What's gratitude?

Given that humans have been talking about gratitude for thousands of years, it's amazing how little we still know about it. Plato, all the way back in the 5th century BCE, is credited with say, 'A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.' A few hundred years later Jesus Christ 'offered thanks' just before before giving His disciples the chalice at the last supper. Since then, Saints all through the ages have had something to say about gratitude, right up to Saint Gianna Beretta Molla in the 20th century who said, 'The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for what He is sending us every day in His goodness.'

Something things we're not sure about with gratitude

  1. Do you always need to be grateful to someone else? Because, it sounds perfectly reasonable to say something like, 'I am grateful that it didn't rain on my wedding day.' but who is this person grateful to? The only contender here is God, but it seems likely that a good many people who might say that are probably not thinking about Him. So, can you be grateful to no-one?

  2. Should you be grateful to someone who didn't intend to do something good for you? For example, you're walking back from a club on your own and it's dark and late and you're scared and you see a group of dodgy-looking guys coming towards you. Then you notice across the street a group of people you know and can trust. You want to rush up and hug them because you're so grateful that they're there. But they didn't put themselves there for you, so should you really be grateful to them?

  3. And what about if someone did intend to do something good for you but it was because they kind of had to do it. Let's say a student has to do a week of volunteering as part of their course, so she asks a local charity if she can help out. Should the charity be grateful for her help even though they know she's only doing it for her course?

  4. And how about the cost involved to the person who's done something good for you? I mean, what if Jeff Bezos sent you £5 to go towards your education fees, making it clear that there was no more money to come after that - would you be grateful to him?

  5. And how about if you're given something you don't need, or don't even want?

More confusion - is gratitude an emotion or a trait?

We feel gratitude, so surely that means it's an emotion? Because you feel feelings. The problem is that another characteristic of emotions is that they are transient - they don't last for that long. When you're excited, or frightened, or happy, that's usually a temporary state. Gratitude is kind of different because if someone gave you your first job in a dream career, the chances are that you'd be grateful to that person for the rest of your life, whether you felt it or not. And that just doesn't sound like an emotion.

That's why gratitude is a bit like love. There are still arguments about whether love is an emotion because certain types of love are not transient. If you're happily married you don't go about saying that you sometimes love your husband or wife - you just love them, whether you feel it at that moment or not.

So what gratitude and love seem to share is that we feel them, so they are part emotion, but there seems to be more to them. this is further borne out by the findings that some people seem to have a lower threshold for experiencing gratitude - it's built into their personality.

Making gratitude happen

We can't lose sight of the emotional characteristic of gratitude because this is the bit which is easiest to manipulate. Simply by getting people to write about things they're grateful for in a journal makes them feel gratitude. That, in turn, makes them happier. So that seems pretty clear-cut but it adds another dimension to gratitude. In this case it's a behaviour (not an emotion or a trait) which is the driving force - it's the act of writing out things you're grateful for which eventually makes you happier.


So, there's still a lot we don't know. But, then again, what we do know is good news. We know that, whatever gratitude is, you can make it happen in a really simple way - using a gratitude journal. We also know that, we you do make gratitude happen, you tend to be happier. And maybe there's a reason why there's still a bit of mystery around gratitude. After all, it's been found that people with high levels of gratitude are also likely to experience higher levels of spiritual transcendence. Perhaps it's only right that something with that kind of power should remain a little bit mysterious.

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