Gratitude – is it a virtue or a duty? We all have been told by philosophers and holy books and our grandmas to take a moment and be grateful, be thankful, be appreciative of things, people, and instances. We have been told that gratitude brings joy to our hearts and happiness to our souls. Gratitude takes various forms – a quiet moment, a thank you, a pat on the back, a kiss on the cheek, a hand-written note, a long email, a smile, some flowers, or chocolates. We feel gratitude for a person, a state of affairs, a phenomenon, an action or even the weather. In fact, we overuse the term gratitude far too promiscuously.
I have started to believe that there are subtle differences, not just in the magnitude of the gratitude – “thankfully it didn’t rain until we reached home” is different from “thankfully he wasn’t in the car when the tree fell on it” – but also in the situations we feel it. Being thankful for a coincidental occurrence is a fleeting relief, not to be confused with or categorized as being grateful for, say, the presence of family and friends in our lives. There are two things, in my opinion, that drive our inherent gratitude – our principles and out intuition. When we are asked to be grateful for having a roof over our heads, who are we directing this gratitude towards? There are countless things at play for us when we are thankful for something that abstract. So, to make it easy, we thank ‘God’ generally. We intuitively find ourselves lucky enough in this world where many don’t have homes, to have a comfortable one. But when we look to our principles, are we thanking a benefactor or a giver? There is a common angle of comfort when in distress to be thankful for what we have instead of grieving what we lost. But isn’t that taking gratitude too far, and using it to substitute other feelings which might lead to different outcomes? While feeling grateful might be essential and sometimes inherent, its use to encompass all other emotions seems a bit flawed.
Our principles guide all of us in being happy, thankful, sorry, sad, or any number of other emotions. So, if we look at this rationally, gratitude needs a sponsor – someone or something tangible to thank or feel grateful for. We thank the chef for a nice meal, the bartender for a lovely margarita, the friend for giving us a ride, the babysitter for taking care of our child. But we also pay the chef, tip the bartender, buy the friend a coffee, and compensate the babysitter. The society has set certain rules for services people provide anyway, so what is gratitude if not emotional payment? Gratitude is just our currency, and not just to make others feel happy, but ourselves too. In fact, I would argue that gratitude is also a selfish deed – something our brain tries to feel to make ourselves feel better and less of a prick.
There’s an episode in the fifth season of the TV show, Friends, called “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS”. While Joey firmly believes that there is no ‘selfless good deed’, Phoebe tries hard to prove him wrong. Spoiler alert – she fails at all her attempts and has to accept it in the end. Anything that makes you feel better in the end was ultimately the purpose of your endeavor. And, according to me, so is gratitude. It isn’t so much a virtue or a good deed as it is a sense of responsibility or a mechanism of reinforcing our self-worth.