You may have heard how important it is to be grateful. Gratitude is getting a huge push these days. Everyone is singing its praises. How it will help you sleep better, improve your relationships, increase your happiness…To read the articles it sometimes seems like it’s the answer to everything. The latest in a string of secrets to happiness.
It almost sounds like it’s a new concept, but as far back as the Romans Cicero talked about how
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.
Who knew? No one had even come up with positive psychology or the positive thinking movement yet.
I’m not debating any of these findings or any of the research. It’s undeniable that having this “attitude of gratitude” (as cheesy as that sounds) is beneficial to our well-being. How could it not be? If each of us really chose to go about our day looking for the best parts of people, our jobs, our homes, nature–then, of course, we’re going to be happier. Focusing on our blessings instead of our deficits can only be positive.
But there’s a problem. For some reason men don’t do this very often which leads to men missing out on the benefits of gratitude. They are not getting all the benefits of gratituding and there are gratitude researchers (yes, there is such a thing), including Dr. Robert Emmons, who have some ideas why.
The Obligatory “Thank You”
I wasn’t shocked when I learned that men have a harder time with gratitude than women, but I was surprised to hear one particular hypothesis at to why. That is that many men view giving thanks as meaning they now owe someone something. Being grateful, to a lot of men, means I’m now in your debt. And few people really enjoy that. But why would some men view it that way?
In general, men like to keep score. Not necessarily in a selfish way, but in a way that shows to others that they are generous and not people who only take from others. For some men it’s a serious breach to have someone do something for you that you haven’t repaid in some way.
I’ve seen this in relationships where a girlfriend will buy a gift for the guy who will immediately need to do something in return. Something of equal or greater value. It’s not just that he didn’t want to be in her debt, but there’s an uncomfortable part of him that worried she would judge or look down on him. It’s a way to keep away the shame that you’re not taking care of someone else.
There’s an old episode of Frasier when Martin, the retired police officer dad and foil to the psychiatrist Frasier, receives an unexpected gift from Daphne, his physical therapist cum daughter-in-law. He barely has a moment to enjoy this unexpected treat before he starts to panic: did he forget something? Why did she do this? He buys her something else immediately to level the playing field once again. Daphne’s upset she couldn’t just give a gift. And things get ugly between them.
I grew up with something like this. When we’d go out with relatives it always became an argument over who was going to pay the check. No one was trying to get out of it, but everyone was trying to treat. My dad would actually get pretty annoyed, and hold on to that during the ride home, if someone else ended up picking up the tab.
Maybe there were other layers here–perhaps people were using money as a power play, who knows, but as a kid all I saw were adults not able to let someone else do something nice for them. If someone did, they at least had to look angry and find the next opportune moment to repay.
It’s kind of the opposite of the “pay it forward” mantra. This is a definite ‘pay it backwards’. And think about the message it sends to the person who was being helpful. It’s a bit of a slap in the face having what Dr. Emmons calls “gratitude deficit disorder” and leads to men missing out on the benefits of gratitude.
Let’s Add Vulnerability
If I’ve thanked you it means that I needed something from you. I was vulnerable. I was needy. I couldn’t do it myself. How can I compensate you so I can hold on to my dignity?
Are we that uncomfortable with not being independent? Apparently we are according to Dr. Todd Kashdan at George Mason and he’s got a whole study to look at why there are men missing out on the benefits of gratitude..
And even if you didn’t have trouble saying thank you–if we are less likely to ask for help, we are going to find less opportunities to say thanks. It’s just math (and according to traditional research, we usually excel in that).
So if you’re new to gratitude and want to take a stab at it without losing your dignity in the process, how about a private gratitude journal? Don’t share this with anyone. Just write one something that you’re grateful for each day. Make it specific and tell yourself why. Not just, I’m grateful for the sun–yes, that’s a fine thing to be grateful for, but make it specific to you:
“I’m grateful that when I’m walking to the subway there is a moment on the Franklin Shuttle when connecting to the C that I can see the clouds over the homes. It’s the last glimpse of sky I’m going to see because of my commute and I’m glad that I get to take it in for a few seconds.”
And that’s it.
The idea is that little by little you will start to notice things throughout your day. Stuff that perhaps you’ve barely noticed before. If you spend a moment writing down how you’re grateful for that, then you may start to automatically notice other stuff that’s happening all around. Once you can do that with inanimate objects you can broaden it to include people, but if that feels too threatening at first, take it slow and allow the gratitude for whatever to seep in.
Give yourself some time. It’s important to note that gratitude does not come naturally. It has to be taught and if you’re already an adult, it means that you’re going to have to be your own teacher.
But there is a lot to gain from being grateful and men are allowed to share in that. See if anything starts to shift once you start noticing.
And perhaps you’ll just start to reap those gratitude benefits.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been providing counseling for men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.