Gratitude is a positive feeling experienced towards others who have helped us or someone for whom we care. Theoretically, people can be grateful for any action, sentiment or opinion another expresses that benefits them. Nevertheless, in reality, feelings of gratitude are most often caused by actions or expressions that have significantly aided people’s states of affairs, yet a vast range of intensities of the emotion exist. When thinking of the person who has helped, a positive warm sensation that radiates around the chest area is often experienced.
As it increases positive attachments in relationships, gratitude is a prosocial and moral emotion. When people are grateful, they feel positive themselves because they have been helped, but they also feel the same positivity towards the person who has helped. The positivity is associated with an implicit wish to voluntarily repay kindness. The intention of a grateful person is to repay, and this intention is infused with positive wishes and a joyful heart.
Because it breaks down social bonds and creates tension, resentment is the opposite of gratitude. Resentment slows people’s thoughts, making them ruminate on dark and negative issues.1 Resentment can make people brood over negative thoughts of others – thoughts that can turn hateful. Gratitude makes people feel warm joy that radiates from their chest as they think fondly of another person. Resentment can fuel an envious attitude that seeks malicious revenge whereas gratitude compels people to seek ways in which they can benefit another person’s life. Resentment can lead to depression and compromise people’s immune systems with an overload of negativity and stress.2 Gratitude infuses people with positivity, psychologically and biologically, that inoculates them against disappointments and depressive episodes as it acts like a buoyancy aid to mood.3
Prosocial is a most appropriate word for gratitude due to the positive respectful interactions it sustains. When people look out onto the world and see selfishness, hardship and meanness in the character of others, the perceptions cause them to be negatively affected, and they become sad and concerned. When people look out onto the world and experience someone aiding them to progress and succeed, their view of the world implicitly becomes more optimistic and cheerful. If people perceive someone significantly helping them reach their goal, they are cheerful in the memories of those deeds and do not find the prospect of returning the favour daunting. They are compelled to contribute with a joyful heart. The initial act of being helped by another is a social action towards them and the appreciation of the act then binds them in voluntary gratitude.
Neuro-biologically, oxytocin is released when people perceive they are grateful, and it’s often felt in the chest area as warmly radiating joy. These positive feelings get added to an associated network of similar memories. People who have caused gratitude are associated with the positive memories (somatic markers). Amazingly, social bonds and memories can repeatedly reactivate the neuro-biological release of oxytocin by simple exposure to people or even the thought of them.4 Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter highly associated with bonding activities, intimacy and trust. It has potent anti-stress effects that include decreases in blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels that can last weeks. Peace and social cohesion of the human race owe much to the release of oxytocin. Released by behaviours which make people feel grateful, oxytocin is a marvellous piece of chemical engineering, or at least it seems so.
Gratitude fuels the creation of other positive emotions (such as admiration, joy, optimism and hope) and compels people to interact socially in a constructive way. Civilisation is partly constructed by the motivational forces that stem from gratitude.
If the repaying of an action feels like a burden, then gratitude is not felt. The warm and joyous feelings experienced with gratitude do not emerge when people feel in debt and obliged to help those who have helped them. Gratitude instinctively compels people to reciprocate behaviour voluntarily. Even if they have no means to repay a favour at the time, they want to at some point. Help is not resented.
Some people will not accept help from others due to having previously felt in debt when others have provided them with something. Unfortunately, as the experience was stressful for them before, this can lead people to reject benevolent acts from others as they do not want to feel indebted again. Some people seek to make others feel indebted to them, so they can feel important and dominant over the people who feel indebted. Although it’s possible to mistake the two, especially for young people, this abusive behaviour is significantly different from the benevolence that creates gratitude. Indebtedness is not gratitude.
Also, when children have been neglected, they have not received behaviour from their parents or surroundings that led them to feel gratitude. Neglected people are often surprised when, in their late teens or adulthood, they suddenly feel for the first time a warm positive sensation due to appreciation of another. This is a pleasurable experience which can lead to a time of mixed bittersweet feelings when they reflect on how emotionally empty the narratives of their lives have been until that point.
This brings us to the defining point of gratitude as the prosocial emotion. Gratitude depends on the behaviour of others, but benevolent behaviour has to be perceived for people to feel gratitude. This means that the more prosocial behaviour people are around the more they’re likely to perceive benevolence and feel gratitude. Thus, the more likely they are to reciprocate the prosocial behaviour. This in turn creates more gratitude.
Because gratitude depends on the behaviour of others, it’s not a simple case of feeling more gratitude about what one has in life. Although, that’s not to say people have not overlooked behaviours that would make them feel gratitude if they empathised with individuals who have spent time helping them.
Gratitude is a mental health emotion. In recent empirical studies it’s consistently associated with oxytocin and healthy people who have a positive mental outlook. Studies have confirmed that people who feel gratitude are happier than those that do not. Gratitude is one of the best inoculations against negative emotional states becoming unbearable.
Latin. Gratus = thanks, pleasing.
Medieval Latin. Gratitudinem = ‘thankfulness’ from 1560s.
1. The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
2. A feeling of thankfulness or appreciation, as for gifts or favours.