Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gratitude Begins with Thank You

Gratitude begins with thank you, but it doesn’t end there.

It’s common sense. Gratitude exists in its expression. Unexpressed gratitude is not gratitude. Yet, contemporary psychologists see it primarily as a feeling, as something that can exist regardless of whether it is or is not expressed.

According to the psychologists, the feeling itself will produce a myriad of benefits. In that they are only partially right.

John Tierney reports on the latest in psycho-wisdom: “Cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why so many brothers-in-law survive Thanksgiving without serious injury.”

If you had thought that you needed to cultivate your empathic side, now you learn that you should also have a heart filled with feelings of gratitude.

But, why is gratitude more than a feeling?
If you volunteer to take care of your neighbor’s plants during his two week vacation, and if you discharge this obligation faithfully and effectively, how will you feel if your neighbor returns from vacation and never says thank you?

Let’s grant that his heart is overflowing with gratitude.  If he fails to express it to you, even in the most pro forma way, by saying thank you, he is effectively, not grateful. Failing to express gratitude makes him an ingrate.

I recall listening one day as a woman was explaining why she was feuding with someone who had once been her friend.

When I asked, innocently enough, how the friendship had broken down, she explained that after she had spent a day helping her friend to move into a new apartment her friend had never even said thank you.

A grievous insult, to say the least. Whatever the friend’s feelings she was acting like an ingrate. People who do not express gratitude are exploiting your friendship.

And then there’s the matter of proportionality. In exchange for two weeks’ worth of plant watering, a thank you does not feel sufficient.

Under the circumstances, a thank you is necessary but not sufficient.

The words should be accompanied by a gift, perhaps something chosen on the trip, that expresses the depth of the person’s gratitude and maintain the balance in the exchanges.

When someone spends a day lugging your cartons and chairs up three flights of stairs, it is necessary but not sufficient to say thank you.

How can the recipient of this generosity express her gratitude? How can she maintain relationship balance? Perhaps she could invite her friend to an after-moving dinner to celebrate and mark the event. To me, this feels proportionate. Offering a free trip to Paris feels disproportionate.

In other situations a simple thank you is both necessary and sufficient. If someone holds the door for you or wishes you a happy birthday, it is appropriate to say thank you. You need not accompany the gesture with a gift.

If someone on your staff does a good job, it is proper both to compliment him on a job well done and to thank him for the extra time and effort he contributed.

Just because he is getting paid for doing the job does not mean that a thank you is superfluous.

If someone does you a favor, you should feel gratitude in your heart and you will want to return the favor. But, receiving a favor incurs an obligation to respond with an appropriate expression of gratitude. Never accept gifts that are so extravagant you will not be able to return the favor.

If someone has done you a favor and he asks you to do him a favor you are obligated to reciprocate, even if you expressed your gratitude for the favor he did you.

Being obligated does not mean that you are being forced to do something against your will. In truth, when someone does you a favor you are more than happy to express your gratitude. You will be looking for opportunities to reciprocate. If one presents itself you will happily return the favor.

We all want to return favors because we want to do the right thing. We also want to maintain some level of fair and equal exchange with our friends.

Psychologists do not see it this way. They believe, wrongly, that indebtedness contradicts the spirit of gratitude. Surprisingly, they do not understand the difference between gratitude and benevolence.

Tierney explains the psycho definition: “Sure, you may feel obliged to return a favor, but that’s not gratitude, at least not the way psychologists define it. Indebtedness is more of a negative feeling and doesn’t yield the same benefits as gratitude, which inclines you to be nice to anyone, not just a benefactor.”

The psycho crowd seems to believe that gratitude must be a spontaneous gesture.  But, gratitude is always for something. Gratitude is always a response… to a kind action, a good deed, a favor, or a helpful gesture.Besides, indebtedness is not necessarily a negative feeling. When you owe someone a favor or feel that you should thank him for something, you are engaging in a fruitful interaction with him. You are connecting with him in a positive way.

Psychologists have so completely fetishized independence and autonomy that they believe that gratitude arises from the depth of your individual soul, as an autonomous feeling.

Seeing gratitude in terms of exchanging gifts satisfies common sense and corrects the misconception.

Benevolence refers to kind gestures offered in the spirit of being open and giving. In principle benevolence exists only in the absence of obligation. When you reach out to someone else, and say or do something nice, you are being benevolent, not grateful.

If you thank God for the harvest or thank your teacher for helping you with your algebra, you are not being benevolent.

If you are nice to a man you have just met on the street, you are not showing gratitude, but benevolent generosity.

It should not be so difficult to define elementary concepts.

In many homes it is customary to preface Thanksgiving Dinner with a prayer of thanks. Many people say Grace before all meals; some reserve it for times when they feel especially grateful.

When you thank God for what He has provided, you are also exercising humility. In a world where everyone is glorifying the independent, autonomous Self, it is good to acknowledge that you could not have done it alone.

Psychologists are correct to notice that an individual who keeps a diary where he counts his blessings on a regular basis will feel better. His mood and attitude will improve; he will have a more positive outlook on life.

Counting his blessings involves recognizing the good things that have happened to him, especially the good things he has received from others. Unless I missed something, it makes no sense to bless yourself for what you have done for yourself.

Besides, counting your blessings is not an original idea. The phrase is almost a cliché.

If you are feeling depressed from having spent too much time Occupying Wall Street, then it is surely a good idea to make a list of those things in your life for which you should feel grateful.

As I suggested yesterday, it is better to count the blessings that have been conferred by free market capitalism, than to keep an inventory of grievances. And it is far better to count your blessings than to turn your grievances into a bill of indictment.

Counting your blessings will improve your mood. Counting your grievances will feed your depression. The choice is yours.

I will add that it is not sufficient to create a good feeling in your mind by counting your blessings. If the mental gymnastics helps, well and good. Ultimately, however, we do not live in our minds. 

We live in a world where we are connected with other people. The strength or weakness of our connections depends on our ability to maintain reciprocal exchanges with them, to offer benevolent gestures and to return their benevolence with gratitude.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

When one has a movement, such as feminism, that eschews manners and common courteous behavior as a patriarchal plot one cannot be surprised by the lack of those things in every day society. Especially by women.
Bad habits work their way through the culture. One has to ask, "How many women does one know who have even a scintilla of courtesy or manners.?" What ones sees is an attitude that says "I deserve courtesy, politeness or adherence to deference because I am a woman."
By the way one of the reasons I disliked many New Yorkers is because they are some of the most ill mannered people I have met in my travels around the world. When you are out and about take the time to notice who demonstrates courtesy, manners and respect for other and who does not. As I have gotten older I notice things I never paid any attention to before. Having been brought up in the South I learned manners. If I did not hold the fork correctly my knuckles got rapped. Don't ever fail to say "Yes or No Ma'am" or "Yes Sir" or "No Sir."
Manners always starts us of as equals. Where it goes from there depends on what follows.