Gratitude from a Philosophical and Psychological Perspective

Gratitude is currently exciting both philosophers and psychologists. Research into the beneficial influence of gratitude has boosted interest in positive psychology. The results of empirical inquiry have provoked philosophers to look again at emotions and reconsider such ideas as free will, intention, mind-body relationship, consciousness, happiness, and faith.

Gratitude is the virtue that engenders a positive emotion in response to a gift or benefaction from another. As Robert C. Roberts affirms, gratitude is triadic; I am grateful to you for X (Roberts, 2004, pp. 58-78). In my opinion, it is insufficient simply to appreciate a benefaction; in so doing, one depersonalizes and objectifies what is implicitly a personal relationship. Indeed it is awareness of the benefactor and trust in his or her motivation that stimulates the beneficiary’s personal transformation. This is particularly the case, I shall argue, when gratitude is placed in the Christian theological framework.

Adam Smith distinguishes three relationships that may stir the emotion of gratitude (Smith, 1976, pp. 94-97). One may have a favorite wallet and be grateful for it, but one knows that it does not value one’s appreciation. Second, one may have a faithful dog whose companionship is a comfort. In this case, one acknowledges a relationship by the way one physically expresses one’s appreciation. The dog will respond and show its “gratitude” by wagging its tail. But this is still unsatisfactory and incomplete for one is not confident that the expression of “gratitude” is self-consciously and freely offered. Predictability of behavior is insufficient. Thus, third, a benefactor is not appreciated because of the fact of his or her benefaction but because the benefaction is a free expression of unmerited personal commitment on the part of the giver. A shared moral purpose is a necessary condition if the beneficiary is justified in having the highest regard for the motives and virtuous character of his or her benefactor.

A doctor who offers his services out of a sense of professional duty may, of course, earn my gratitude. But this behavior is best considered an event involving doctor and patient that is objectively appreciated. In my view, an essential feature of a situation meriting gratitude is selfawareness of the mutual relationship between the benefactor and the recipient of the gift. The personal relationship of the beneficiary and benefactor encourages their physical and mental health and helps each experience what it means to be a grateful person.

Empirical research conducted by McCullough and Emmons supports this view (Emmons and McCullough, 2004). They suggest that a grateful person who appreciates what he has and is grateful to his or her benefactors is more content and less inclined to suffer from depression. Gratitude, they suggest, enlivens deeper relationships, enhances social confidence, and encourages altruism. In each case, however, it appears that the perceived motives and implied character of the benefactor are crucial, since it is not simply the benefaction for which gratitude is expressed but the benefactor to whom the beneficiary is grateful.

This raises in my mind the question, to whom can one be truly grateful without question and for what gifts? Is there anyone of whom it can truly be said that he or she ought to be grateful if he or she is to realize the full potential of his or her human life? Notwithstanding the illuminating work of moral philosophers and empirical psychologists, it is within religions especially, but not exclusively those of the Abrahamic faiths, that gratitude is most fully expressed to God, for it is he and only he who is understood to be absolutely good, loving, and eternally present. In the case of Christianity, for example, God is said to create freely by grace, not just to have “caused” the world to come into being; he is conceived to have committed himself personally to his creating. Thus appreciation of the world’s natural beauty and attention to its nature, in all its delightful complexity, is inadequate; one is invited to know the person of the Creator as revealed in Christ and to enter into a relationship with him. To want to know God and to choose to seek him is to embrace the possibility of transforming one’s life after the pattern of God’s image. The gratitude that one feels for this is profoundly expressed in the practice of the Faith, worship, attention to the well-being of others, and care for creation.

The triadic relationship between benefactor, benefaction, and beneficiary underpins our understanding of the nature of gratitude. It grounds the account of how it comes about that gratitude is so affirmative of the human qualities that give meaning and purpose to personal life and community living. The practice of faith makes explicit an implicit awareness of what we owe to God. Actually, “owe” may not be the right term, because it suggests indebtedness and obligation, which gives the wrong impression of the generous, freely given, gracious, and affectionate relationship that God offers to humankind.

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