You’ve gone out of your way to do a huge favor for a friend—in fact, a favor that this friend requested you to perform. You don’t feel you have to be rewarded for every kind gesture, but this one took a considerable amount of effort. Expecting at least a courtesy email or text, your kind gesture was met with deafening silence.
Much to your dismay, a few days letter the ungrateful recipient finally acknowledges your help, but not in the way you expected. Perhaps the request was to give your your friend a ride home during a rainy rush hour. The traffic was terrible, so you had to drop your friend off across the street instead of in front of the doorstep. As she leaves your car, she frowns at you through the window, and slams the door, hard. Needless to say, she never thanks you and the next time you see her, she barely utters a greeting. Were you supposed to apologize? Was it wrong of you to “inconvenience” her?
How can you explain the fact that you’ve been made to feel guilty when you should feel acknowledged? Why are some people so demanding that they constantly raise the ante in their requests that you cater to them? The answer might seem to be a simple case of narcissistic entitlement, and certainly there is that piece to the puzzle.
However, according to new research, narcissism alone can’t explain some people’s lack of gratitude. Hope College (Michigan)’s Charlotte Witvliet and colleagues (2019) believe that some people just lack the personality quality of gratitude. The authors note that as a trait, gratitude “is an experience of abundance, with awareness that one is the recipient of a good gift from a giver” (p. 1). The authors go on to define the experience of gratitude as a “deeply social emotion” (p. 2).
If gratitude is a trait, it means that an ingrate is likely to remain an ingrate for life. Additionally, people low in gratitude should also be chronically unhappy. Forever disgruntled, they can’t see a gift for what it is. They’ll be unable to experience that inner reward that comes from having a sense of abundance and therefore, no matter what other qualities they have, they can never be truly happy.
In previous research cited by Witvliet and her coauthors, people high in gratitude regard an interpersonal offense not as an insult or letdown but instead as an opportunity for growth, from which they derive resilience. Cognitive appraisal plays an important role in this process, then. This is why your favors to an ungrateful person don’t have their intended effects. Ingrates are programmed to view favors as never being good enough.
One of the interpersonal dangers of being chronically ungrateful, then, is that life becomes an endless self-fulfilling prophecy of other people’s failure to do right by you. From whatever point in your life that your ingratitude became a part of your fabric of personality, you’ll be unable to turn the corner on your jaded view of life. We might also imagine that the people who do favors for the ungrateful eventually give up on trying to be nice. A vicious cycle is set in motion in which ingratitude begets ingratitude via the normal interpersonal rhythms in which people are nice to people who are nice.
What sets this vicious cycle in motion? The Hope College researchers approached this question by investigating the conditions that might stimulate gratitude’s growth. Some of the methods other investigators have tried, they note, include setting up experimental manipulations of “counting blessings,” writing “gratitude letters,” conducting gratitude lessons in the schools, and writing “gratitude diaries.” Such interventions appear, the authors conclude, to improve the subjective well-being of participants as they start to experience the positive social emotion that comes with feeling grateful.
Could a gratitude intervention also increase not just gratitude, but hope? Unlike gratitude, which involves the perception of a current reward, hope involves the “positive anticipation of receiving a future desired outcome” (p. 4). Maybe chronic ingrates don’t just lack the ability to see a past reward for what it is, but they’ve also come to believe that they will not receive rewards in the future either. Via that interpersonal reinforcement cycle, they’ve learned, in other words, not to expect other people to be nice to them, so they give up hope.
After having shown in a correlational study on undergraduates that the trait of gratitude could predict the traits of hope and happiness, as predicted, the authors went on to the experimental manipulation component of the study. In the intervention study, another sample of undergraduate participants identified and wrote about a specific outcome they were hoping to experience, but one that they could not completely control.
Those in the gratitude writing group then completed a writing assignment with instructions to “reflect on a time in your past when you had hoped for an outcome, and your hope was fulfilled” (p. 14). The prompts further instructed participants to discuss such outcomes as the life lessons they had learned, the steps they (or others) took to contribute to the outcome, whether they had grown spiritually, and whether they had gained insight into their own character strengths through the experience. The final prompt asked them, “As you reflect on this past fulfilled hope in your life, identify and name what you are grateful for and to whom you are grateful” (p. 14).
As you can see, the exercise didn’t quite force, but certainly encouraged, all participants to reflect on aspects of their fulfilled hopes for which they were particularly grateful. Both outcomes of higher hope and happiness were observed in the grateful remembering group vs. the control. Importantly, their so-called “trait” gratitude scores were also significantly higher in the group prompted to write about this gratitude-inducing experience. If a trait can be manipulated through the simple intervention as a brief writing exercise, it begs the question of whether it might not take that much to encourage gratitude in people who are always finding reasons to find fault in their favor-producing friends.
To sum up, the Witvliet et al. study shows that, at least among this relatively select sample of undergraduates, gratitude is a quality that can be nurtured. Their study also suggests what the conditions are that might create the eternally dissatisfied. For some reason, perhaps early in life, their hopes were squashed and they learned never to expect anything out of anybody. The cycle of negative expectations lead them to be the type of people no one wants to help (would you give your friend another ride?). Unlike people who can feel and experience gratitude, they don’t see the good in what other people do and when they feel rebuffed, they react with anger and resentment.
Fulfillment in relationships depends at least in part on the interpersonal niceties that people provide for each other. Ingrates may never change their spots, but it’s possible that the right conditions might allow some of them to fade.