The Psychology of Gratitude

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. —GK Chesterton

‘Gratitude’ derives from the Latin ‘gratia’, which, depending on the context, translates as ‘grace’, ‘graciousness’, or ‘gratefulness’.

Gratitude never came easily to us human beings, and is a diminishing virtue in modern times. In our consumerist society, we focus on what we lack, or what other people have that we don’t, whereas gratitude is the feeling of appreciation for what we already have.

It is the recognition that the good in our life can come from something that is outside us and outside our control—be it other people, nature, or a higher power—and that owes little or nothing to us.

Gratitude is not a technique or a stratagem, but a complex and refined moral disposition. It has poetically been defined as ‘the memory of the heart’ (Jean Massieu), ‘the moral memory of mankind’ (Georg Simmel), and ‘the queen of the virtues’ (Cicero).

It is easy, both for the beneficiary and the benefactor, to mistake indebtedness for gratitude. Indebtedness is a much more contained and restricted obligation (or perceived obligation) on the part of the beneficiary to recompense or otherwise compensate the benefactor, not because recompense is a pleasure, but because obligation is a pain. Unlike gratitude, indebtedness can lead the beneficiary to avoid and even resent the benefactor.

Gratitude should also be distinguished from appreciation, which is the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of a person or thing, but without the dimension of awe or wonder or profundity or humility that is the essence of gratitude.

Gratitude is magnified if the conferred benefit is unexpected, or if the benefactor is of a higher social status than the beneficiary. If a benefit comes to be expected, both it and the benefactor tend to be taken for granted by the beneficiary—a common feature of tired relationships.

Gratitude is also magnified if, in benefiting us, the benefactor touched or moved our feelings. Without being moved, we are apt to respond to the benefactor not so much with gratitude as with mere appreciation. Thus, the teachers whom we best remember are not, in general, those who taught us well, but those who inspired us and opened us up to ourselves.

In paying homage to something that is outside us, gratitude enables us to connect with something that is not only larger than ourselves but also fundamentally good and reassuring. It opens our eyes to the miracle that is life, something to marvel at, revel in, and celebrate, rather than ignore or take for granted as it flies us by. It encourages and heightens life-enhancing states such as joy, tranquility, consciousness, enthusiasm, and empathy, while inhibiting painful emotions such as anxiety, heartbreak, loneliness, regret, and envy, with which it is fundamentally incompatible.

All this it does because it opens up a bigger and better perspective, shifting our focus from what we lack or strive for to what we already have, to all that we have been given, not least life itself, which is the fount of all opportunity and possibility. By turning us to the outside, gratitude enables us to live not merely for ourselves but for life at large. For just this reason, Cicero described it as the greatest virtue, and, greater still, the parent of all the other virtues.

Today, science is in the process of catching up with Cicero. Studies have linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation, and energy; better sleep and health; and reduced stress and sadness. Grateful people are much more engaged with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning, and specialness.

Gratitude connects people into a mutually supportive and sustaining mesh of social relationships, which, of course, it acts to strengthen and develop. It is the foundation of the type of society in which people can look after one another without coercion, incentives, or governmental interference, which, unlike gratitude, demean rather than exalt us.

Gratitude can be for future benefits as well as past and present benefits. Gratitude for future benefits promotes optimism, and optimism faith. Both Western and Eastern religious traditions emphasize gratitude. In many Christian traditions, the most important rite is the Holy Communion or Eucharist—a term which derives from ‘eucharistia’, Greek for ‘thanksgiving’. Martin Luther himself spoke of gratitude as ‘the basic Christian attitude’. More than a mere feeling, Christian gratitude is a virtue, or disposition of the soul, that shapes our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and that is developed, refined, and exercised through a remembered relationship with God and His creation.

In contrast, ingratitude on the part of a beneficiary is hurtful, because it negates the efforts and sacrifices of the benefactor, thereby affronting him or her, and, more than that, affronting life itself. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear says,

Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,

More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child

Than the sea-monster!

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

To have a thankless child.

