Gratitude lubricates social relations. To say thanks is to express gladness. But gratitude is also a spiritual capacity that lightens and energizes. Some call it the wine of the soul. When we drink it, we want to share it with others.
Social rituals revolve around thankfulness. We thank people throughout the day for small favors. We thank dinner guests for passing the salt. We thank the guy holding open the door. Entertainers thank the audience for their applause, which is how the audience says thanks. We even thank people we pay — the clerks, waiters, and bartenders.
Behind social grace lies a deeper spirit of gratitude. Gratitude is sincere and heartfelt gladness. It is humble, hopeful, and happy. The opposite of gratitude is greed and arrogance. Ungrateful people want the world to serve their selfishness. Whatever they get leaves them grumpy because they always want more.
Gratitude is content with whatever comes. The positivity of gratitude is psychologically beneficial. Gratitude helps us manage stress, discover patience, and see opportunity. There is a positive feedback loop that comes from acknowledging good things.
Gladness produces gratitude while gratitude gladdens. In a dark world, gratitude opens a glowing glade of gladness. Grateful spirits glow. They hold back the darkness by kindling energy and light.
Nietzsche once said that great art begins in the overflowing fullness of gratitude. Creative energy flows from gratitude. The eyes of gratitude are welcoming. The arms of the grateful are ready to build and embrace. The artists of gratitude affirm life and the universe itself.
Gratitude may be cultivated. One technique is to keep a gratitude journal or to otherwise count your blessings. Recalling the things that make you glad can help you overcome negativity. Gratitude grows when we recognize that life is a gift, an opportunity, and a precious good.
In religious traditions gratitude is ultimately directed toward God. When George Washington created Thanksgiving in 1789 he called upon Americans to offer thanks to “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The American Thanksgiving feast is part of a long tradition of giving thanks to God.
But the attitude of gratitude can be experienced outside of any particular religious framework. We might call this existential gratitude. One can be thankful to be alive without thanking anyone in particular. Religious people may find this to be empty. But secular and non-religious people can benefit from existential gratitude.
Gratitude is linked to humility and wonder. Grateful people recognize that their gladness is not entirely their own doing. Fate, luck, and history determine our fortunes. Your existence is the product of a chance meeting of your parents. Your continued life depends upon an ecosystem, a social system, and a legal and political system that are beyond your control.
In religious terms, our existence is a miraculous gift from God. In nonreligious terms, our existence is something to wonder about — a unique opportunity to make meaning in a vast and empty universe.
But perhaps all of this only makes sense for people who are actually thriving. What about the sick, disabled, poor, grieving, and oppressed? Should they be grateful as well?
Well, there is hope that everyone can discover gratitude in the middle of suffering and loss. But frankly, it is rude to suggest that the downtrodden should be grateful for what they’ve got. Other people’s gratitude is none of our business.
But when we recognize that others may have less to be grateful about, we move beyond gratitude toward compassion. If gratitude helps us see that our own cup is full, compassion moves us to share what we have with those who are thirsty.
Gratitude without compassion is like breathing in without breathing out. Gladness reaches beyond itself. That is why we say thanks so often in our daily lives. Gratitude overflows in smiles and prayers, and in our ritual acts of thanksgiving.