Notes on Gratitude
This post examines the virtues of appreciation, gratitude, and reciprocity. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about them, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.
What are these virtues?
The sort of “appreciation” I want to explore here is appreciation-of-others specifically (not, for example, aesthetic appreciation). When you appreciate someone for something they have done that benefits you, we sometimes call this sort of appreciation “gratitude.” However, you can appreciate someone without necessarily feeling gratitude (for example, you might appreciate someone’s sense of humor but not think that it makes sense to thank them for it).
In practice, there’s a lot of overlap between gratitude and appreciation, and the border between them isn’t very well-defined. In this post, I’ll use one or the other of “appreciation” or “gratitude” if the distinction seems to matter, and I’ll use either of them if it doesn’t seem to matter. If that’s confusing, leave a comment and I’ll try to clarify.
When we return a favor, we are doing a specific sort of gratitude-adjacent action that goes by the name “reciprocity.”
To rise to the level of virtues, appreciation, gratitude, and reciprocity should be habitual: in other words, you have the virtue of appreciation if it is characteristic for you to notice opportunities for appreciation, to then feel appreciative, and to follow through by skillfully performing appreciative actions.
Related virtues & vices
There are some other virtues that have to do with recognizing others, including respect, remembrance, honor, consideration, recognition, and solidarity. The ability to notice opportunities for appreciation requires attention. The skill of “savoring” can also be part of a good appreciative sense.
The skill of accepting appreciation or gratitude gracefully (rather than with deflection or false-modesty for example) is also useful. For one thing, it is more difficult to express appreciation or gratitude if you see the receipt of appreciation or gratitude as an occasion for embarrassment or awkwardness. For another, if you are graceful in the way that you accept gratitude, people will be more likely to model it for you and this will help you learn how to express it well.
A culture may have established rituals of gratitude (e.g. the “thank you note,” tipping), and learning to competently perform these rituals is part of the virtue of courtesy.
People informally use the word “gratitude” in both a propositional and a prepositional sense. That is to say, we sometimes feel gratitude about something, and sometimes feel gratitude towards someone for something. There’s some debate about whether the first variety is really “gratitude” or whether it’s something else (e.g. gladness).
Some vices that interfere with appreciation include narcissism (which can prevent you from noticing others enough to appreciate them), hubris (which can keep you from feeling gratitude because you assume your good fortune was inevitable), entitlement (which can make you believe that gratitude is superfluous), cynicism (which can make you assume ulterior motives are behind other people’s helpful actions), and resentment (which can make you unwilling to acknowledge having received a favor).
Spite (or maybe righteous anger) is, in a way, a sort of dark-complement to gratitude: instead of repaying kindness with thankfulness, it replies to injury with bitterness. This may suggest that forgiveness (or mercy) is a sort of diagonal-complement to gratitude.
What does gratitude consist of?
Gratitude is sometimes described as a feeling of appreciation that may or may not end up expressed by some sort of appropriate communication or action in response. Other times it is described in a way that includes both the feeling and the action that feeling provokes, or in a way that suggests that the gratitude is more complete or more sincere if it culminates in some sort of act of gratitude that is legible to the person who is deserving of appreciation.
I’ve seen a couple of attempts to break gratitude down into its component parts. One comes from the Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues (here’s a brief video in which Dr. Blaire Morgan explains it). In their model, gratitude consists of (1) conceptions/understandings about gratitude, (2) grateful emotions, (3) attitudes about gratefulness (e.g. that it is important, worthy), and (4) gratitude-related behaviors. In the research associated with this model, these four components can be independently measured, and there is a positive relationship between your well-being and how many components you perform relatively well in (i.e. if you’re above-average in more components, you will feel more well-being).
Another four-factor model comes from researchers working with the Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude Project, who were focused on the development of gratitude in children. The way this was first formulated, you (1) notice that you have received something, (2) realize that this benefited you, (3) notice that the giver acted intentionally to bestow this benefit, and (4) do something to show appreciation. This has since been refined into a framework that now goes by the label “notice-think-feel-do”: (1) notice something for which you have reason to be grateful, (2) think about how it is that this came about, (3) feel the positive emotions that follow from this, (4) do something to show your appreciation.*
When people decide whether gratitude is warranted, part of this assessment involves evaluating the motives of the person who granted the appreciated favor or help. People are less likely to feel grateful to someone whose otherwise praiseworthy act was motivated by ulterior self-seeking motives or was done for pay or from duty. People also typically judge favors not absolutely but relative to the favors they expected to receive or to those given them by others.