For philosopher David Hume, ingratitude is ‘the most horrible and unnatural crime that a person is capable of committing’. For philosopher Immanuel Kant, it is, quite simply, ‘the essence of vileness’.

Ingratitude, which, of course, has become the norm, corrodes social bonds and undermines public trust, leading to societies built on rights and entitlements rather than duties and obligations, societies built on me rather than us, and in which every aspect of human life has to be regulated, recorded, monitored, and managed.

Despite the great and many benefits that it confers, gratitude is hard to cultivate, because it opposes itself to deeply ingrained human traits, in particular, our striving to better our lot, our need to feel in control of our destiny, our propensity to credit ourselves for our successes while blaming others for our failures, and our belief in some sort of cosmic equality or justice.

Since human nature does not leave much place for it, gratitude is an attainment associated with emotional maturity—which is why children taught to parrot ‘thank you’ never really mean it. Conversely, many grown-ups express gratitude, or a semblance of gratitude, simply because doing so is useful or the ‘done thing’. Expressing gratitude is good manners, and the aim of good manners is to ape profundity when profundity is lacking.

In contrast, true gratitude is a rare virtue. There is a fable in Aesop about a slave who pulls a thorn out of the paw of a lion. Some time later, the slave and the lion are captured, and the slave is thrown to the lion. The hungry lion rushes bounding and roaring toward the slave, but, upon recognizing his friend, he fawns upon him and licks his hands like a friendly dog. ‘Gratitude’, Aesop concludes, ‘is the sign of noble souls’.

Like all virtues, gratitude requires great cultivation, until such a day as we can say,

‘Thank you for nothing.’

Pride: Vice or Virtue?

Pride derives from ‘prodesse’, Latin for ‘be useful’. Like embarrassment, shame, and guilt, pride is a self-conscious emotion that is strongly influenced by sociocultural norms and values.

Pride as a vice

On the one hand, pride is seen as a vice, and, on the other, as a virtue.

Pride as a vice is close to hubris or vanity. In Ancient Greece, hubris meant to defile or denigrate the gods, or to place oneself above them, and led to destruction or nemesis. Today, hubris denotes an inflated sense of one’s status, abilities, or accomplishments, especially if accompanied by haughtiness or arrogance. By definition, hubris is out of touch with reality, promoting conflict, enmity, and prejudice against out-group members.

Vanity is similar to hubris, but refers to an inflated sense of one’s image or appeal in the eyes of others. Vanity derives from ‘vanitas’, Latin for ‘emptiness’, ‘falseness’, ‘futility’, or ‘foolishness’. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the phrase ‘vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas’ is usually rendered as ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’, and refers not to vanity as such but to the transience and futility of earthly goods and pursuits and, by extension, of life itself. In the arts, a vanitas, often a painting with prominent symbols of mortality such as a skull, burning candles, or wilting flowers, invites us to reflect on our mortality and live with a greater sense of perspective. Vainglory is an archaic synonym for vanity, but originally meant ‘to boast in vain’, that is, groundlessly.

Many religions look upon pride, hubris, or vanity as self-idolatry. In the Christian tradition, pride is one of the seven deadly sins. More than that, it is the original and most unforgivable sin, for it is from pride that the angel Lucifer fell out of Heaven and became Satan. Pride is the sin most hated by God because it gives rise to all the other sins, because it blinds us to truth and reason, and because it removes us from God and religion. Just as in the Greek tradition, pride leads to destruction. ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall’ (Proverbs 16:18). Thus, in art, pride is sometimes symbolized by a figure of death—or else by Narcissus, a peacock, or a naked woman attending to her hair with comb and mirror.

Pride as a virtue

As a virtue, pride is, in the words of St Augustine, ‘the love of one’s own excellence’. More prosaically, pride is the satisfaction or pleasure or exhilaration or vindication that arises from the egosyntonic choices or actions of the self or another, or of a whole group of people—as, for example, with national pride or gay pride. By ‘egosyntonic’ I mean that the choices or actions must be consistent with the person’s self-image and needs and goals. Because the success or status belongs to the self or is associated with the self, it leads to pride rather than admiration, tolerance, indifference, or envy. If pride is ‘the love of one’s own excellence’, the opposite of pride is shame. Just as shame can in itself be shameful, so pride can in itself be a source of pride.

