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    Entitlement and Gratitude

    By Tom Moon, MFT

    The Thanksgiving season is traditionally a time to turn our attention to everything for which we feel grateful. It’s a good time to give some thought to how gratitude functions in our lives, especially since an avalanche of recent research has shown that cultivating “an attitude of gratitude” can have amazingly positive benefits in almost every area of our lives. Study after study shows that gratitude opens the door to new relationships, makes measurable improvements in both emotional and physical health, improves sleep and raises self-esteem, enhances empathy and reduces aggression, reduces stress and aids in recovery from trauma, and improves resilience in the face of difficulties.

    But in a recent survey, only 20% of American adults reported that they rated gratitude as a constructive and useful emotion, as contrasted with 50% of a comparison group of Germans; and only 10% of Americans responded that they “regularly and often” experience the emotion of gratitude, as compared to 30% of Germans. Gratitude doesn’t seem to be all that popular in our culture.

    On the other hand, can anyone deny that an attitude of entitlement is pervasive in contemporary society? By entitlement, I mean the assumption that we deserve whatever good things come our way, that our privileges are really rights, and that they are to be expected as a matter of course. Entitlement is abetted by a common cognitive distortion called the “self-serving bias,” the assumption that when good things happen to us, they happen entirely through our own efforts. (The corollary assumption is that when bad things happen, other people or circumstances are to blame.) Closely related to this distortion is the “just world” bias, which is basically the view that “fair and just” means getting whatever it is that I want.

    The big problem here is that when we deserve everything, we don’t feel grateful for anything. This attitude inevitably leads to suffering, because it also means that when we don’t get what we “deserve,” we are entitled to feel resentful and victimized. The more entitled we feel, the more likely we are to carry a chip on our shoulders.

    Gratitude counteracts the assumption of entitlement, and opens the path to accept the gifts that come our way with grace and humility. It goes against the self-serving bias because when we’re grateful, we give credit to other people for our success. We acknowledge that we accomplished some of it ourselves, but we widen our range of attribution to appreciate the many people who assisted us along the way.

    Gratitude also counteracts another common distortion—the comforting delusion that we’re in control of our environment and circumstances. Gratitude involves understanding that we aren’t all separate islands. It means recognizing how much we need and depend on other people and fortunate circumstances for our well-being.

    Gratitude, more than any other emotion, creates a sense of abundance in our lives, such that we are more likely to treat others with generosity. The research shows that grateful people are less committed to the idea that material wealth brings happiness, and are more willing to share what they have while feeling less envious of the material possessions of others.

    The good news from the research is the optimistic finding that an attitude of gratitude isn’t just something that some people have and some people don’t. It’s an attitude that we can intentionally cultivate, and it isn’t particularly difficult to do. All that is required is that we make a personal commitment to turn our attention deliberately to the things for which we are grateful on a regular, preferably daily, basis. In other words, gratitude isn’t a character trait so much as it is a practice.

    One researcher found that when subjects kept a daily gratitude journal for just six weeks, they found that they were less envious, resentful and regretful, and had a higher sense of self-worth. He also found that they focused less on leaning into the future in the hope that it would bring something they didn’t have, and instead were more able to relax and appreciate the present. Entitlement, it seems, leads to discontent; gratitude leads to contentment. Entitlement constricts the heart. Gratitude opens it.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website