Cultivating Gratitude

Focus on the Less Fortunate Elicits Thankfulness

There are a lot of reasons why we might want to evoke gratitude in someone, especially a reader. They may be too down or depressed, too self-centered, or too judgmental. In a story, we may achieve more engagement in a character who is worse off than the reader.

If you think about situations where you’ve learned that someone else lacked something you took for granted, you may have reacted initially with embarrassment or shame, but hopefully, you eventually felt greater compassion for the other person. Let’s look at some examples:

Color blindness

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Most of us take seeing color for granted. But there are people who go through the world only seeing shades of gray everywhere, some who just can’t tell the difference between red and green. It affects men much more often than women, up to ten percent of the population. It’s harder to choose and prepare foods, because we rely on color to determine ripeness and thorough braising. Some foods look more repulsive when their vibrant colors are removed. In some countries, color blind people aren’t allowed to drive nor be hired into certain jobs. It’s harder to play board games and card games. They may not immediately recognize that something is out of power, because the warning light didn’t register with them.

Infertility

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It’s not simple for anyone to raise their own children, but for those who are infertile, the impossibility can lead to low feelings of self-worth or general bitterness. Every baby and young child they see is a reminder of some purportedly normal part of life in which they will never participate. In some cases, the closing off of that option makes infertile adults more likely to criticize couples who choose not to conceive or women who get abortions.

Physical disability

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We usually take our mobility for granted. We curse the slow escalators and when the elevators don’t work and we need to take the stairs. But what if you had to live in a home with elevators and ramps, or you couldn’t leave it unaided? What if you had to schedule all your trips days in advance and allow a couple of hours to get to and from a place only a mile or two away? What if most of the places you wanted to go to were entirely inaccessible to you? What if you had to search that much longer to find a public bathroom in which your wheelchair fit?

Marriage rights

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Around 90 percent of the population trusts that, if they find the right partner, the two of them can get a marriage license and have a wedding in a church to celebrate their love. In around 85 percent of the world, same sex couples cannot marry. In the U.K., gay couples have only been allowed to marry in the past five years. In the U.S., it’s only been legal for four years. But some churches still functionally deny same-sex couples the right by refusing their sanctuary or their officiant. Up until 1967 in the U.S., you couldn’t marry someone of another race. In medieval times, you could only marry within your class, and even then, the government had the power to approve or reject the union.

When you don’t have the right to marry, it encourages people to discriminate against you in other ways as well. You can start to subtly buy into the myth that you can never have a committed relationship.

More serious circumstances

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While all of these are hardships, it is important to note that there are some people whose circumstances are even more dire. And that creates a different response. When someone is denied a basic human right, we are less likely to react with gratitude for our comparative blessing, and either repress the cognitive dissonance or get angry at the injustice. Some people fear for their life, just because of political views they hold. Some people fear the police, because they worry they can be shot without any provocation. Some people get sold into slavery, even as children.

Eliciting gratitude requires that a character have disadvantages. If the problems the character faces are so fundamental that they are frequently in mortal danger, many readers will not be able to relate. You may sometimes get a compassionate response, but the constant reality that someone’s life is disposable more frequently elicits numbness.

This is part one of a series of posts on evoking specific emotions in readers. Check back next week for my post on “Cultivating Empathy.”

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