Why You Should be More Grateful
Despite its many benefits, gratitude is hard to cultivate.
Posted March 1, 2015
‘Gratitude’ derives from the Latin gratia, which, depending on the context, translates either as ‘grace’, ‘graciousness’, or ‘gratefulness’. Gratitude never came easily to us men, and is a diminishing virtue in modern times. In our consumerist society, we tend to focus on what we lack, or on what other people have that we do not, whereas gratitude is the feeling of appreciation for what we already have. More than that, it is the recognition that the good in our life can come from something that is outside us and outside our control—be it other people, nature, or a higher power—and that owes little or nothing to us. Gratitude is not a technique or a stratagem, but a complex and refined moral disposition. It has poetically been defined as ‘the memory of the heart’ (Jean Massieu) and ‘the moral memory of mankind’ (Georg Simmel).
It is easy enough, both for the debtor and the benefactor, to mistake indebtedness for gratitude. Indebtedness is a much more contained and restricted obligation, or perceived obligation, on the part of the debtor to recompense or otherwise compensate the benefactor, not because recompense is a pleasure, but because obligation is a pain. Unlike gratitude, indebtedness can lead the debtor to avoid and even resent the benefactor. As Seneca says, ‘in the case of certain men, the more they owe, the more they hate. A trifling debt makes a man your debtor; a large one makes him an enemy.’ Gratitude should also be distinguished from appreciation, which is the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of a person or thing, but without the dimension of awe, profundity, or humility that is at the heart of gratitude.
Gratitude is magnified if the conferred benefit is unexpected, or if the benefactor is of a higher social status than the debtor. If a benefit comes to be expected, both it and the benefactor tend to be taken for granted by the beneficiary—a common feature or tired relationships. Gratitude is also magnified if, in benefiting us, the benefactor touched our feelings. Unless our feelings are moved, we respond not with gratitude but with mere appreciation. Thus, the teachers whom we best remember are not those who taught us the greatest number of facts, but those who inspired us and opened us up to ourselves.
In paying homage to something outside ourselves, gratitude enables us to connect with something that is not only larger than ourselves but also benevolent and reassuring. By turning us outward, gratitude opens our eyes to the miracle that is life, something to marvel at, revel in, and celebrate, rather than forget, ignore, or take for granted as it flies us by. It encourages us to joy, tranquility, awareness, enthusiasm, and empathy, while removing us from anxiety, sadness, loneliness, regret, and envy, with which it is fundamentally incompatible. All this it does because it opens us up to a bigger and better perspective, shifting our focus from what we lack or strive for to what we already have, to the bounty that surrounds us, and, above all, to life itself, which is the fount of all opportunity and possibility. This eagle or godlike perspective frees us to live life, no longer for ourselves, but for itself.
For this reason, Cicero called gratitude not only the greatest of the virtues, but also the mother of all the other virtues. Today, science has begun to catch up with Cicero. Studies have linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation, and energy; better sleep and health; and reduced stress and sadness. Grateful people are much more engaged with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning, and specialness.
We can be grateful for likely future benefits as well as past and present benefits. Gratitude for future benefits promotes optimism, and optimism faith. Both Western and Eastern religious traditions emphasize gratitude. In many Christian denominations, the most important rite is the Holy Communion or Eucharist—a term which derives from eucharistia, Greek for ‘thanksgiving’. Martin Luther himself spoke of gratitude as ‘the basic Christian attitude’. More than a mere feeling, Christian gratitude is a virtue, or disposition of the soul, that shapes our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and that is developed, refined, and exercised through a remembered relationship with God and His Creation.
In contrast, ingratitude is hurtful because it ignores the efforts and sacrifices of the benefactor, thereby affronting him and, by extension, life itself. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear says:
Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,
More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child
Than the sea monster!
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
Hume maintains that ‘of all the crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude, especially when it is committed against parents…’ For Kant, ingratitude is, quite simply, ‘the essence of vileness’. Ingratitude, which, of course, has become the norm in our society, corrodes social bonds and undermines public trust, leading to societies built on rights and entitlements rather than duties and obligations, on me rather than us, and in which every aspect of human life has to be regulated, recorded, monitored, and managed.
Despite the great and many benefits that it confers, gratitude is hard to cultivate. It is opposed to some deeply ingrained human traits, in particular, our striving to better our lot, our need to feel in control of our destiny, our propensity to credit ourselves for our successes while blaming others for our failures, and our unconscious belief in some sort of cosmic equality or justice. In short, we find it hard to cultivate gratitude because, more and more, we seek to exist as independent individuals rather than as a social collective, and gratitude undermines our ego illusion.
As human nature does not leave much place for it, gratitude is an attainment of maturity, or, to be more precise, emotional maturity, which can arrive at any age or, more commonly, not at all. Thus, children who are taught to parrot ‘thank you’ mean it even less than their parents do. Indeed, many adults express gratitude, or a semblance of gratitude, simply because doing so is useful or the ‘done thing’. Gratitude is good manners, and good manners aim at aping profundity when profundity is lacking.
In contrast, real gratitude is a rare virtue. There is a fable in Aesop about a slave who pulls a thorn out of the paw of a lion. Some time later, the slave and the lion are captured, and the slave is thrown to the lion. The starved lion rushes bounding and roaring toward the slave, but upon recognizing his friend he fawns upon him and licks his hands like a puppy dog. ‘Gratitude’, concludes Aesop, ‘is the sign of noble souls.’
Like all virtues, gratitude requires constant cultivation, until such a day as we can say,
‘Thank you for nothing.’
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.
JB Massieu, Letter to Abbé Sicard.
G Simmel (1908), Faithfulness and Gratitude.
Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, On Worldliness and Retirement. Trans. RM Gummere.
Cicero, Oratio pro Cn. Plancio, 80.
McCullough ME et al. (2002): The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82: 112-127.
Wood AM et al. (2009): Gratitude predicts psychological well-being above the Big Five facets. Personality and Individual Differences, 45: 655-660.
Wood AM et al (2007): Coping style as a psychological resource of grateful people. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26: 1108-1125.
Shakespeare, King Lear, I-4.
D Hume (1738), A Treatise of Human Nature, III-I.
I Kant (2001), Lectures on Ethics. Cambridge University Press.