Robin (solri) wrote,

Some Thoughts on Gratitude

[Again from my class blog, hence the reference at the beginning.]

As I mentioned in class, I thought I might start a gratitude journal this week, given that gratitude is the topic for one of the readings. This is where you write down things you're grateful for. Sometimes its a list; sometimes its a whole letter to a person you actually feel gratitude towards (rather than a general "I am grateful that I still have all my own teeth" kind of gratitude). I didn't do this, for various reasons ...

  • I was tired and busy.

  • I wasn't in a particularly grateful mood (I know the whole point of the exercise is to induce gratitude, but I think you have to feel at least a little before you start).

  • Writing things down seemed cheesy.

  • I still have some issues with the whole concept.

It's the last one that I want to write about. First of all, I think gratitude is, on the whole, a pretty good thing. Aside from its endorsement by most religions, numerous scientific studies indicate that feelings of gratitude promote happiness (and possibly vice versa). I've argued elsewhere that "happiness is a condition engendered by the realisation of a valued state"; in other words, you are happy when you become aware that something you value has happened, is happening, or is about to happen. You can therefore be happy either by making things you value happen, or by appreciating them when they happen. Gratitude is an expression of appreciation, and thus relates to happiness. However, what we call gratitude covers two distinct things. One is the more everyday use: somebody does something for us, and we feel gratitude as a personal response (and hopefully express it too.) There is also a less person-directed feeling of good fortune when something we value happens, or we notice that it is there all the time. If I may be so narcissistic as to quote myself at length ...

Some years back I went to a workshop by the Turkish musician and yogi Seda Bağcan, who stopped dead in front of me and asked “Do you consider yourself fortunate?” (Actually the Turkish translated literally as “Do you feel lucky?” but that sounds too Dirty Harry.) I was stumped and responded “I don't know.” Some parts of my life were good; other parts weren't going so well … the usual story. Seda's question remained wiggling in my brain like the wiggly thing in The Wrath of Khan until I came across a Sufi injunction to imagine all the good things God has given you in your right hand and the bad things in the left—the pile in the right hand is going to be much bigger. Suddenly I got what Seda was on about and went on to construct my own little mental exercise, which consists of iterating "I am fortunate because x." Possible values for x include:

• I have a good Internet connection

• I have enough to eat

• It's sunny

• My kidneys work

• I can see

• I have an interesting job

• My house has drinkable water.

As you can see, there's no system here; the aim is to knock out the mind's tendency to seek problems by bombarding it with random nice things.

This is clearly related to gratitude but should not be confused with it because there is no person to whom this feeling is directed towards. Of course if you are religiously minded, you can address this to God, and this works well for some people. However, it can lead into difficulties. The first is theological: if you feel grateful to God when something good happens, do you also feel resentful toward God when something bad happens? This, we are told, is a sin, but I'll leave it to theologians to work out the details. The other problem applies to less religious people as well. Whatever your religious beliefs, if you feel gratitude for something, semantics pushes you to attribute an agent to that event, whether this be an actual person, God, the universe, karma or whatever. Now the point of gratitude is that you're supposed to feel it when you don't think you have fully deserved the favour that is bestowed upon you; you may thank the shop assistant who gives you your change and purchase, but you don't feel grateful to them. If you keep writing in your gratitude journal that you feel grateful for, say, having two legs, does that mean you only deserve one leg?

At the other end of the scale, though, gratitude could have the opposite effect. Acts of gratitude serve to redress the imbalance caused by getting something you have no right to demand. To come back to our shopping example, if the shop assistant really likes you and gives you some free items that are supposed to be only for VIP customers, you would feel grateful, and would express your thanks profusely to balance out the giving and receiving of good feelings. By having this feeling and expressing it, the potential injustice of getting something you don't deserve is prevented. Now if you apply that to something which has no direct agent, like owning a Ferrari (rather than getting one as a present), would it lessen the perception that you don't deserve it? (If you think you do deserve a Ferrari, of course that's a different case.) It's like part of you is saying "OK, I own this Ferrari because I've got a shitload of money, most of which was inherited from my robber-baron parents, so of course I don't deserve it, but I feel really grateful for it, so that makes it OK."

Note that these are real questions, not rhetorical questions - I am really not sure about this. In the meantime, I think I'll stick to feeling fortunate, and reserve gratitude for actual people in my life.


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