SATURDAY READING: Gratitude As Thankfulness And As Gratefulness by David Steindl-Rast

Gratitude As Thankfulness And As Gratefulness by David Steindl-Rast

From The Psychology of Gratitude

At this early stage of concerted scientific research concerning gratitude, it is essential to fine-tune our terminology. Precise terminology is a necessary instrument for clear thinking. Scientific terminology differs from conversational usage by its precision. Emmons and Shelton noted, “Given that gratitude is a commonly occurring affect, it is remarkable that psychologists specializing in the study of emotions have, by and large, failed to explore its contours.” Because we have failed to explore even the contours, we lack the terminology necessary for more detailed exploration. My effort at precision is twofold: linguistic and psychological. Here, I examine idiomatic usage and etymological derivation of the terms I suggest, and also I base my choice of terms on a rigorous analysis of the ways we experience gratitude. For the sake of clarity and succinctness, I propose a series of theses and attempt to substantiate each of them briefly. In conclusion, I point out why the terminological distinction I propose has weighty consequences for the scientific study of gratitude.


THESIS ONE: Gratitude Is Essentially A Celebration

By focusing on the way we experience gratitude, we become aware that it is more than a feeling. Besides its emotional component, we find in gratitude an element of recognition, in both its cognitive and its volitional senses. Gratitude not only resupposes that I recognize the gift as gift, but this recognition increases in proportion to my gratitude: The more I allow my gratitude to take hold of me, the more I come to understand the gift. The more I understand the gift, the more also the volitional aspect grows: I want to acknowledge my appreciation by giving recognition for the gratuitousness of the gift.

All three components of gratitude resonate together in the French expression

Je suis reconnaissant

(I am grateful) — I recognize (intellectually), I acknowledge (willingly), I appreciate (emotionally). Only when all three come together is gratitude complete.

All three of these aspects are integral also to the phenomenon of celebration, a phenomenon that deserves careful psychological analysis. By celebration I mean an act of heightened and focused intellectual and emotional appreciation. In this working definition, act means an operation of the mind; appreciation stands for estimation, sympathetic recognition, perception, understanding, gratitude.

Heightened may refer to an overwhelming increase of intensity, as in peak experiences; in any case, appreciation has to be raised above its normal level before we can speak of celebration. Our working definition applies to any form of celebration and distinguishes celebration from all other activities.

The object of celebration may be a thing (e.g., a celebrated piece of art singled out by a whole culture for heightened appreciation), a person (e.g., one’s hero), an activity (e.g., the solemn signing of a document), an event — past or present (e.g., the saving event celebrated in religious ritual), a situation (e.g., time spent with a friend), or a state (e.g., euphoric intoxication with beauty or alcohol). Our working definition will apply also if the object is present only in one’s imagination or memory. This points to an often over-looked fact: Celebration need not be externally expressed, although it often is. Your birthday is a day that you celebrate, even if no one else remembers it and you yourself do not mark the day, externally, as different from any other.

My claim that gratitude is essentially a celebration is based on the fact that its essential characteristics are heightened and focused intellectual and emotional appreciation. Our intellectual focus is sharpened and our emotional response intensified in the act of (spontaneous or deliberate, but in either case willing) appreciation that we call gratitude. This conformity with the definition of celebration justifies us in speaking of gratitude as essentially a celebration. It differs from all other celebrations by its object, that is, undeserved kindness.

The references to celebration in Komter’s “Gratitude and Gift Exchange” are of interest in this context. Referring to Bonnie and de Waal’s chapter  on “Primate Social Reciprocity and the Origin of Gratitude,” Komter remarks, “In his experiments, [de Waal] has observed chimpanzees watching a caretaker arrive with bundles of blackberry, sweet gum, beech, and tulip branches. Characteristically, a general pandemonium ensues: wild excitement, hooting, embracing, kissing, and friendly body contact, which he has called a ‘celebration.’ De Waal has noted that he considers this a sign indicating the transition to a mode of interaction characterized by friendliness and reciprocity. De Waal’s results clearly demonstrate that celebration is followed by a pattern of reciprocal giving and receiving.”

Reciprocity plays a decisive role in Komter’s understanding of gratefulness. Thus, from an altogether different perspective, she also focuses on a deep connection between gratitude and celebration.


THESIS TWO: Gratitude Is A Celebration Of Undeserved Kindness

At first glance, it would appear that gratitude can celebrate a great variety of objects. One may experience gratitude for any item on our list of potential objects of celebration: for a thing (e.g., a Christmas present), a person (e.g., one’s child), an event (e.g., the first snowfall), an activity (e.g., ice skating), a situation (e.g., one’s vacation time), or a state (e.g., one’s good health). Note, however, that in all these cases it is the sense of receiving something undeservedly that triggers gratitude. If what we receive is ours by right, our appreciation will not pick up that special flavor of something undeserved, something gratis.

