The Art and Science of Gratitude
And seven small ways to be more thankful.
Posted November 27, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Gratitude (Latin gratia, or "grace") never came easily to us men and women, 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, gratitude is the recognition that the good in our life can come from something that is beyond us and beyond 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 stratagem, but a complex and refined moral disposition. It has been defined poetically as "the memory of the heart" and "the moral memory of mankind."
Gratitude vs indebtedness
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 that dimension of awe, reverence, and humility that is at the heart of gratitude.
The dynamics of gratitude
Gratitude is magnified if the conferred benefit is unexpected, or if the benefactor is of a higher social standing than the debtor. But if a benefit comes to be expected, both it and the benefactor tend to be taken for granted by the beneficiary—a common feature of tired relationships, and a rationale for doling out benefits on a variable ratio schedule.
Gratitude is also magnified if, in benefiting us, the benefactor touches our feelings. Unless our feelings are moved, we tend to respond not with gratitude but with mere appreciation. Thus, the teachers whom we hold dearest in our hearts are not those who assiduously taught us the most facts, or fastidiously covered every bulleted point on the syllabus, but those who inspired us and opened us up to the world.
The benefits of gratitude
In paying homage to something outside ourselves, gratitude enables us to connect with something that is not only larger than ourselves but also benevolent, even nurturing. By turning us outward, it 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 passes us by.
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 all that 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 life itself.
For this reason, Cicero calls gratitude the greatest of the virtues, and, more than that, 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 engage much more with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning, and connectedness.
Gratitude in religion
We can be grateful for likely future benefits as well as for 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 word 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.
The dangers of ingratitude
In contrast, ingratitude—which can range from mere lack or absence of gratitude to Brutus’ murder of Caesar—is hurtful because it ignores the efforts and sacrifices of the benefactor, thereby affronting him or her, and, by extension, life itself.
David Hume maintains that "of all the crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude…" For Immanuel Kant, ingratitude is, quite simply, "the essence of vileness".
Ingratitude, which, of course, has become the norm, 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, and monitored.
The art of gratitude
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 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 kind of cosmic equality or justice.
Today, we seek more and more 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. Children who are taught to parrot "thank you" mean it even less than their parents do. As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, many people express gratitude, or a semblance of it, 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.
Real gratitude, on the other hand, is a rare and accomplished virtue. There is a fable in Aesop about a slave who extracts a thorn from the paw of a lion. Sometime later, the slave and the lion are captured, and the slave is thrown to the lion. The starved lion bounds and roars towards the slave, but upon recognizing his friend fawns upon him and licks his face like a lapdog.
"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."
7 small ways to be more thankful
- Make time for meditation or just for idleness. People who never stop tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. Finding time to stop and breathe enables you to reframe things and regain perspective.
- Practice shifting your focus from what you lack to all that you already have. Artists such as M.C. Escher teach us that we regard as foreground and background is, to a large extent, a matter of choice. See, for example, this lithograph.
- Think back to some of the harder times of your life.
- Think of people who are less fortunate. Even better, volunteer to work with some of these people.
- Incorporate gratitude into your daily routine. For example, say a thankful phrase before your main meal of the day. Make it into a habit, even when eating alone.
- Have grateful thoughts each night as your head hits the pillow and you close your eyes. This should also help you to relax and fall asleep.
- Remember to be grateful even for the small things, indeed, especially for the small things: like having a roof over your head, and being safe and warm.
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.
Hume (1738), A Treatise of Human Nature, III–I.
Kant (2001), Lectures on Ethics. Cambridge University Press.
Aesop’s Fables: The Slave and the Lion.