By now the psychologists have figured out what the ethicists have always known. Gratitude is good for you. Their studies have shown that those who express gratitude, frequently and fully are rewarded with better mental health.
And, you don’t even have to feel it spontaneously. If a psychologist tells you to write down things for which you should feel grateful, you will feel better and function better… even though the idea did not pop into your mind all by itself.
Some believe that gratitude is an emotion or a value. This is slightly off the point. Gratitude only exists in the practice.
Gratitude exists when you send a thank you note. If you don’t feel grateful and still send a note, you are expressing gratitude. In principle, you will feel it after the fact. If, however, you feel grateful and forget to send the note you are an ingrate.
That is why we all participate in our national ritual, Thanksgiving dinner… actively giving thanks for all that we have received.
Gratitude is ultimately a social practice. It constitutes human beings as social beings.
We connect with other people when we accept that they have done us a kindness, done for us something that we could not have done on our own.
Gratitude is part of a transaction. It is part of an exchange. It is part of gift-giving. It connects us to other human beings, not so much because we feel connected but because our behavior connects us.
Surely, human beings who are grateful to others are less full of themselves. They are more humble, less isolated, more connected.
And yet, Emma Green explains, gratitude can also be a transaction between mere mortals and divine beings. We are all grateful to our parents. No one has a problem with the concept. And yet, all human communities from time immemorial have developed rituals to show gratitude to forces beyond the merely human.
Religions from Christianity to Hinduism to Wicca all emphasize the importance of thankfulness, especially as a form of prayer. This is because they rely on the premise of an other, some sort of non-human being that has some sort of control or influence in the world who you can thank for the world and the good things in it.
This means that psychologists, especially those who are committed atheists have something of a problem when they try to explain all levels of gratitude.
Green asked psychologist Robert Emmons. He responded:
We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. If we are lucky, in between we have roughly 60 years or so of unacknowledged dependency. The human condition is such that throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people. ...
Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness.
Obviously, we do not give birth to ourselves. We did nothing to have the parents we have, the home we were brought up in, or the talents that we may or may not spend our lives developing.
Feeling gratitude for our parents means expressing filial piety. Feeling gratitude for our talents means actualizing their potential.
Gratitude involves moral agency.
We are morally obligated to thank those who have done us favors. We are also morally obligated to return the favors.
And we have a duty to develop the potential we have been given. We might choose not to develop our talents, but then we are acting ungrateful.
When someone does a good deed, when he does something good for you, he is doing something that he was not obligated to do. Since gift-giving involves free will, it produces the risk that it will not be received or reciprocated.
If you offer someone a gift and do not receive an expression of gratitude your relationship with that person has become one of exploitation.
But, why be thankful to God?
Even if you earned the income that bought the Thanksgiving dinner, you did not create the natural process that allows food to grow. You or someone might know how to make use of that process, but the process itself was not created by a human being. Most likely you did not dream up the culinary actions whereby raw food is going to be cooked.
Expressing gratitude means that we understand that we did not do it on our own, but it also means that we have a responsibility, a moral responsibility to make use of nature responsibly. If we do not, it will stop providing us nourishment.
Those who do not believe in higher powers will assert that these natural processes just happened. We do not owe anyone anything.
In the hands of atheist governments, especially the Communist variety, a refusal to respect the natural order, a will to impose certain ideas on it has produced mass starvation.
Of course, if it’s all just a natural process, then apparently we do not owe it anything. You cannot derive moral rules from a natural process. When we ascribe what psychologists correctly call “agency” to the natural world—say that some Being has created it—we are producing conditions where we can act as moral beings by entering into an exchange with with a metaphysical source.
Green explains how one psychologist defines it:
By "agency," McCullough means something along the lines of "a force that can act in the world and cause events to happen." In crude sociological terms, people give thanks to the forces that act in the universe—God, or god, or gods—as a bid for cosmic benevolence, whether that means making it rain or preserving a loved one's health or bringing a baby into the world. But these thanks are also an implicit metaphysical claim: Humans owe their existence, their longevity, and perhaps even their daily fortunes to a being beyond ourselves.
If we owe our existence to a being that has agency, then we too are beings with agency. We are morally obligated to behave in a certain way, but we are not forced to do so.
Similarly, the universe is as it is. Science can tell us how it is.
And yet, it need not be as it is. It need not be orderly and it need not be intelligible. Strangely, it need not even be moral.
On this day we keep in mind that the universe need not support human life. It need not feed us. It need not provide the conditions under which we can thrive and prosper.
For that we all give thanks.