‘Shame’ derives from ‘to cover’, and often manifests itself as a covering gesture over the brow and eyes, a downcast gaze, and a slack posture. In contrast, pride manifests itself as an expanded or inflated posture with arms raised or rested on the hips, together with a lifted chin and small smile. This stance has even been observed in congenitally blind individuals, suggesting that it is innate rather than learned or copied. Pride and its accompanying stance serve as a signal of acceptance, belonging, ownership, or status. But aside from functioning as a social signal, pride promotes more of the same kind of choices and actions that led to it, and is associated with greater self-respect, self-confidence, productivity, creativity, and altruism.

Proper pride vs. false pride

So, on the one hand, pride is associated with falseness, blindness, conceit, and arrogance, while on the other it is associated with elation, self-confidence, productivity, creativity, and altruism. Proper pride is clearly adaptive, but what can explain false or hubristic pride? People prone to false pride often lack in self-esteem. Lacking in self-esteem, hubris may be the only kind of pride that they can express, with the aim of deceiving others and themselves that they too are worthy of respect and admiration. Yes, their ‘pride’ is a con or a shortcut, but it makes them feel better and it pulls them through—if only for now.

Aristotle on proper pride

Aristotle wrote most insightfully on proper pride, or ‘greatness of soul’ (megalopsuchia). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that a person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things.

Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them; for he who does so beyond his deserts is a fool, but no virtuous man is foolish or silly.

If he is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things he is not proud but temperate.

For he who is worthy of little and thinks himself worthy of little is temperate, but not proud; for pride implies greatness, as beauty implies a goodsized body, and little people may be neat and well-proportioned but cannot be beautiful.

On the other hand, if he thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them, he is hubristic or vain; and if he thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of, he is pusillanimous. Hubris and pusillanimity are vices, whereas pride and temperance are virtues because (by definition) they reflect the truth about a person’s state and potentials. In Aristotelian speak, whereas the proud person is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, he is a mean in respect of their truthfulness, and therefore virtuous. So, for Aristotle, it is not just an excess of pride that is a vice, but also a deficiency of pride.

Aristotle goes on to paint a very flattering picture of the proud person. He says that a proud person is avid of his just deserts and particularly of honor, ‘the prize of virtue and the greatest of external goods’. A proud person is moderately pleased to accept great honors conferred by good people, but utterly despises honors from casual people and on trifling grounds. As a person who deserves more is better, the truly proud person is good, and as he is good, he is also rare. In sum, says Aristotle, pride is a crown of the virtues; it is not found without them, and it makes them greater.

True, the proud person is liable to disdain and to despise, but as he thinks rightly, he does so justly, whereas the many disdain and despise at random (or, I would say, to meet their ego or emotional needs). The proud person may be supercilious towards the great and the good, but he is always unassuming towards the middle classes; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.

Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honor, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honor or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, that is, to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar.

In conclusion, proper pride and false pride may look like each other, but one is a crown of the virtues and the other the mother of sin. The trouble is, of course, distinguishing between them.

The Anatomy of Humility

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. —CS Lewis

Our society encourages navel-gazing and celebrates entitlement and exuberance. Economic interests lie not in humility but pride and hubris, while to call something or someone ‘humble’ most often connotes that the thing or person is simple, contemptible, or of little worth.

The first step in defining humility as applied to persons and their characters is to distinguish humility from modesty. ‘Modesty’ derives from the Latin ‘modus’, ‘measure’ or ‘manner’; ‘humility’, like ‘humiliation’, derives from the Latin ‘humus’, ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’. Modesty means restraint in appearance and behavior: the reluctance to flaunt oneself, to put oneself on display, or to attract attention. It often implies a certain artfulness and artificiality, perhaps even inauthenticity or hypocrisy.

The fictional character of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is notable for his obsequiousness and insincerity, often emphasizing his own ‘umbleness’ to cover up the true scale of his ambition. Modesty often poses as humility, but, unlike true humility, is skin-deep and external rather than deep and internal. At best, modesty is no more than good manners.