For these reasons, while you would be being polite to thank the grocery store employee who bags your groceries, you would probably be considered to be going a little overboard by adding “that was so kind of you!” and you would likely be considered weirdly eccentric were you to write them a thank-you card. On the other hand, there’s no rule that says you cannot or should not be appreciative to people whose kindness to you is also being paid for (by you or someone else), and given how win-win gratitude seems to be, there may be good reason to overcome this bias and err instead on the side of being eccentrically-grateful.
Where did gratitude come from?
Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, wrote that human moral emotions like gratitude and resentment are purposeful in that they help us regulate our own social behavior and the behavior of others around us in ways that benefit us. In his scheme, we are grateful to someone to reward them for doing something beneficial for us because we want to encourage them to do such things again in the future; and we appreciate expressions of gratitude because they indicate that the recipient of our favors acknowledges them as such and recognizes an obligation to reciprocate.
Smith was writing before the theory of evolution through natural selection was developed, but his speculations closely resemble those that are now put forward about how the emotions and perceptions surrounding gratitude evolved to help species like ours regulate reciprocal altruism.
The ability to trust others to reciprocate reliably, and the ability to discern who is and isn’t trustable in this regard, is key to the economic behavior that enables our species to be so world-transformative.*
Is gratitude instinctive or learned? It does seem like parents have to work hard to teach children gratitude and how to properly express it. But maybe they’re just trying to rush something that would come naturally eventually, or maybe the gratitude itself is instinctive but the ways to express it legibly are culturally-specific and have to be learned.
What is gratitude good for?
“In all things we should try to make ourselves be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a manner in which justice, commonly held to belong to others, is not. Gratitude pays itself back in large measure.” ―Seneca
Gratitude is a social virtue, valuable for the way it helps to strengthen social bonds and to encourage pro-social behavior. It has also been getting increasing attention in recent years for its benefits to the individual who expresses it, in the forms of increased happiness, enhanced life satisfaction, and even improved health.
While gratitude is usually thought of in a positive light, it sometimes has a less-positive shadow. For example, people who rely on others (e.g. people with severe disabilities) may find gratitude burdensome, or that it makes them feel like a burden in the way it emphasizes the imbalanced nature of their dependence relationships. Gratitude can make you feel beholden on someone who has done you kindness or given you gift, and sometimes people take advantage of this (it’s a sales technique, for instance, to give a small gift as a foot-in-the-door). Gratitude sometimes has implications of indebtedness or obligation (and this in some cultures more than others), and some people try to avoid situations in which they would feel gratitude for this reason.*
Social benefits of gratitude
“The art of acceptance is the art of making someone who has just done you a small favor wish that he might have done you a greater one.” ―Russell Lynes
Gratitude helps you form, maintain, and improve your social circle. By expressing appreciation to someone, you make that person feel better and feel better-disposed towards you. By expressing appreciation for things you value, you reward people who do things that you value and reinforce those things. Expressing appreciation also models the behavior of expressing appreciation for others, and so can multiply its effects in a way which redounds on you and your circle (this is sometimes called “upstream reciprocity”).
If you can’t think of anything to appreciate about the people you’re currently running with, that can be a good sign that you need to start running with a different crowd. So in this way, keen perceptions associated with appreciation can be valuable even in the absence of much that’s worth appreciating.
Gratitude researchers have come to describe the social functions of gratitude using the “find, remind, and bind” model.* In this model, being well-attuned to gratitude helps you find people who are worth spending time with, reminds you of the value and importance of your relationships, and binds you to such people through behaviors that help to maintain those relationships.
Personal benefits of feeling & expressing gratitude
“Benevolence gladdens constantly the grateful; the ungrateful, however, but once.” ―Seneca
There has been a flood of research over the last twenty years about possible personal benefits of feeling and expressing gratitude. This includes improvements in subjective happiness, subjective well-being, and objective health measures.
