Gratitude Dissected

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Five conclusions can be drawn at this point. First, a theory on gratitude

should integrate its psychological, moral, social, and cultural dimensions.

Like “the gift” itself, gratitude proves to be a truly interdisciplinary subject.

Views from anthropology, psychology, and sociology each highlight

different aspects and add different emphases. Second, gratitude is part of

a chain of reciprocity and has “survival value”: it is sustaining the reciprocity

of service and counterservice, and it is universal. Third, gratitude

is ar esponse to av oluntary gift but is itself “imperative”: not showing

gratitude when it is appropriate leads to social disapproval and exclusion.

Fourth, gratitude derives its social importance and effectiveness from the

moral obligation implied in it. Fifth, gratitude can be a positive as well

as a negative force – for instance, in a context of dependency and power


Where do the various reflections on gratitude presented in this chapter

bring us? Is it possible to formulate a tentative theory that integrates the

various insights and pays justice to the enormous richness of the theme

of gratitude? All of the views discussed have a strong and inescapable

force in common, one that compels recipients to give in return, and

it is this mysterious force that lies at the heart of gratitude. The force is

alternatively thought to reside in the given object, in nature, in the person

of the recipient, or in the social relationship existing between the giver and

the recipient. A theory on gratitude should offer us some understanding

of the specific nature of this force. Let us, therefore, scrutinize more

closely the various layers that are embedded in the views outlined here.

The first layer of gratitude is a spiritual, religious, or magical one.

Related to this view is an ecological level, since in any case, the origin

of the force asking for restoration of the equilibrium is located outside

human beings, in nature or in spiritual essences. At a very fundamental

level of human existence, gratitude seems to be the symbolic way to make

people understand that they are part of nature, actors in natural cycles

of taking riches from the earth and giving back the appropriate returns.

Throughout history people have had some understanding that what nature

gives them is influenced by what they give nature. The ecological idea

often takes on religious, spiritual, or magical connotations.Whether it is

nature, hau, or God, the essential concept is gratitude, or the need to

restore some equilibrium. The notion of acy cle of gifts that have to be

kept in motion by passing them on or the idea of abundance returning

only if due respect is paid is indicative of the same basic idea that life can

only be safeguarded if we pass on what we have received. To come and

remain alive means to give away.

The moral and psychological aspects of gratitude constitute the second

layer. Gratitude can be conceived as a feeling of moral indebtedness as a

consequence of what has been received.We have seen that this feeling has

its roots in early childhood, where its first manifestation is the experience

of a child’s joy, comparable with the celebration of deWaal’s chimps. Joy

is the child’s reaction to the first gift of motherly care and love and paves

the way for gratitude. Although in later life the experience of gratitude

may vary according to the extent to which one is dependent on others for

the satisfaction of one’s needs, the talent for gratitude can be considered

an enduring personality trait and a moral virtue. Interestingly, the ability

to receive and be grateful seems intrinsically related to its counterpart,

the ability to return goodness, or generosity.

Whatever the impact of psychological factors, we should bear in mind

that fromits inception gratitude is embedded in social relationships. One

might say that to give is to live, not only as an individual but also as a

member of society. Not being grateful ultimately means the discontinuation

of social bonds and community life and the termination of individual

well-being and satisfaction. This, then, is the third layer of gratitude; it is

the precondition for reciprocity and mutual exchange. As the anthropological

literature on gift exchange amply demonstrates, gratitude keeps

social relations intact by being the driving force behind the return gifts.

Gratitude is the in-between connecting gift and return gift. Together the

three elements of gift, gratitude, and countergift formthe chain that constitutes

the principle of reciprocity. The social view of gratitude may also

involve some negative aspects. Power can seriously threaten the capacity

to feel and express gratitude. Giving in return is not always inspired by

table 3.1.Manifestations and Layers of Gratitude

Manifestations of Gratitude Layers of Gratitude

Hau, the “spirit” of the gift, nature

expecting returns


Joy and the capacity to receive Moral/psychological

Mutuality, reciprocity, power inequality,

fear of sanctions


Culturally varying expressions but also

web of feelings connecting people