/ Published November 6, 2013
In psychology, gratitude is an emotion we feel when taking account of gifts and good fortune. Gratitude is sometimes conveyed in acts, things we do to express our thankfulness. Acts of gratitude can be direct (saying thanks, prayers of thanksgiving) or indirect (giving back through service). While both contribute to well-being, the distinction between feeling grateful and acting grateful is consequential.
Although gratitude is linked to good fortune, it is not determined by wealth or privilege. In our research on digital storytelling for community engagement, people from the most challenged of circumstances tell stories about their lives. Those stories often involve confronting great hardship; yet they are infused with gratitude toward people, toward community and often toward the experience of hardship itself. Curiously, privilege can raise expectations, obscuring the appreciation for life’s simple gifts.
Positive psychology touts gratitude as a “virtue.” While gratitude is typically a positive experience, it is not always virtuous. Criminals are grateful when they don’t get caught, and addicts are grateful for the next fix. What we are grateful for depends very much on how we frame our experience.
Buddhist thinkers suggest that positive emotions serve as antidotes to the destructive, selfish emotions that captivate our stream of consciousness. They reason that engaging in practices that evoke positive emotions leaves little room for the mischief of the destructive ones. Many modern contemplative practices, like mindfulness and meditation, seek to make people feel better by fostering positive emotions like gratitude, compassion, kindness and forgiveness. Similarly, all manner of activities intended to induce positive emotions are being marketed by the happiness industry. Gratitude journals are a good example.
It is ironic that these practices, many of which are intended to induce “selflessness,” are inherently self-involved and often self-limited. While contemplative and positive psychology practices may help practitioners to feel better, they do little to address the suffering of others. Feeling grateful, compassionate, kind and forgiving is good for you, but acts of gratitude, compassion, kindness and forgiveness are good for you and others. “Giving back” through reaching out, volunteering and community service provides a powerful complement to self-focused contemplative and happiness practices, extending positive actions into our social world and enhancing our interconnected well-being.
Phil Peake is a professor of psychology.