The Anatomy of Gratitude

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Gratitude and resentment, therefore, are the sentiments which

most immediately and directly prompt to reward and to punish.

To us, therefore, hemust appear to deserve reward, who appears

to be the proper and approved object of gratitude; and he to

deserve punishment, who appears to be that of resentment.

(Adam Smith 2002 [1759]: 81)

In our commonsense thinking about gratitude, we are inclined to think

of it as a warm and nice feeling directed toward someone who has been

benevolent to us. The definitions of gratitude given in dictionaries confirm

this perspective. Although I think that this view contains an important

element of truth, it disregards a more fundamental meaning

of gratitude. Beneath these warm feelings resides an imperative force, a

force that compels us to return the benefit we have received. Gratitude

has a clearly specified action tendency connected to it, as Adam Smith

had already noticed and as is also stipulated by contemporary emotion

theorists (Lazarus and Lazarus 1994). This duty to return led the social

psychologist Barry Schwartz (1967) to speak of the “gratitude imperative.”

Why aren’t we allowed to look a gift horse in the mouth? Because that

would be a sign of ingratitude and of indifference toward the giver, and

that is simply disastrous. In Japan the recipient of a gift is not allowed

to unwrap it in the presence of the giver. ToWestern eyes this may seem

an exotic habit, but on closer inspection it contains a very important

message about gratitude: by keeping the gift wrapped, the recipient’s

possible disappointment about the gift and its giver – showing itself in a

lack of gratitude – remains hidden. Perhaps this is the Japanese version

of our gift horse.

Why is a lack of gratitude felt as something to be avoided by all means?

Because gift exchange and the attendant feelings of gratitude serve to

confirm and maintain social ties. Gratitude is part of the chain of reciprocity

and, as such, it has “survival value”: it is sustaining a cycle of

gift and countergift and is thereby essential in creating social cohesion

and community. Gratitude is the oil that keeps the engine of the human

“service economy” going, to use Frans deWaal’s term (1996).

But gratitude is not merely a moral coercion; it is also a moral virtue.

Gratitude as a virtue is an important aspect of character: the capacity

to experience as well as express feelings of being thankful. The fact that

somebody may be seen as a grateful person indicates that gratitude is a

personality asset, a talent or even a gift that permeates all the social relationships

in which this person is involved. Lacking this virtue results in

ingratitude, which seems to be an enduring personality characteristic as

well. People who are regarded as ungrateful incur the risk of becoming

isolated and estranged because of their inability to contribute to the essential

symbolic nourishment on which humanrelationships are fed – that is,

themutual exchange of gifts connecting people by the bonds of gratitude.

The linguistic meanings of theword “grateful” are revealing. In English

as well as Dutch, “grateful” has a wider range of meanings than the literal

one of being grateful to somebody for having received something. The

first meaning becomes clear if we speak of a “grateful shade” where the

word is synonymous with salutary or pleasant. In “grateful soil” the word

means fertile, able to produce abundance without much outside help. In

Dutch we speak of a “grateful task” or a “grateful subject,” indicating that

the task or subject promises its own reward without much extra effort

(gratitude itself seems to be this kind of subject!).

I refrain here from trying to give a full-blown definition of gratitude,

because definitions of such multilayered and complex phenomena are

bound to be inadequate. What I can do, however, is sketch the contours

of an “anatomy of gratitude,” in an effort to delineate some of its most

prominent aspects and meanings. I approach the subject from various

angles, starting with the very thing that is given away. Anthropological

perspectives on the “spirit of the gift” wanting to be returned to the

original donor are the focus here. Next I consider the recipient of the gift

and analyze gratitude from a psychological point of view, as a personality

characteristic. How do people develop the capacity to be grateful and

express gratitude toward others? Then, from a sociological point of view,

I focus on the mutual relationship between the recipient and the giver

and the social and cultural impact of gratitude. Reciprocity appears to

be the underlying principle behind gift exchange, with the connected

feelings of gratitude functioning as the moral cement of human society

and culture as such.Without gratitude therewould benosocial continuity

as it fosters and maintains the network of social ties in which we are

embedded.