A new study suggests what keeps the chronically dissatisfied so disgruntled.
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 later, the ungrateful recipient finally acknowledges your help, but not in the way you expected. Perhaps the request was to give 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 outlook.
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.