When Chris, a 33-year-old teacher in Cleveland broke up with his long-term girlfriend last year, his sister, a yoga instructor, started texting him daily asking him to list three things he’s grateful for. Admittedly, he didn’t love it at first. “It just felt so forced and silly,” he tells me. “And since I was already in a shitty place, a lot of my answers were like, ‘pizza’ and ‘my couch.’ I thought it would make me feel like more of a loser.”
But over the course of a few weeks, his answers started to change, along with his behavior. Without realizing it, Chris was connecting with more friends, taking up new activities like running and seeking out more things he enjoyed — not to appease his sister, but because her messages legitimately got him to think more positively.
Similarly, James, a 44-year-old copywriter in Brooklyn, has a group text with the two female members of his band about what they’re grateful for. Most of the time, he shares small things like his cat or a good cup of coffee, and occasionally, the thread veers off into jokes and memes. But most of the time, “it’s a good way to keep a little lightness in my interactions with my friends,” he tells me. It also almost immediately had a small, but noticeable, effect on his mood, similar to the dopamine rush people get from likes on social media, “but a purer, more personal one that didn’t have the stink of self-indulgence that the internet has.”
Yet, as positive of an impact as practicing gratitude has had on James and Chris, these conversations didn’t inspire either of them to talk about what they’re grateful for with other men. Such a gratitude gap is echoed in the data: A 2012 survey found that 52 percent of women express gratitude on a regular basis, compared to 44 percent of men, and 64 percent of women feel that they have “much in life to be thankful for,” compared to 50 percent of men. From middle school to high school students, to undergraduates and older adults, girls and women are more grateful across the board. Studies even show that women are more comfortable expressing gratitude to God than men.
James speculates that it’s not that men are less appreciative than women, but that they’re worse talking about it. “Men are terrible at communicating in general, and especially bad about communicating emotional information to other men, even if it’s positive,” he says. Interestingly, James is in a second group text with the fourth member of his band, another guy, who abstains from the gratitude thread because he’s sober and practices it in a more formal capacity with people in AA.
Gratitude — defined by psychologists as a two-step process that includes “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome” — has close ties to the 12-step community because it’s crucial for substance abuse recovery, particularly at repairing the toll addiction takes on dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters meant to make people feel good. However, licensed mental health counselors (and married couple), Lin and Aaron Sternlicht of Family Addiction Specialist, confirm that the benefits of gratitude aren’t limited to sobriety.
“Gratitude can significantly improve mood, reduce stress and help individuals cope with unwanted or unpleasant feelings and emotions,” Lin explains. “Practicing it impacts the brain by releasing feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.”
Additionally, gratitude increases empathy, reduces aggression, improves sleep, boosts self-esteem and may even protect against symptoms of PTSD. The ample benefits speak to why gratitude has become mainstreamed. And though most of this has been disproportionately marketed to women, a growing number of gratitude resources like journals are starting to be geared toward men. “Gratitude can help us take a step back in times of distress to see the bigger picture,” Aaron says.
That said, he has seen the consequences of the gratitude gap play out in his work. “Men are groomed to contain emotions, and oftentimes, this can result in them becoming like pressure cookers where they end up imploding or exploding.”
Given that men are less likely to seek help from a therapist — yet four times more likely to commit suicide — gratitude may be especially vital for them. When therapy and medication can feel like too big of a step, gratitude is a more accessible exercise that can be practiced simply by texting with friends, writing in a journal, downloading an app or just sitting down to think. “The great thing about a gratitude practice is that it’s primarily a personal practice that men may feel more comfortable with than many other therapeutic tools,” Aaron explains.
Men like William, a 47-year-old salesman in Georgia, who started practicing gratitude early on in adulthood in a stereotypically masculine way. “Stoicism was my introduction to formal practice of gratitude, through negative visualization,” he says. “You meditate on things you love being taken from you, and at the end, you realize you still have those things and feel profoundly thankful for them.”
Although he doesn’t have formal conversations with his guy friends about gratitude, William does make an effort to let them know he appreciates their relationships, and he regularly reminds his wife that he’s thankful for her as well. He also makes a special effort to talk to his teenage son about what he’s grateful for. “It’s more saying things are good or cool, just taking a moment to be glad his mom is such a good cook, or that we still have our old dog,” William says. “Like his car has been in the shop for a while, and when he gets it back, I’ll remind him to take a second to be glad about that.”
As Chris started feeling better about himself and dating again, his sister stopped checking in as much. Then, at the start of quarantine, he got a text from her, asking him for three things he could appreciate, right then and there. “It was really good timing. It’s so easy to focus on how bad everything is right now, but I still have a job, a good relationship and a new couch,” he jokes.
But when I ask Chris if he’s texted any of his buddies about what they’re grateful for, he admits he hasn’t — not because it’s awkward or uncomfortable, but because he didn’t fully realize what an improvement a small acknowledgement of gratitude really makes. “I think I’ll try to ask my friends to name three things,” he tells me. “Even if they make fun of me, they’ll still probably answer and feel good about it.”