In contrast, true humility derives from a proper perspective of our human condition: one among billions on a small planet among billions, like a fungus on a tiny fragment of cheese. Of course, it is nearly impossible for human beings to remain this objective for very long, but truly humble people are nonetheless far more conscious of the insignificance of their true relations, an insignificance that verges on non-existence. A speck of dust does not think itself more superior or inferior than another, nor does it concern itself for what other specks of dust might or might not think. Enthralled by the miracle of existence, the truly humble person lives not for herself or her image, but for life itself, in a condition of pure peace and pleasure.

Drunk on his humility, a humble person can seem arrogant to the generality of men. In 399BC, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted for offending the Olympian gods and thereby breaking the law against impiety. He was accused of ‘studying things in the sky and below the earth’, ‘making the worse into the stronger argument’, and ‘teaching these same things to others’. At his trial, Socrates gave a defiant defense, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, whilst not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he turned around to the jurors and said,

You think that I was convicted through deficiency of words—I mean, that if I had thought fit to leave nothing undone, nothing unsaid, I might have gained an acquittal. Not so; the deficiency which led to my conviction was not of words—certainly not. But I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to address you, weeping and wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hearing from others, and which, as I say, are unworthy of me. But I thought that I ought not to do anything common or mean in the hour of danger: nor do I now repent of the manner of my defence, and I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.

Throughout his long life, Socrates, who looked like a tramp, had been a paragon of humility. When his childhood friend Chaerephon asked the Delphic oracle if any man was wiser than Socrates, the priestess of Apollo replied that no one was wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of wise men, and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.’ From then on, he dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not.’ His student Plato insisted that, while Socrates devoted himself entirely to discussing philosophy, he seldom claimed any real knowledge for himself.

Was Socrates lacking in humility at his trial? Was he, paradoxically, being arrogant by bragging about his humility? Perhaps he put on an arrogant act because he actually wanted to die, either because he was ill or infirm or because he knew that by dying in this way his thought and teachings would be preserved for posterity. Or maybe genuine humility can seem like arrogance to those who truly are arrogant, in which case the humble person may sometimes need to hide his humility, or certain aspects of his humility, under a cloak of modesty—something which Socrates was unwilling to do.

To be humble is to subdue our ego so that things are no longer all about us, whereas to be modest is to protect the ego of others so that they do not feel uncomfortable, threatened, or small, and attack us in turn. Because the humble man is in fact very big, he may need to slap on an extra thick veneer of modesty.

Socrates is not the only humble person who occasionally comes across as arrogant. In fact I have spotted a certain propensity for such ‘arrogance’ among the most celebrated thinkers and artists. Even doubting Descartes had his moments. In La géometrie, published in 1637 as an appendix to his magnum opus Discours de la méthode, he lets slip, ‘I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery.’

Humble people are disinclined to conceal the truth because they are by nature truth seekers: it is often through philosophy that they attained to humility, and, conversely, humility invites philosophy. What’s more, owing to their proper perspective and the inspiration and direction that this brings, humble people are often highly productive or prolific. So if a person is both insightful and prolific, there are good chances that he is also humble; conversely, if he is stuck in a rut and unable to learn from his mistakes, it is very likely that he thinks too much about himself.

For the 16th century humanist Erasmus, ‘humility is truth’. Given this, religions have naturally been keen to emphasize it in their teachings. In Greek mythology, Aidos, the daimona of shame, reverence, and humility, restrained men and women from wrong. According to the 7th century BC poet Hesiod, after the Golden Age, ‘Aidos and Nemesis [the daimona of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris, and closely associated with Aidos], with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.’ Some of the most vivid Greek myths, such as those of Icarus, Oedipus, Sisyphus, and Tantalus, can be understood as warnings against hubris, which is the defiance of the gods from excessive pride, leading to nemesis. 

In the Christian canon, pride is the original sin, for it is from pride that the angel Lucifer fell out of Heaven and became Satan. Thus Isaiah 14:12-15 (KJV):

How are thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God… I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.

