July 7, 2020 |

The Complexities of Gratitude

Gratitude is an interesting construct.  Cicero called it “the greatest of the virtues.” For me, it’s always been a good thing.  My family and my Faith taught me the importance of gratitude, and how to express it appropriately.  I don’t always get it right, but I try.

Consider the word’s basic meaning. Gratitude is what you are supposed to feel when someone gives you something that you cannot yourself provide. Gratitude is a recipient’s repayment for that which cannot be repaid in kind. Such exchanges can be positive and even wonderful. The recipient gets his or her needs met. The giver gets the benefit of feeling generous.

Gratitude has both psychological and physiological benefits.  Grateful people are happier. They sleep better.  They are more motivated and have more energy.  Gratitude triggers important neurotransmitters in our brains that release dopamine and serotonin, which serve as natural antidepressants.

So why do some people have such a hard time expressing gratitude?  There are lots of reasons. Some have simply never been taught.  They’ve never had gratitude modeled for them.  Others are just naturally selfish.  Entitlement overrides any sense of gratitude.  Some see it as a sign of weakness or signaling a lack of control of their circumstances.

Gratitude is complex.  For example, I’ve never understood people who commit a benevolent act and then “expect” something from it.  In Jane Austen’s novel “Mansfield Park,” ten-year-old Fanny Price’s poor family sends her to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle.  Fanny is relentlessly required by her new hosts to “be grateful” for her new (and superior) circumstances. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?  A gift, favor or good deed should be its own reward.  To expect anything beyond “thank you” is to reduce it to a transaction.

There is also something called “the burden of gratitude” – simply described as “feeling like you owe somebody.”  Those afflicted believe benevolence received burdens them to offer an equivalent (and worthy) response….or even worse, they fear they have been “set up” for an undefined, future request.  They’d rather go without a gift or favor than feel like they’ve incurred a debt because of it.

Where are you on this spectrum of gratitude?  Regardless of where you fall, I encourage you to take a step back.  Look at the bigger picture.  It’s simpler than many of us make it out to be.