Monday, March 25, 2013

5 Ways Gratitude Can Backfire

Gratitude is good. Good for your health and well-being. Good for your relationships. In fact, I've written about the benefits of gratitude here, here, here, and here. But is gratitude always good? No. Although a focus on appreciating what you have instead of lamenting what you have-not is generally good advice, gratitude is not a panacea. Here are a few ways in which gratitude may be the wrong prescription:

1.       Overdosing on gratitude. When it comes to keeping track of your gratitude, the adage “more is better” doesn’t necessarily apply. If you set too high of a goal for your gratitude, you may find yourself falling short, which paradoxically could leave you feeling less grateful and happy than if you hadn’t tracked your gratitude at all. In a study of gratitude journaling, people who tracked their gratitude once per week were happier after six weeks, whereas those who wrote tracked their gratitude three times per week were not. If you find yourself hesitating when putting pen to paper, you may begin to think your life isn’t that good or you don’t have that much to be grateful for. If that is the case, take a step back and focus on quality over quantity.

2.       Feeling grateful for someone or something who isn’t worthy. If you are in a bad relationship with someone who is emotionally or physically abusing you, or who just can’t make you happy, focusing on gratitude may be the wrong choice. This could be a romantic partner, a boss, or a roommate, or some other living situation more generally. By focusing on all the ways you appreciate your partner/boss/roommate you may choose to stay where you are when you should be focusing on finding a way to get out of an unhealthy situation.

3.       Using gratitude to avoid a serious problem. Gratitude helps you focus on what is important instead of getting caught up in the little annoyances of everyday life; however, not all problems are little annoyances, and focusing your attention on things you appreciate may provide you with relief from serious problems, but the relief will only be temporary. In cases like these, a negative emotion like anger may actually be more constructive. In one study of romantic couples, expressing anger was more beneficial than being positive when discussing a severe problem because the anger helped them address and resolve the issue rather than sweeping it under the rug.

4.       Downplaying your own successes through excessive gratitude. After something good happens to you, you will only benefit from thinking about and thanking the people who helped make it possible. But of equal importance is acknowledging your own role in the process. If you are someone who focuses on thanking everyone else and downplays your own hard work and talent to a fault, you may be hiding low self-esteem behind your gratitude. Don’t let gratitude get in the way of appropriately taking credit for your own part in your success.

5.       Mistaking gratitude for indebtedness. Gratitude is the positive emotion you feel when someone else helps you out. Indebtedness, on the other hand, generally leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth – someone helped you and now you owe them. If you mistake feelings of gratitude for indebtedness, you may find yourself working hard to repay a favor not to express your appreciation but to take the weight of a debt off your shoulders. In close relationships, this need to repay tit-for-tat can actually lead to negative feelings between partners. Repaying someone who matters to you too quickly may be a sign that you don’t want a close relationship.

Have you had other experiences where feeling grateful led you down the wrong path?

Further reading:
Sheldon, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1 (2), 73-82 DOI: 10.1080/17439760500510676
McNulty JK, & Russell VM (2010). When "negative" behaviors are positive: a contextual analysis of the long-term effects of problem-solving behaviors on changes in relationship satisfaction. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98 (4), 587-604 PMID: 20307131
Watkins, P., Scheer, J., Ovnicek, M., & Kolts, R. (2006). The debt of gratitude: Dissociating gratitude and indebtedness Cognition & Emotion, 20 (2), 217-241 DOI: 10.1080/02699930500172291


  1. Melissa H
    I believe that people dont have an enough gratitude. Yes to much gratitude can be a bit much but no having any at all is worse. Now a days people just go through their daily lives not thinking of what tomorrow lies. It used to be that people would always have gradtitude towards others by saying thank you. It now seems that people in general are angry and don't want to take the time to thank some. We would live in a better world if took the to show our gratitude. Alittle gratitude can go along way. You just might make someones day by showing them alittle gratitude.

  2. Thanks for this information, it was very helpful. Keep up the good work.

    John Di Lemme