Gratitude ~ November Subject of the Month

What Is Gratitude?From Living in Gratitude by Angeles Arrien

Gratitude is essentially the recognition of the unearned increments of value in one’s experience.

Every language in the world has a way of saying “thank you.”  This is because gratitude is an inherent quality that resides within each human being, and is triggered and expressed spontaneously in a variety of different contexts. Gratitude crosses all boundaries—creed, age, vocation, gender, and nation—and is emphasized by all the great religious traditions.

Gratitude is essentially the recognition of the unearned increments of value in one’s experience—the acknowledgment of the positive things that come our way that we did not actively work toward or ask for.  The International Encyclopedia of Ethics defines gratitude as “the heart’s internal indicator on which the tally of gifts outweighs exchanges,” a definition that echoes the notion of unearned increments.  The connection to the concept of gifts is a natural one. The Latin root of the word gratitude is grata or gratia—a given gift—and from this same root we get our word grace, which means a gift freely given that is unearned.

Gratitude is a feeling that spontaneously emerges from within. However, it is not simply an emotional response; it is also a choice we make.  We can choose to be grateful, or we can choose to be ungrateful—to take our gifts and blessings for granted.  As a choice, gratitude is an attitude or disposition.  As writer Alexis de Tocqueville once described it, gratitude is “a habit of the heart.” Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, reminds us that “gratefulness is the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as gift.”  M. J. Ryan’s classic book, Attitudes of Gratitude, supports the idea that gratitude is a stance we voluntarily take, and one we can adopt through the difficult seasons of life as well as the good ones. The daily practice of gratitude keeps the heart open regardless of what comes our way.

Gratitude as Virtue

Virtues are qualities that support the inherent goodness that resides within each human being.  Gratitude is both a social and a theological virtue. The Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur’an all cite gratitude as central among virtues. Centuries ago, the philosopher Cicero argued that gratitude is the parent of all virtues, a virtue that begets other virtues. The cultivation of gratitude develops character, the embodiment of desired virtues.  The advice to cultivate character by expanding one’s capacity for gratitude is time-honored wisdom.  The art of maintaining a grateful disposition engenders other virtues such as generosity, humility, compassion, wisdom, joy, integrity, and trust.  This disposition of mindfulness, of being aware of and thankful for our blessings, helps cultivate our virtues and significantly diminishes, or can even eradicate, any obstacles to gratitude we may face.

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