five different companies (four in France, one in Canada) to spend eight minutes writing a letter of gratitude to a specific person who had performed a kind deed for them, done something to help with their work, or helped them with their health. Participants in a control group were asked to spend eight minutes writing a list of activities they had engaged in for the past seven days. Employees in the “gratitude” groups experienced higher levels of “elevation” (defined as “a warm feeling in the chest, a desire to be a better person, and feeling moved and inspired to emulate the good deeds of others”) but also higher levels of guilt, discomfort, indebtedness, humility, and embarrassment than controls.
Gratitude can coexist with a sense of indebtedness, Armenta writes, because those expressing gratitude often feel a need to reciprocate kindness, especially when they are in a subordinate social position. They may also feel guilty for not previously thanking their benefactor, or embarrassed if the kindness bestowed indicates their own “neediness or lower status.”
But expressions of gratitude may discomfit the listeners, as well. I asked Allison why she had posted her ingratitude challenge. She said that the gratitude challenge may be “a great personal exercise,” but she also asked, “What about sensitivity to Facebook friends who may have just been diagnosed with cancer, or been fired or dumped, or stuck home with kids with pneumonia? Do they really want to read lists of what is so fabulous in other people’s lives?”
I’m grateful to Allison for raising the issue. I’m also grateful for those curmudgeonly friends whose droll observations of life’s annoyances suggest that their grumpiness gives them a certain inner satisfaction, a phenomenon confirmed by Dan Weijers, assistant professor of philosophy at California State University, Sacramento, who has researched “aversion to happiness.” “I know people who enjoy being curmudgeonly or overly pessimistic,” he wrote to me. “I can also find that funny if it is tinged with a ‘cosmic giggle perspective,’ i.e., when the grumpy person is aware that they are making a much bigger deal out of this than they need to, and they are doing it at least partially to be dramatic and entertaining.”