“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others”. Marcus Tullius Cicero
“Thank you is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding”. Alice Walker
In our high-speed world, we are constantly receiving and passing on vast amounts of information. While we busy ourselves looking for a better life, we may not realise that we take much of what happens in our lives for granted. Consider the recent story of the very courageous Pakistani girl Malala, who explains how she survived being shot in the head all because she desired to go to school. Malala reminds us that while in some parts of the world education is taken for granted, there are still some areas where people continue to fight and die to achieve the right to an education. When these people are offered an education, they experience significantly more gratitude than those who are born in a country with that automatic right.
When we talk about giving thanks to someone, we are talking about expressing our humanity. Why is it often so difficult then, to remember to express our gratitude to someone who did something for us, or for something good happening in our lives? Is it perhaps because we are so busy and before we know it, our attention is taken elsewhere? There has been various scientific research on the positive aspects of gratitude, specifically how it is uniquely important to wellbeing and social life:
- McCullough et al. (2001) point out in their study that gratitude acts as a moral barometer, drawing attention to help received; a moral motivator, encouraging a pro-social response to help; and as a moral re-inforcer, where the expression of gratitude makes the benefactor more likely to provide help in the future. The study also shows that over time gratitude leads to lower stress and depression and higher levels of social support.
- Park et al. (2004) looked at how 24 representative personality strengths are related to life satisfaction. Gratitude was more strongly related to this measure of happiness than all other strengths.
- Emmons & Crumpler (2000) discovered that gratitude is related to a life that is meaningful rather than simply hedonistically pleasant.
- Tesser et al. (1968) suggested in their work that around 65 per cent of the gratitude felt in a given situation was predicted by attributions regarding the value of the help, how costly it was to provide, and whether it was altruistically intended (rather than with an ulterior motive).
Showing your gratitude can not only make you feel like ‘a good person’, it may also make you change the way you think about life and the way you perceive your interactions with the world. If being grateful makes us “feel indebted, aware of one’s dependence on others, and obligated to reciprocate” (Pay it Forward, 2007, Volume IV, Issue I), herein lies the essence of gratitude: enabling us to receive help on one hand, and motivating us to return the good to others on the other hand. Difficult times spare no one and can hit you when you are at your most vulnerable.
A couple of years ago, I came through a difficult time – having just arrived from overseas, I knew no one, had no friends and was starting from scratch with my husband and our two children. On top of all that, I was also in less than perfect health. At that very moment, someone I barely knew offered to help me until I felt in better shape. That help dramatically changed my view about life in general and about peoples’ interactions in particular. It certainly wasn’t a comfortable situation to be in a position of vulnerability, but a greater discomfort came from my struggle to accept that receiving someone’s help wouldn’t change the way people perceive me.
In life we all go through hard times and we all need to be helped sometimes – this doesn’t make us less human or less powerful. Hopefully we have all experienced gratitude from both perspectives: firstly as a receiver, then as a giver. We know then, that the best way to show our gratitude is by saying a sincere “thank you” to the helper and to pass on our own help to another person in need. After my experience, I felt an intense desire to help others in return. This is why I believe gratitude is such a special and crucial virtue. The importance of gratitude has been a fundamental focus of all the main religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), and since the beginning of mankind gratitude has been regarded as one of the most important and most desirable virtues a human being could wish to possess.
- Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, considers that gratitude “inspires kindness, connection, and transformative life changes; gratitude becomes the gift, creating a cycle of giving and receiving and gratitude implies humility—a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others”. (Pay it Forward, 2007, Volume IV, Issue I).
- Georg Simmel, a famous sociologist, declared that gratitude is “the moral memory of mankind.” He went on to say, “If every grateful action were suddenly eliminated, society would crumble”. (Pay it Forward, 2007, Volume IV, Issue I).
- Adam Smith, a Scottish moral philosopher and a pioneer of political economy, best known for his work “The Wealth of Nations”, also wrote about gratitude. He believed that gratitude was an important element for society, bringing reciprocity of aid when no other legal or economic incentive encouraged its repayment.
We should conclude by saying that gratitude was, still is and will be, an important virtue in our society. It can change the way people interact and how they report to each other. So, the next time you want to express your gratitude to someone, leave aside the misconceptions that receiving help means you should feel vulnerable, dependable or weak, accept the help being offered to you, whatever its form, and become a helper when you have the chance.
Written by Sorina Oprea, Edited by Jennifer McElroy
References: Emmons, R. (2013). How gratitude can help you through hard times. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_can_help_you_through_hard_times
Emmons, R., (2007). Pay it Forward. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/pay_it_forward
Horsager, D. (2012). Your Most Powerful Forgotten Weapon: Gratitude. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2012/11/28/your-most-powerful-forgotten-weapon-gratitude/
Tannenbaum, B., M. (2011). The psychology of giving thanks. Retrieved from http://psysociety.wordpress.com/2011/11/24/thanksgiving/ Wilcox, C., (2011). The Benefits of Thanks. Retrieved from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/11/24/the-benefits-of-thanks/
Wood, A., Joseph, S., Linley, A. (2007). Gratitude – Parent of all virtues. The Psychologist. Volume 20, Part 1, pp.18-21, Retrieved from http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm/volumeID_20-editionID_143-ArticleID_1129