emiliana simon-thomas on gratitude

2021-06-25

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~7 min read

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1252 words

Russ Roberts spoke with Emiliana Simon-Thomas on happiness. In the course of the conversation, Emiliana delves into both why gratitude is important and how to express gratitude. I’ve been thinking about the whole conversation a lot lately, but really appreciated this segment, particularly as I recently celebrated my wedding anniversary.

1:12:47 Russ Roberts: You’ve written a lot about gratitude, and we had A.J. Jacobs on the program talking about his book, Thanks a Thousand, which is a sweet, sweet paean—ode—to the virtues of gratitude and the challenges of being grateful in the modern times, when so many people often contribute to what we get to enjoy. Why is gratitude important? And, what would you encourage people to do who want to have a practice of gratitude in their life?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Gratitude is important because it orients us to the things that are good. Right? In any given moment, there’s an infinite number of things we could be focusing on or paying attention to or reflecting on or ruminating on. And, in that set of infinite things, some of it is good. Something is good. And gratitude kind of gets you to bring that stuff into your awareness.

Gratitude is important, because it takes the focus off of yourself. Right? By nature, gratitude is not about things that we revere that we’ve earned. It’s about things that have come to us, goodness in our life that we get that we didn’t have to work for. That somebody else did, or some other force of nature or the world that we live in has presented to us. So, it sort of steers our thinking away from self-focus.

And, then when gratitude is about other people—which I think is the most powerful kind of gratitude—it gets us to connect other people with reward. With pleasure, with goodness in our lives.

And, I just think that’s so valuable. You know, again, we do live in a kind of a society, most of us, where we encounter lots and lots of people, day in and day out. And, evolutionarily, we probably aren’t prepared to interact with that many strangers on a day-to-day basis. In fact, strangers tend to arouse the subtle stress response, because we’re just not sure what they’re going to do.

But, gratitude is a way to steer our bias away from suspicion and vigilance to threat, and towards the possibility that any human that we come across or interact with in our workplace or in our neighborhood might actually be a potential cooperator or cooperative partner.

So, again, it brings us this place of optimism, of recognizing what’s good. It gets us to stop being so self-oriented and self-focused. And, in many cases, given the kind of highly competitive, perfectionistic culture that us overachievers tend to live in, self-critical. Right? If we can sort of quiet that; and then also steer ourselves towards recognizing and tuning into the goodness of other people and the way that other people in the world can contribute to goodness in our own lives, is why gratitude is important.

How could you get better at gratitude? Honestly, just say it more often, but say it in a way that is specific enough that it can have the impact—the most notable impact.

And, what I mean by that is: Throughout the day, other people do things that serve you. And, we most often come to take it for granted, because we’re used to having somebody bag our groceries, or we’re used to the person on the telephone reminding us of some opportunity that we may or not be interested in.

Is there a way to capitalize on that moment, leverage those moments? To express, one: ‘Thank you for doing what you do.’ So, describe what the other person did. Acknowledge the effort that the other person put into it. ‘I know you had to set aside time and energy to do this.’ And, explain how it benefited you. ‘I really learned something important from hearing what you just told me.’

Or—I’ll try a different example, and this one will pertain to family relationships. Let’s imagine that your spouse washed the car. Right? Washed the car, and you’re like, ‘Great. The car has been dirty.’ That’s one way to think about it. ‘Thank God. They finally did what they were supposed to do.’

That’s like the non-gratitude way to think about it. You don’t feel connected to them. You feel, actually, kind of strangely adversarial about whose job is what, and whether anybody’s done what they were supposed to do, in a kind of comparison way.

Instead, can you go, ‘Wow, you washed the car. Thank you for doing that.’ And, describing what you did for going outside, getting it together, and washing it. ‘I know you could have gone for a walk with a friend or called your mom and had a conversation about, you know, the Grammys Award [Gramophone Award in music achievement—Econlib Ed.] ceremony. But, instead, you decided to go out and wash the car. That really matters to me.’

And, then now, when I go outside and I drive to wherever you’re going to go—I know there’s fewer options in these pandemic times, but wherever it is—maybe you’re driving to get your vaccine: ‘I won’t feel embarrassed or ashamed or weird about how terrible our car looks to other people.’

And, again, like, just doing that, taking that extra—I don’t know—45 seconds, to describe what the person did, acknowledge their effort, and explain or describe how it benefited you, it just changes everything.

It’s like an immediate way to shift the tone of your own feeling, the feelings in the other person, and the sense of connection that you have with them. And, it can be to the person bagging your groceries, or it can be to the people who you feel very close to in your life.

1:18:44 Russ Roberts: I think one of the challenges of marriage is that you don’t care about the same things your spouse cares about. You don’t care about them as intensely. Your spouse might really care about the car, and you don’t care at all. And so you don’t clean it, because ‘It’s stupid to clean the car. I mean, really, what does it matter?’ It doesn’t, really. It’s just superficial. But, your spouse doesn’t feel that way. And putting yourself in your spouse’s shoes and being able to see it through their eyes and then doing something for them that you actually are not so focused on, is—it’s an act of kindness. It’s not unimportant. And, I’d say it’s interesting how hard it is, I think, to come to those realizations. Those people out there who do live with someone or are married to someone, I recommend your thinking about those in your down moments, now and then.

But, listening to you talk about gratitude, I was struck by a very un-economist-like thought, which is: It’s really a free lunch, feeling grateful. I mean, there’s no cost to it. Feeling grateful, for sure. Saying it is a little bit costly. It might require a little bit of self-abnegation, and you might have trouble with those kinds of feelings.

But, feeling grateful is totally free. If you can get yourself acclimated


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