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Cultivating Gratitude: An Interview with Professor Tony Ahrens

Professor offers advice on how to approach the new year mindfully

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Professor Anthony AhrensAnthony Ahrens, professor of psychology at American University, is the director of AU’s Emotions and Positive Psychology Lab (EPPL), which focuses on gratitude, mindfulness, contemplative practice, character, and related phenomena.

Ahrens did his undergraduate work at Northwestern University and received his doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. He is the author of 38 articles in peer-reviewed journals, and his work has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Cancer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Templeton World Charity Foundation. His research interests include gratitude, especially the relation of gratitude to the desire to be independent of others, and the distinction between being “grateful to” versus “grateful for.”

Here, during this particularly stressful holiday season, we asked Ahrens to share his latest thinking about the practice and importance of cultivating gratitude.

We hear the word gratitude tossed around a lot, especially around the holidays. What does it really mean?

Many different things! It can mean feeling grateful for the good things in our lives that we did nothing to deserve, or it can mean feeling grateful to those who gave us those good things. It can mean expressing a deeply felt sense we have for those who have gifted us, or it can mean an expression that is more pro forma.

And there are such variations among these. Think of the gratitude we feel to someone whose gift shows their love, even though the gift might not be what we want (my father seemed genuinely grateful for the ill-formed and surplus ashtrays I made for him when I was a child) versus the gratitude to all those who have worked as healthcare workers or custodians or checkout people through this long pandemic. They are all about being grateful to, yet they are each distinct.

What is the role of gratitude in our mental health and happiness? 

I suspect that in 100 years, these past 20 years will be seen as the infancy of the psychology of gratitude. Infancy brings a lot that is beautiful, and yet there is still so much to learn!

There’s solid research that in the short run doing exercises like reflecting on good things from our day boosts subjective experiences like feeling good. Beyond that, I think we mostly only have hints.

I primarily think of gratitude as an emotion. Emotions involve our judgment of what we experience, preparing us to act. (Think of judgments of seeing a large bear poised to swipe at us preparing us to run.) I suspect that being “grateful for” reminds us that our lives are abundant and prepares us to celebrate. I think that being “grateful to,” in the words of North Carolina psychologist Sara Algoe, helps us “find, remind, and bind”. That is, it helps us identify the people we can trust and to then bind ourselves to those people. So, to the extent that our mental health is worsened when it’s hard to see or find abundance, or because we have lost sight of people we can trust, gratitude should help. But to the extent that mental health is worsened due to external barriers and difficult life circumstances, a well-intentioned instruction to be grateful can miss the mark with respect to the person’s needs in that moment.

But what exactly constitutes mental health?

This gets tricky. The answer to that question is more complex than one might imagine, and is, I think, primarily philosophical. I’ll focus on only a part, emotional health. 

Let’s consider physical health for a moment. We might think that health is in part about the functioning of one’s hamstrings and also in part the functioning of one’s shoulders because hamstrings and shoulders are needed for different purposes. And so different exercises are developed, some for hamstrings, others for shoulders.

Gratitude would be appropriate in some circumstances but not so much in others, and so exercising our capacity for gratitude should help, but only in conjunction with exercises of other emotional capacity as well. Otherwise, our emotional health would be the equivalent of having strong shoulders but weak hamstrings.

In an economy that runs on need, and in a culture that so emphasizes autonomy, perhaps there is a particular need to balance these by reminding ourselves of our abundance (even as there is so much suffering as well) and our interdependence.

What are some ways to cultivate more gratitude in our lives?

Two exercises are reflecting on three good things one has experienced in the day and writing (and delivering) a gratitude letter. There’s evidence that in the short run these help foster subjective happiness and life satisfaction, though the average effects are small. Likely some people derive a great deal from these, but for others they don’t do much. 

But gratitude research is in its infancy. When considering medicine, the effects of such things as dosage and timing are really important to understand. We know almost nothing about these for gratitude. I know so many who try counting their blessings daily who find it gets repetitive or not genuine or pertinent because they are rightly focused on pressing concerns. Then they report thinking there is something wrong with them because they aren’t reaching bliss from doing the gratitude exercises! Perhaps for people with these experiences, spacing out the exercise might help, or counting just a single blessing, or, well, taking different approaches to timing and dosage. The funding needed to really do the careful work that would give equivalent granularity to what the pharmaceutical business can afford just isn’t there.  So in trying gratitude, I’d encourage folks to be gentle with themselves. Perhaps this is a moment for sorrow, and trying to feel grateful instead misses an important need for that person. Perhaps a different pacing will help.

Can you share something surprising - something we might not know - about gratitude? 

I love the work that my colleagues are doing on the interpersonal effects of gratitude. In some way, they’ll have people develop habits of recognizing the goodness they receive from those close to them and thank them, and it seems that that really can sometimes build the relationships. Sometimes we hear that we should do gratitude exercises for ourselves, and I think we can, indeed, benefit, but the effects of gratitude are sometimes communal.

What are some of the things that make you most grateful for this year? 

I’m so grateful to be teaching in person again! Sometimes my students are bored or lost. Sometimes, I don’t think I’m doing a good job as a teacher. But then there are those times when I’m in the same physical space as the students, and I know that they and I are looking at, being awed by, something beautiful, and really, what is better than that? I missed that so much in the time of class by Zoom.

The pandemic has stretched us all, and there have been so many times I’ve not been functioning at my peak. I’m so grateful for those who have been forgiving or helpful or just kept walking the path with me.

I’ve started in a new research direction about which I’m more excited than any research I’ve done in my career. And I’m so grateful for the peculiar circumstances of my life that have brought me here, and for the university system that gives people like me the opportunity to explore, and for the students and friends with whom I have embarked on this exploration.

And my Cardinals, after playing terrible baseball in early summer, had a historic winning streak in early autumn, playing beautiful baseball then. Such a terrific reminder that the future will be different from today and might bring with it surprising gifts.

To learn more about gratitude, watch Professor Ahrens on YouTube or follow him on Twitter @TonyAhrens11.