But this is essential, as even the stem (grati) of the word gratitude indicates. Invariably something undeserved is the formal, constituent object on which gratitude focuses. But why do I speak of this undeserved something as “kindness”? Admittedly, I could also call it “undeserved admittance into a state of mutual belonging,” but this sounds more than clumsy, and the term

that comes closest to conveying the same idea is kindness. Kindness implies solidarity. We tend to like those who are like us and to be kind to those of our own kind. Kindness is a display of mutual belonging. Even a trivial kindness shown to a stranger, or even to an animal, expresses some sense of solidarity.

The prototype of kindness is the relationship between mother and child. (The German word for child is Kind.) Hence Shakespeare’s metaphor, “the milk of human kindness” (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5). Until the late seventeenth century, kindness meant kinship, close relationship. To show kindness meant therefore to display the mutual belonging implied by kinship. The idiom has changed, but the experiential connection between belonging together and being kind is still strong enough to revive some of the original meaning of the term.

If we look again at our list of potential objects for the celebrative act of gratitude, we notice that it seems more natural to speak of kindness when we receive a tangible gift, than, say, in a peak experience, when we are looking up at the starry sky in grateful wonder. Yet the sense of belonging is strong in both cases. We would not be stretching the term too far, it seems, if we called a peak experience an experience of cosmic kindness. All of the other objects of gratitude could be lined up to form a spectrum of which the two extremes are personal kindness, on one end, and cosmic kindness on the other. A sense of belonging characterizes every sector of that spectrum; careful analysis shows, however, that its two poles can be distinguished by several different characteristics.


THESIS THREE: Gratitude Can Be Experienced In Two Characteristic Modes,
Sufficiently Distinct To Deserve Two Different Designations

The distinction is clearest when we compare the extreme poles of the spectrum of gratitude. Typical examples would be, for one pole, receiving a gift package from another person; for the opposite pole, a peak experience in the solitude of a mountain top. In both cases, we have an instance of genuine gratitude: an act of heightened intellectual and emotional appreciation for gratuitous belonging. In the first case, we experience gratuitous belonging as undeserved kindness, in the other as an overwhelming cosmic oneness, typically associated with a sense of “I don’t deserve this.” Though both cases fit our working definition, gratitude in the first case is personal, and in the other, transpersonal. Gratitude for a personal kindness focuses on one specific instance of undeserved belonging; the gratitude integral to the peak experience is universal.

Transpersonal, universal gratitude, although unreflective, is no less genuinely cognitive than its typically reflective personal and specific counterpart. It ought not to be called precognitive, for cognition of gratuitousness isnot an afterthought but an integral aspect of the oceanic feeling of universalbelonging. Both modes of gratitude are cognitive; both are also volitional. Although transpersonal gratitude arises spontaneously, whereas personal gratitude cultivates spontaneity deliberately, we can detect a strong volitional element also in transpersonal gratitude — a willingness to open oneself to given reality, to make oneself vulnerable to say an unconditional yes to all that is.

This unconditional response of universal gratitude is an other distinguishing characteristic. A specific act of gratitude is always conditional, depending, for example, on whether or not the giver acted out of unselfish motives.

It seems appropriate, then, to find a special term for spontaneous, unreflective, unconditional, and universal transpersonal gratitude to distinguish it from deliberate, reflective, conditional, specific personal gratitude, which deserves its own special designation.


THESIS FOUR: Gratefulness And Thankfulness Suggest Themselves As Psychologically
And Linguistically Fitting Designations For Two Distinct Modalities Of Gratitude

The terms grateful and thankful are interchangeable in most situations of everyday parlance. There remains, however, a subtle distinction. To say that one is thankful to someone and grateful for something seems to be the more commonly preferred usage. More significant is the fact that thanking and thinking are cognates. To thank meant originally to think of a gift and has come to mean the feeling aroused by these thoughts and their expression in a thankful attitude. When we thank, we think — namely, in terms of giver, gift, and receiver. This is necessary for personal gratitude, but transpersonal gratitude — though cognitive — lies deeper than thinking and precedes it. When it is an integral element of the experience of universal wholeness, gratitude does not yet distinguish between giver, gift, and receiver.

Transpersonal gratitude belongs to our inner realm and we often find no words for it; personal gratitude belongs to the social realm and we most often express it. Hence, the verb that goes with gratitude is thanking. There is no action word for gratefulness; its dynamism is self-contained. Being grateful is a state; thanking is an action.

These considerations seem to me to justify the terminology I propose. Personal gratitude deserves to be called thankfulness, because it typically expresses itself in thanks given to the giver by the receiver of the gift. Transpersonal gratitude deserves to be called gratefulness, because it is typically the full response of a person to gratuitous belonging.