In a typical experiment, a group of people will be divided into one subgroup that performs a gratitude-boosting exercise of some sort (e.g. listing things they’re grateful for), while a second group does some similar exercise that does not have a gratitude component (e.g. listing childhood memories or recent “hassles”). The subjects will be measured in some way before and after the exercises to see if any effect can be noticed on their health or subjective well-being (hedonic or eudaimonic). Sometimes also the subjects’ practices and attitudes of gratitude are themselves measured before and after the experiment to see if the experiment makes a person more apt to feel or express gratitude. Occasionally experiments will include long-term follow-ups as well.
Much of this research may suffer from some of the weaknesses that have plagued social science and psychological research in recent years. It’s also dominated by research subjects from WEIRD cultures. I don’t feel confident about trying to distinguish the vigorous from the hopelessly unreplicable myself. If you want to delve further, the Greater Good Science Center white paper “The Science of Gratitude” looks to be a good overview.
Some of the personal benefits of gratitude may be social benefits in disguise. If your gratitude helps to strengthen your social network, for example, you may feel more able to ask your friends for help, and this might improve your well-being. Or if you have high regard for other people, this might include both expressing gratitude toward others and respecting the advice of your doctor, which can improve your health outcomes.
But it seems intuitively sensible that gratitude might directly improve your subjective well-being. For one thing, gratitude concentrates your mind on the things in your life that you like, value, and appreciate. In that way it helps you to enjoy them all over again and adds to their benefit. In one study, people who were assigned to write about their “intensely positive experiences” for 20 minutes showed measurable positive changes in both mood and physical health thereafter, compared to a control group that wrote for 20 minutes a day on some neutral topic. And this was without “gratitude” being an explicit part of the process.
This also helps to remind you of the things you find most valuable, memorable, and enjoyable, which can help you align your life with the pursuit of those things. (For example, people often spend a lot of resources on stuff but are more apt to appreciate and reminisce about activities. Some people interpret this as a clue that we would be wiser to reallocate our resources toward the pursuit of valuable activities.)
Appreciation is a way of short-circuiting the hedonic treadmill (people tend to quickly get used to improvements in our lives such that we take them for granted and they no longer make us happy).
The superstitious or religious feeling that good fortune is a personalized grant of the gods might be a way of sprinkling a little extra sugar on an already sweet situation. If you think your good fortune is deserved, or just random, you can feel blasé about it. But if you look at your good fortune as something that was granted to you specially, you get the warm fuzzies from being favored by benevolence.
Anthropomorphizing fate, or having a God to thank for everything, may allow you to take advantage of the positive aspects of gratitude in cases where it otherwise wouldn’t make sense. A friend of mine suggested that as a (perhaps the) sentient species capable of feeling appreciation for the marvelous, wonderful miracle that is life, the universe, and everything, such gratitude gives us the purpose we long for: Perhaps the point of human life is to appreciate and applaud this bizarre cornucopia of astonishment and sensation.
How to improve in this virtue
In a welcome contrast to many of the other virtues I have examined, there is a wealth of advice on how one can become more appreciative, and feel or show more gratitude.
General advice and notes
It may take a deliberate, conscious act of attention to become aware of things we can be grateful for. There is a cognitive bias that has been labeled “headwind/tailwind asymmetry”* in which we take more notice of challenges we have faced or overcome than we do of privileges or benefits we have taken advantage of. That is to say: “headwinds are far more salient than tailwinds.”
For any specific gratitude-boosting practice or practices you choose, if you want to develop the habit of doing that practice regularly, it can be helpful to choose some trigger to prompt the practice and thereby establish the habit. One common trigger for gratitude-expression is the evening meal. This is probably an outgrowth of the Christian tradition of “saying grace” — giving a prayer of thanks — at the commencement of a meal. Habit guru James Clear, for example, says: “When I sit down to eat dinner, I say one thing that I am grateful for happening today.”
“Don’t set your mind on things you don’t possess as if they were yours, but count the blessings you actually possess and think how much you would desire them if they weren’t already yours.” ―Marcus Aurelius
The scientific literature on gratitude has promoted a handful of “interventions” that are meant to prompt or boost gratitude. On the one hand, these have the benefit of having been subject to scientific scrutiny and so in theory have foreseeable, measurable results. On the other hand, they are designed for ease of use in an experimental setting and so are usually brief and simple. More complex or demanding exercises that might also be more rewarding may have been overlooked because of how difficult it would be to subject a bunch of cheaply-obtained research subjects to them.
