Gratitude: Ego's Antidote

Gratitude helps us to turn outward and live for more than just ourselves. Here’s why.

By Emily Siwachok, Marketing Manager, the Arbinger Institute | November 21, 2018

A Year of Thank You’s

Some Decembers ago, John Kralik had hit rock bottom. His law firm was failing. He was estranged from his children and going through a second divorce. He was 40 pounds overweight and lived in a miserable apartment…and his girlfriend had just dumped him.

On New Year’s Day, John was walking through the mountains above Pasadena when the thought came that he should be grateful for what he did have rather than dwelling on what he didn’t—so he made the commitment to write 365 thank-you notes in the coming year.

Day after day, note after note, John thanked associates, store clerks, neighbors, loved ones, college friends, current foes, and just about anyone who had done something good for him.

Gradually, John’s life turned around. Each note was a building block in a new way of seeing the world that allowed John to be different in—and get different results from—the world. From financial stability, to weight loss, to friendships made, John underwent a transformation brought about by gratitude.

For many of us, our response to John’s story is appreciation rather than surprise. If you’ve ever shown gratitude for someone or something—and most of us have—we’ve tasted its ability to improve our attitude and perspective.

And yet, gratitude often doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Author Aldous Huxley once observed, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”

Why Is That?

One possibility that explains some, but certainly not all, of this disposition is the fact that we often want to claim credit when things go right but place blame when things go awry—causing us to have a gaping blind spot about those moments when things go well because of what others have done for us.

At the crux of ingratitude is ego. Ingratitude turns us inward, inviting us to focus only on ourselves and our own needs. It leads us to feel entitled and to resent when at some point or other the world fails to meet one of our expectations. And it causes us to be blind to those who helped us achieve our successes.

Today, the common antidotes to ego that leadership literature most often prescribes are the specific attributes of self-awareness and humility. While those attributes certainly help alleviate us of our ego-driven blind spots, an attribute underlying both is gratitude.

Gratitude Frees Us from Living for Our “Narrow Selves”

Illuminating the benefits of gratitude, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

In his observation, Chesterton brings attention to gratitude’s ability to turn us outward, gently drawing us out of our egos and opening our eyes to all that is offered to us by others.

As Neel Burton, M.D. elaborates,

By turning us outward, gratitude shifts our focus from what we lack or strive for to what we already have, opening our eyes to the bounty that is life, something to marvel at, revel in, and celebrate rather than forget, ignore, or take for granted as it flies us by. This much broader perspective frees us to live life, no longer for our narrow selves, but for life itself.

As gratitude “frees us from living for our narrow selves,” it invites us to begin living for others—bringing about a transformation from the ego-driven life to the outward-focused, abundant life that John Kralik achieved.

And yet, I dare to think that gratitude could yield even greater transformations.

A Reminder from the Past on Achieving Harmony Through Gratitude

In the midst of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln officially declared the final Thursday of November to be a day of Thanksgiving. In one of our nation’s darkest hours, President Lincoln held up gratitude as a beacon of hope, reminding the nation of what could be.

As our nation today still faces heightened levels of divisiveness, many of us again wonder how to achieve a sense of harmony.

Many Thanksgiving articles will offer suggestions or guidance on how to navigate dinner conversations away from touchy topics. But I would like to suggest that harmony can be found not merely in what is or isn’t said around the table, but in gratitude and its ability to subdue our egos to illuminate the generosity of the people in our lives.

This Thanksgiving and in the days that follow, may gratitude keep us from living for our “narrow selves” but instead turn us outward to embrace neighborliness, friendship, and the abundance that is life.