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Socrates Exchange: What is gratitude?

SnoShuu via Flickr/Creative Commons

Experiencing gratitude and appreciating various things seems essential to happiness and a good life. Why is this? What exactly is gratitude? Is it an emotion that we cannot control or is it a cognitive realization that I should express gratitude? If I do not “feel grateful” when someone gives me a gift I do not care for, should I expressed gratitude anyway? Why do we teach our children to say “thank you” when we feed them or otherwise give them something they deserve? Should I be grateful when a teller returns correct change? I should probably experience gratitude if someone cooks me a nice meal in her home, but what if the meal is prepared in a restaurant and I pay for it? Should paying for something alter our sense of gratitude for it? Do we, like “spoiled children,” appreciate things less than we once did?


  • Nick Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, Advisor to the Socratic Society at UNH and Project Advisor to the Socrates Exchange


From the Project Director

Think back to maybe when you were about 5 years old.  A favorite uncle comes over.  Before he leaves, he smiles and pulls out of his pocket a big piece of candy for you.  You love candy!  With those good feelings you take the present out of his hand, but before you can get it into your mouth, your mom or dad pipes up, “what do you say?”

You obviously say “thanks”.  Most parents instill that value in us. Someone does something nice for us, and we should feel grateful and return that gesture with a “thank you”.  As we grow, it becomes almost Pavlovian.  Someone gives us a gift, we say “thank you”.  A person opens the door for us, “thanks”.  We thank the waiter who brings us our food and thank the audience at the end of a speech.

Next week, we celebrate a whole holiday around gratitude called ‘Thanks’-giving.  But what really is gratitude.  As we sit before our turkey and trimmings, we may feel grateful for a happy family, a lovely partner, good health or in this economy... a job.  We probably don’t think back to that waiter who served your food or the stranger who held the door for you.

To start to figure out this question what is gratitude, we may first ask if gratitude is something that we are born with. Is it innate?  Or is gratitude something we learn from experience?  That five year old is very happy that he has candy, but is he grateful?  What if a second child grew up without learning how to say ‘thank you’ to a good deed, would she learn to feel gratitude?  The next time that favorite uncle comes over would the child’s expectation be either for more candy (now a given) or disappointment?

Can we even equate ‘thank you’ with gratitude?  We may thank and feel grateful toward a friend who surprises you with a home cooked meal, but how about the chef or the waiter who serves you that same meal at a restaurant? With the chef’s knowledge and skill that meal may be even tastier, so do we feel more, less or the same amount of gratitude to the chef?  The waiter and the cook are serving you because it’s their job.  We do thank them for a service well done with a ‘gratuity’, but is that really gratitude or not? 

What does a ‘thank you’ actually accomplish? Does it water down true gratitude?  Do we say thank you to the person to help them feel appreciated and hence, feel grateful, even when we may not be?  Here’s another example.  You reach in your pocket pull out your phone and out drops $20 from your wallet.  A stranger sees it, picks it up, runs to catch up to you and returns it.  Should you then be grateful? If so, for what?  Returning the $20 is the right thing to do, not returning the money would be stealing.  So then are we thanking someone for not breaking the law? Should we then feel gratitude toward people who drive the speed limit, file their taxes properly and show up to work on time?

Can some people have more gratitude than others?  Does the child who is taught to say ‘thank you’ grow up to be more grateful than someone who doesn’t learn that?  A person who grows up middle class may not think much about having food in the refrigerator, or having running water or a car while for some in third world countries, these things would be a luxury.  So does the underprivileged person who has less material goods, have more gratitude or the same amount as someone with more money?  Does gratitude play out differently in different cultures? If it does can one say that certain races, religions or backgrounds experience more gratitude than others?

That is just some of many questions that come up when we ask “what is gratitude”.  Last week, I visited Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire and sat in on four discussions on this topic.  They were fascinating conversations (that helped a certain Project Director write this short essay).  I’ve posted these on our webpage. 

Souhegan High School discussions: Class #1 | Class #2| Class #3 | Class #4

Laura is well known in New Hampshire for her in-depth coverage of important issues and is widely regarded for her interviews with presidential hopefuls. Laura is a graduate of Keene High School in New Hampshire. Prior to hosting The Exchange, Laura worked in public radio in Washington, D.C. as a local reporter and announcer for WAMU and as a newscaster for NPR. Before her radio career, she was a researcher for USA Today's "Money" section, and a research assistant at the Institute for International Economics. Laura occasionally guest hosts national programs such as The Diane Rehm Show and Here and Now. In 2007 Laura was named New Hampshire Broadcaster of the Year by the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters.
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