That said, these are some of the exercises that have been most experimentally investigated:
counting blessings (write down five things worth being thankful for, daily or weekly; “saying grace,” as mentioned earlier, is a vocal version of this)
three good things (write down three things that went well for you, and their causes)*
mental subtraction (imagine & maybe write about what it would be like if some positive event had not happened — see the Marcus Aurelius quote above)
“To feel grateful for some of these things you might have to try to vividly imagine being without them for a time. If you are deprived of some of these things for a time (or temporarily believe you are) you can also try to remember what that feels like, so that you can recapture it later when you have them again.” ―MaxCarpendale
gratitude letters/visits (write & deliver a thoughtful thank-you to a person you had not properly thanked before)*
death reflection (consider your own death in a manner similar to the “mental subtraction” exercise)
experiential consumption (spend money on an experience, rather than things)
Dan Weinand’s post Gratitude: Data and Anecdata from last month looks at a few of those exercises a little more closely and describes his own experiences. Other exercises I have seen recommended include:
Every day, at least once, express genuine, specific appreciation to somebody — either someone you encounter during the course of the day, or, if such an occasion doesn’t arise, by sending a letter or email or making a phone call to someone who you appreciate.
Make your gratitude list more of a bulletin board, in a place where you see it and notice it and so are reminded of the things to be thankful for regularly.
For practice, find ways to express appreciation to yourself (“Thank you, past me, for doing the dishes so I could wake up to a clean coffee mug this morning.”)
You can show gratitude and appreciation by expressing it directly to the person who you appreciate or are thankful to, of course, but you can also do so by expressing that same gratitude to third parties, e.g. “I’m willing to pay more for X’s products because I really appreciate her craftsmanship,” or “I was really grateful to Y for his help.” This has a somewhat different set of benefits, but benefits nonetheless: It also reminds you of positive things and admirable people in your life, and it helps to seed the social conversation with your opinions of what sorts of behavior are worthy of appreciation.
Ben Franklin invented a curious hack of the human gratitude response that seems worth mentioning here: He would jump-start a process of reciprocal gratitude in someone who was otherwise not well-disposed to him by asking that person for a very small favor (in his example, asking a colleague if he could borrow a book). He then was careful to skillfully express gratitude for that favor, and then found that the person who had granted him the favor became friendly towards him.
What makes people feel appreciated?
For gratitude or appreciation to work at its best, it must be expressed in a way that is legible by the receiver as intended. I asked several friends what makes them feel appreciated, and also looked for advice and hints in the literature I reviewed. Here is some of the advice I found:
People feel appreciated when their contributions are enjoyed (e.g. when food they serve or bring is eaten with gusto).
Hugs and similar relationship-affirming body contact (hand on the shoulder, handshake) can show appreciation.
People feel appreciated when they are clearly included or explicitly invited.
Showing people respect is also a way of showing appreciation. For example, you show you appreciate someone when you follow-through on your promises to them.
Thank-yous (especially “genuine and un-asked-for” ones) show appreciation. If you never established the common-courtesy habit of offering thank-yous in return for small kindnesses, that may be a habit worth establishing. That said, phony or rote rituals of appreciation aren’t worth a whole lot either to the giver or receiver. It can be worth your time to put in the attention and energy it takes to be more genuine. Alas, being awkward or unpracticed can feel similar to being inauthentic, so that can make this a difficult habit to establish: you have to push past the awkward stage. In my experience, even an awkward expression of gratitude is usually positively received, so if you can get past the uncomfortable feeling of awkwardness, you can probably still get benefits from expressions of gratitude before they become more graceful from practice.
Reciprocation is one way of showing appreciation: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. There’s an art to getting this right. On the one hand, it’s a good idea to go out of our way to show kindness to those who have done us favors. On the other hand, being quick to return a favor can ironically be interpreted as a sign of being unfriendly and of thinking of the relationship in mercenary terms. Doing this well takes some finesse.
Simply saying to someone straightforwardly that you noticed they have done you a favor or done something exceptional and that you appreciate it, or writing them a note to that effect, can be enough. This usually works better if you appreciate something specific and extraordinary rather than something vague or generic, though a skillfully-worded “I appreciate you for who you are” or “for what you bring to my life” can work in a pinch.
