No Hard Feelings: Gratitude
Gratitude (n.) a warm sense of appreciation of kindness received, involving a feeling of goodwill towards the benefactor and a desire to do something in return. From Latin grātitūdo, –inem and grātus, ‘thankful, pleasing’, from the suffixed form of Proto-Indo-European root gwere, ‘to favour’.
Famously felt by George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. “You’ve been given a great gift, George, a chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
Famously not felt by Goneril in King Lear. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child!”
Hopefully we’ve all felt it. Maybe some more than others, but it’s a difficult emotion to avoid if you’ve ever had a meal cooked for you, been given a birthday gift or simply had a door held open for you in public.
In fact, gratitude is now so sought after that it has become a popular – and by all accounts extremely beneficial – trend to make gratitude lists: writing down things that an individual is grateful for at the end of each day. It could be a neighbour trimming your hedge. Your flight landing safely. A colleague covering for you at work. Having a roof over your head. The way the sun sets over that hill. The sound of the rain on your windows. The taste of your favourite pastry from that slightly overpriced coffee shop. When you start to think about it, there’s actually quite a lot to be grateful for.
Gratitude retains a core sense of reciprocity and return – being moved to undertake an act of kindness towards someone else as a compensation for the kindness they have displayed to you.
Making gratitude lists is, for many, the perfect antidote to that insatiable consumerist urge to buy more things in order to fill the sense of emptiness or inadequacy. Gratitude, in the modern meaning of ‘thankfulness’, goes back to the 1540s, but back then it also had a slightly different dimension to it.
In fact, its very etymology relates it directly to transactions, trade and what would eventually become capitalism. In 16th Scotland, the word meant “a free gift; a gratuity, reward; esp. Scottish a grant or contribution of money made to the sovereign.” Even as that particular definition of the word became obsolete, the emotion retains a core sense of reciprocity and return – being moved to undertake an act of kindness towards someone else as a compensation for the kindness they have displayed to you.
The 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith wrote to feel grateful is “to recompense, to remunerate, to return food for good received.” Coincidentally, he is the same Adam Smith who is regarded as one of the architects of modern capitalism. He noted the importance of emotions when it comes to economics – what he referred to as “the affections of the heart”. He believed gratitude was essential to a prosperous society; beyond merely a nice feeling, it also created a desire to reward people who helped us.
On the eve of the Great Depression, gratitude became a signpost of the dangerous business of need and dependency.
Other thinkers considered gratitude a provocateur of negative feelings including resentment, envy and “negative self-feeling” (what we’d now call low self-esteem), as 20th century Harvard psychologist William McDougall wrote in 1929. On the eve of the Great Depression, gratitude became a signpost of the dangerous business of need and dependency.
Nowadays, gratitude is back in vogue – just minus the sense of obligation, and plus a dimension of “wonder and appreciation” according to University of California psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. The purpose of the emotion is now firmly rooted in the benefits for the feeler.
Being more grateful can help individuals gain enjoyment from almost any situation, while simultaneously discouraging feelings of inadequacy or hedonistic desires. Gratitude steers individuals towards focusing on the things they already have rather than that much nicer house across the street, or that one friend’s constant revolving wardrobe of designer clothes, or the colleague going on a once-in-a-lifetime trip around the world.
“The expression of gratitude is also said to stimulate moral behaviour such as helping, and to help build social bonds.”Adam Smith
But at its core, gratitude still fundamentally revolves around the reciprocity that Adam Smith was so interested in. But it is a lot more transformative than mere economic contexts. Smith also recognised the transformative social power that gratitude sparks in the space between two people: “The expression of gratitude is also said to stimulate moral behaviour such as helping, and to help build social bonds.”
The indigenous Utku of Canada don’t distinguish between kindness and happiness, but instead use the same word for both: hatuq. We might call the same thing ‘paying-it-forwards’ – and it’s probably one of the easiest ways to make the world a kinder place for everyone.
Further reading on gratitude
- ‘How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain’, Greater Good Magazine
- The Book of Human Emotions (2015), Tiffany Watt Smith
- ‘The Science of Gratitude’, University of California, Berkeley
- The Myths of Happiness (2013), Sonja Lyubomirsky
- The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith
- Oration Pro Plancio, Cicero