Gratitude is, above all, a social emotion. It’s possible to be happy or miserable and for those feelings to have nothing to do with other human beings. But gratitude is always about your connection to the outside world.
Holocaust Survivor, Marie Jalowicz Simon, spent years hiding from the Nazis in Berlin, emerging safely at the end of the war, with her survival due to her own split-second decisions and ingenuity, and trusting many generous people who assisted her along the way. Despite the intense hardships for Simon it was also a time when she was grateful for small acts of kindness, and those feelings of gratitude have lasted throughout her life.
A Recent Study in California of survivors and their experiences of gratitude, has shown that being grateful can have huge implications not only for personal well-being, but for a more peaceful world.
“Gratitude is, above all, a social emotion. It’s possible to be happy or miserable and for those feelings to have nothing to do with other human beings. But gratitude is always about your connection to the outside world, to someone who has extended a hand to help you. (When you feel grateful to something non-human, such as fate, or the weather, it’s likely you’re thinking of it as an agent with intention – personifying it. Even atheists say “thank God”.)
Unlike indebtedness, which can feel like a burden, gratitude is experienced as unequivocally positive. It does not feel like a duty (and, interestingly enough, is unlikely to be generated by an act of duty: if someone does something for you because they have to, you don’t feel particularly grateful). It boosts our wellbeing, and even our health. In one experiment, three sets of participants were told to write either about their problems, things they were grateful for, or neutral events, once each week for 10 weeks. Subjects in the second group had fewer physical complaints and spent more time exercising than members of the other two groups.
Those are the individual benefits. But it’s the relational aspects of gratitude that make it a powerful weapon against misery and conflict. It acts as social glue, something that has been recognised down the ages. Cicero called it “not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others”. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith wrote: “All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.” Psychologists and sociologists have discovered that experiencing gratitude means you are more likely to behave in ways that induce gratitude in others. It also acts as a “moral reinforcer”, binding people in – entirely voluntarily – to a cycle of altruism.
This can have very practical applications. At one residential unit for teenagers, researchers decided to send thank you letters to external case managers each time they came to see clients in the centre. Before the trial began, 43% of the young people were visited weekly. During the 20 weeks in which thank you letters were sent, this went up to 80%.
All of this makes it seem worth building gratitude into our everyday life, our relationships, both personal and professional. Make sure you feel gratitude, and do things that will allow others to feel grateful. If you live in a safe, prosperous country, you’re in an unusually good position to do that. At the moment too much of the world is subject to poverty and conflict. But, as we have seen, the virtuous circle can have suffering as its starting point. Across Europe, people have done what they can to help refugees, offering them food, clothing, and sometimes housing. During wartime, a safe place to live can be the greatest gift of all.”
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