There are aspects of gratitude that take us to a different level from happiness, aspects that I would say make the practice of gratitude deeper, more affirming, and even more important than the pursuit of happiness. Unlike happiness, which could be perceived as an individual pursuit, gratitude by definition involves more than one person or being. It requires us to look outside ourselves.
A study at the University of Virginia supported this notion. Participants who were asked to recall something good that happened to them reacted by wanting to tell others how great they felt and wanted to celebrate; they were self-focused. By contrast, those participants asked to remember something that someone had done for them wanted to share with others the other person’s kindness; their reaction was other-focused.
Because gratitude is “other focused,” it helps us to build social relations; to form friendships – in sum, to create societies through something psychologists “reciprocal altruism.” Reciprocal altruism is the principle that if someone does something nice for you, you tend to do something nice for them in return.
This “other-focused” quality of gratitude implies steps that take us beyond potentially self- focused happiness. To be grateful, we have to acknowledge another person’s gift to us. When we are grateful, we are indebted. Likewise, we may need to admit that we must depend on others. These are not conditions that everyone wants or would choose. However, if we look at them in a different light, and apply “reciprocal altruism,” we realize that these conditions encourage us to pay forward the good deeds. When we are grateful, we want to help others as we have been helped. From this perspective, gratitude implies humility. By acknowledging others’ gifts to us, by being indebted and dependent on others, we create a web of humanity connected by good deeds and gratitude. That sounds like a pleasant society in which to live.
Being grateful takes effort, particularly if we want to move from occasional feelings of gratitude to living in a state of gratefulness – moving from gratitude as an emotion to gratitude as a virtue, the virtue Cicero called “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” The benefits of living in a state of gratefulness are many. As Emmons says, “grateful thinking fosters the savoring of positive life experiences and situations, so that people can extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from their circumstances.”
My message to all of us – Let’s count our blessings!
(Originally posted on Common Sense Leadership)
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)