In the Old Testament, the Book of Numbers speaks of Moses as ‘a man exceeding meek above all men that dwelt upon earth’ (Numbers 12:3), and the Book of Proverbs teaches that ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (Proverbs 3:34). Similarly, in the New Testament, St Matthew says that, ‘Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted’ (Matthew 23:12).

The 5th century theologian and philosopher St Augustine argued that humility is the foundation of all the other virtues, for in the absence of humility there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance. He held that, while it was pride that changed angels into devils, it is humility that makes men as angels. In one of his sermons, he preached, ‘Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.’

In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra to allay his scruples about engaging in battle and shedding the blood of his cousins the Kauravas. Krishna explains that, whether or not Arjuna goes into battle, all the men on the battlefield are one day destined to die, as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit within them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna tells Arjuna, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

In the Buddhist tradition, humility is part of the spiritual practice, and an outcome of it; and one cannot attain enlightenment unless one has perfected humility. In Taoism, humility is one of the Three Treasures, or basic virtues, along with compassion and frugality. As for Islam, the very word means ‘submission (to the will of God)’.

But not all thinkers have found it important to emphasize humility. Aristotle leaves it out of his list of virtues, which does however include ‘proper pride’ and ‘proper ambition’. Hume and Nietzsche go so far as to condemn it, and not in the slightest of terms.

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, originally published in 1751, the normally cool-headed Hume writes,

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify [sic.] the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices…

Hume is tame compared to Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, our society is evidence of the triumph of Judeo-Christian slave morality over Greco-Roman master morality. Master morality originates in the strong, and is marked by values such as nobility, pride, courage, truthfulness, and trust. Slave morality, in contrast, is merely a reaction in the weak to oppression by the strong, and is marked by such values as humility, sympathy, cowardice, and pettiness. In master morality, the good is whatever is good for the strong; in slave morality, it is whatever opposes the masters. By pretending that congenital meekness is a choice that is both moral and desirable, slave morality makes a virtue out of impotence and subjugation. Thus, pride becomes a vice or sin, humility is elevated to a virtue, and the son of God washes the feet of his disciples and lets himself be crucified like a common criminal. Slave morality is a cynical and pessimistic inverse morality that involves careful subversion of the old master morality. It seeks not to transcend master morality, but, through ‘priestly vindictiveness’, to emasculate and enslave the strong by convincing them that their strengths are evil. 

Nietzsche maintains that democracy, with its obsession with freedom and equality, is in fact the heir to Christianity, even though democrats generally prefer to trace their lineage to Ancient Athens. In our society, the old and natural Greco-Roman morality vies alongside the inverted Judeo-Christian morality. Modern man is confused because he constantly has to juggle their contradictions, while himself, on the whole, being neither Christian nor ancient.

While there may be much of interest in Nietzsche’s master-slave dichotomy, he and Hume seem to confound and amalgamate humility with modesty or meekness. Both modesty and humility involve self-abnegation, but whereas modesty involves self-abnegation for the sake of others or for the sake of receiving praise or adulation, humility involves self-abnegation for the sake of truth and of a higher self.

Indeed, emerging empirical evidence suggests that, rather than being inhibiting, humility is a highly adaptive trait or construct. Scientists have found it to be linked with pro-social dispositions such as self-control, gratitude, generosity, tolerance, forgivingness, and cooperativeness; and associated not only with better social relationships, as might be expected, but also improved health outcomes, better academic and job performance, and even a more effective leadership style.

Because humility de-emphasizes the self, it diminishes the need for self-deception, which in turn enables us to admit to and learn from our mistakes, consider and contemplate alternative possibilities, recognize the qualities and contributions of others, and respect, value, and submit to legitimate authority. Being deeper than modesty, humility is far more stable and resilient and unlikely to crumble under pressure, when, of course, it becomes of even greater use.

In sum, humility could not be more different from mere modesty. If humility resembles anything, it is the ancient concept of piety, or right relations, but stripped or abstracted of piety’s more concrete religious dimensions.

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