I find a parallel to this distinction between gratefulness and thankfulness in Komter’s chapter in this volume when she speaks of two layers of gratitude: “The first layer of gratitude is a spiritual, religious, or magical one. The moral and psychological aspects of gratitude constitute its second layer.” McAdams and Bauer wrestle with the tension between gratitude aimed at someone — a person or persons, and gratitude for simply being here. Only thankfulness fits into their conviction that gratitude typically has as its object an intentional agent beyond the self. They realize, however, that some people are grateful for receiving the precious gift of life, even if they do not identify a personified target for their gratitude. They admit that further research is needed, agreeing with McCullough and Tsang who warn, “In this early stage of empirical work on gratitude, it might be useful to remain mindful of these obvious and seemingly trivial distinctions between the various perspectives from which gratitude might be conceptualized and measured.” My own distinction between thankfulness and gratefulness results from two such different perspectives from which gratitude might be conceptualized.


THESIS FIVE: For Scientists Who Explore The Religious And Spiritual Significance Of Gratitude,
It Is Of Prime Importance To Focus On Gratefulness

The spiritual core of every religion is mysticism. By mysticism, I mean experiential communion with transcendental reality. This belongs to the transpersonal realm of gratefulness, in contrast to the social realm of thankfulness.

Admittedly, thanksgiving occupies a wide space in religious thought and practice; it deserves to be studied. But, like all thanking, it is based on thinking; it uses concepts — such as the basic distinction of giver, gift, and receiver — and it interprets experience. The religious experience itself — mystic intuition — is preconceptual cognition. Gratefulness is the mystical element of religious gratitude, thankfulness is its theological one. As scientists we will do well to study the mystic experience of religious gratitude before turning to its theological interpretations.

Two fine examples of theological interpretation of gratitude in this book are “Gratitude in Judaism” by Solomon Schimmel and “The Blessings of Gratitude: A Conceptual Analysis” by Robert C. Roberts. “I mean conceptual as contrasted with empirical,” Roberts warns the reader. But what happens when empirical reality does not fit our concepts? It is always difficult to readjust an accustomed conceptual framework to empirical reality, particularly a theological one. But it helps to remember that all theology is merely an attempt to conceptualize mystic experience. The mystical experience — though cognitive — is preconceptual.

Roberts’s construal of gratitude in terms of beneficiary, benefice, and benefactor is closely tied up with theistic theology. It produces many valuable insights regarding thankfulness but is ill-equipped to deal with gratefulness.

To our surprise, we might discover that gratitude as gratefulness is more deeply and universally religious than its theological restriction to thankfulness ever allowed us to see.

William James and Abraham Maslow, as pioneers in the psychology of mystic experience, amassed a wealth of research data still awaiting analysis and evaluation. Maslow’s study of the hierarchy of human needs eclipsed his explorations of the peak experience, a term he coined. The peak experience is at one and the same time a key moment of spiritual awareness and a moment of overwhelming gratefulness. Maslow wrote, “People during and after Peak-experiences characteristically feel lucky, fortunate, graced. A common reaction is ‘I don’t deserve this.’ A common consequence is a feeling of gratitude, in the religious persons, to their God, in others, to fate or to nature or to just good fortune. This can go over into worship, giving thanks, adoring, giving praise, oblation, and other reactions which fit very easily into orthodox religious frameworks.”

Maslow’s own account shows how clearly he recognized and tackled, 40 years ago, the task that Sir John Templeton’s Humble Approach has taken up in our time:

When I started to explore the psychology of health, I picked out the finest, healthiest people, the best specimens of mankind I could find, and studied them to see what they were like. I learned many lessons from these people. But one in particular is our concern now. I found that these individuals tended to report having had something like mystic experiences. I gave up the name ‘mystic’ experience and started calling them peak-experiences. They can be studied scientifically. They are within reach of human knowledge. Peak-experiences can be considered to be truly religious experiences in the best and most profound, most universal, and most humanistic sense of that word. Peak-experiences are far more common than I had expected. I now suspect they occur in practically everybody although without being recognized or accepted for what they are.

To recognize our mystical moments and to accept them for what they are — there lies the challenge. A mystic is not a special kind of human being; rather, every human being is a special kind of mystic — potentially, at least.

What is in question is not whether all of us do have those “truly religious experiences,” but rather what we make of them. We can realize our mystical potential through grateful living. If we want to live deliberately, the study of gratefulness can become an integral part of our lives. This exploration is open to all of us. Once we distinguish gratefulness from thankfulness (Step 1), and recognize gratefulness as the mystic dimension of gratitude (Step 2), we are challenged to explore gratefulness — with reverent, yet resolute scrutiny — as the ground zero of religious experience. This is what Sir John Templeton called “wide-ranging, open-minded research into the laws of the spirit.” Christopher Fry called it “exploration into God.”

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