If you can disagree with someone but do so in a way that does not attack or belittle them, this shows that you appreciate them in spite of your disagreement.
Two people mentioned “second-hand referrals” — which I interpreted as vouching for them or endorsing them to others. One said: “It’s evidence that someone I taught or helped out appreciated the result enough to convince a stranger to approach me with a new need to be fulfilled.”
If you can learn what a person is proud of or feels they ought to be appreciated for, and explicitly appreciate them for that, you get a gold star. This doesn’t necessarily have to be something you think is extraordinarily admirable, but can be something like their taste in clothes, their new haircut, or their cool wheels.
It shows someone you appreciate them if you remember their special day (e.g. a birthday).
My experience with trying to develop this virtue
“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.” —George Eliot
I’m doing a virtue-strengthening program on the buddy system with a friend. At the end of last year, in a sort of New Year’s Resolution, and feeling like I had a previously-adopted habit well-established, I decided to pick a new virtue to start 2021 with. I chose appreciation/gratitude, which was one my buddy had already been working on.
I chose it in part because of my buddy’s good experiences, in part because of the wealth of evidence in its favor, and in part because it’s something I don’t feel very good at so there seemed to be a lot of room for improvement. I’ve long felt awkward around showing appreciation for people. I can “thank you” just fine, but when it comes to a sincere, look-someone-in-the-eye, specific expression of appreciation, I’ve typically come to a stuttering stop before I even get started.
I think part of this is that when such shows of appreciation were modeled for me as a child, in the form of an adult showing appreciation to a child, they struck me as condescending — as something that highlighted the adult/child superior/inferior relationship. So now, when I think of showing appreciation to someone, I worry that I’d be putting on airs or presuming to be in a position of authority over them.
There’s also the awkwardness factor. Not being well-practiced in how to show appreciation, it sometimes doesn’t seem to come out right when I try. But I’ve so far found that the down-side to awkward attempts at appreciation is pretty minor, while the up-side to typical attempts is pretty great, so that’s helped me to stick with it.
The technique I’ve chosen so far is to express explicit appreciation to some individual person, for something specific, at least once a day. Given our pandemically socially-distant times, this has sometimes meant writing an email rather than talking with someone face-to-face, but that’s fine. I usually have expressed my appreciation to someone I personally know, but on a couple of occasions I have sent a note to someone I don’t know personally but whose on-line generosity I appreciate. I also check in with my virtue-buddy a few times each week, which helps keep me accountable in establishing this new habit.
My impression of this exercise so far is that I’m a fool not to have started this earlier. By starting the day with a mission of identifying things I appreciate about the people around me, I have become more aware of positive things and admirable people in my life. By giving people positive feedback for things I appreciate, I help to encourage more of those things, and (assuming I have good taste) thereby encourage them to be more delightful in general. This also comes back to me: I pay more attention to behavior I admire and so am more likely to learn how to exhibit that behavior myself.
One thing I would recommend to people considering such an exercise is not to put all of your focus on the goal of expressing appreciation, but to attend also to improving your awareness to occasions for appreciation. If you rush to the expression of appreciation, you may try to force it in a way that comes off as insincere. However if you first notice and appreciate something, your expression of appreciation can follow more naturally. My virtue-buddy put it this way in her advice to me:
Slow down. Life comes at us so fast and we deal with what we can quickly. Instead of looking at life as a racquetball coming at you that you gotta swing at, look at it as a game on TV, slowing it down and taking it in. You can notice and become aware. Listen to your inner voice. It’s commenting on people, on things, on you, and a lot of events in Life. In its quiet whispers, it says things that you appreciate in Life. Give those whispers a form in this world that everyone can hear.
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (the Younger), Moral Letters 81.19
Russell Lynes, Life in the Slow Lane (1991, reproducing his quote from Reader’s Digest, December 1954)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (the Younger), De Beneficiis book Ⅲ, section ⅩⅦ
C.M. Burton & L.A. King “The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences” Journal of Research in Personality (2004) pp. 150–163
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Ⅶ.27
S. Lyubomirsky, K.M. Sheldon, & D. Schkade “Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change” Review of General Psychology (2005) pp. 111–131
George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (1858)