What is gratitude? Different cultures, faiths, and even moments in history regard the importance being thankful in varying degrees. Do scientific viewpoints explain gratitude or make us more puzzled? What gratitude definition can we hold as truth today?
Let’s begin with the Dictionary Gratitude Definition.
The definition of gratitude in Oxford Languages is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”
It’s interesting that this gratitude definition includes 3 parts:
- feeling thankful
- expressing appreciation
- a readiness to reciprocate in kindness
The Origin of the Word “Gratitude” in English
Merriam Webster Dictionary tracks the first time the word gratitude was used in English to 1523, the late Middle English period.
“Gratitude” Trends in Print
Oxford Languages tracks the mentions of gratitude in print (and internet) from 1800 to 2019.
“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.”Jean-Baptiste Massieu (1743 – 1818) French bishop politically active during the French Revolution
Those who lived in Medieval times, when the word was created in English, & the Victorian era (1837-1901) were more grateful than we are now with all our technology, easier “labor” and healthier & longer lives. But there was a fast decline. Why would that be?
By the end of the Victorian Era, families were frustrated with the “doctrine of separate spheres” where men belonged to the “public sphere” and women belonged to the “private sphere”. Three-fourths or more of the population were working class and couldn’t live on the man’s wages, so women were required to work – leaving children to fend for each other unless they worked too.
“With the earliest phases of industrialization over by about 1840, the British economy expanded. Britain became the richest country in the world, but many people worked long hours in harsh conditions.” Britannica
The 1840s were called “the hungry 40s”, a difficult time for the poor and working class. But it was a time of relative prosperity for the upper class who enjoyed shopping in the new-fangled department stores & even seaside vacations.
When life for the masses becomes difficult, when the poor can openly see the difference in their lifestyle from the rich (who aren’t sitting in castles & manors waiting to be served any longer), and belief systems are challenged by life issues, scientific discovery and the new “discipline of psychology”, gratitude becomes more difficult.
When people feel deprived, that there is too much injustice in the world, and life has become a burden, discussion about gratitude falls in a steep decline.
How was Gratitude defined in Ancient history?
Gratitude has deep historical and cultural roots across civilizations and traditions long before the word turned up in the English language in 1523.
Ancient Egyptians: They held rituals to express gratitude to their gods and goddesses for sustenance, safety, and life after death.
Ancient Greeks and Romans: Philosophers such as Cicero and Seneca regarded gratitude as essential for moral and societal well-being. Cicero once said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.”
“A grateful mind is a great mind, which eventually attracts itself to great things.”Plato, Greek Philosopher in the Classical Period (423 – 348 BC)
Christianity: The Bible emphasizes the importance of gratitude through prayers, hymns, and psalms. Thankfulness and expressing gratitude to God for His blessings and sacrificing His Son to rescue humanity is a central theme.
Islam: Gratitude (or “Shukr” in Arabic) is highly valued. Muslims believe that being grateful to Allah is a key component of faith. The Qur’an emphasizes the importance of gratitude.
Hinduism: Expression of gratitude toward deities, the earth, and fellow beings are embedded in rituals and scriptures. Certain festivals, like Pongal to thank the Sun, Mother Nature and farm animals that contribute to a bountiful harvest, are ways to express gratitude for abundance.
Festivals like Thanksgiving in the US and Canada, Chuseok in Korea, and Mid-Autumn Festival in China and Singapore, are also centered on giving thanks for the harvest and the blessings of the past year.
Buddhism: Gratitude is an essential practice, especially in recognizing and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things. It is seen as a way to counteract greed and selfishness.
Judaism: The Hebrew term “hoda’ah” means giving thanks or gratitude. Jewish prayers, rituals, and festivals like Passover emphasize gratitude which is considered the most basic of attitudes toward God.
Native American traditions: Many Native American tribes hold ceremonies and festivals to express gratitude for the earth’s bounty, for rain, and for harvest. The act of giving thanks is also a daily practice.
African cultures: Gratitude is deeply integrated into many African societies, both in daily life and in special ceremonies.
Confucianism: Gratitude, especially toward one’s parents and ancestors, is a vital virtue. It’s about recognizing and repaying the kindness one receives.
Taoism: Harmonizing with the natural way of things (the Tao) involves recognizing and appreciating life’s simple blessings.
So, What is Gratitude to the Ancients?
Gratitude was a universally acknowledged virtue throughout history, transcending geographical, cultural, and religious boundaries.
“A virtue is a trait of excellence, including traits that may be moral, social, or intellectual. The cultivation and refinement of virtue is held to be the “good of humanity” and thus is valued as an end purpose of life or a foundational principle of being.” Wikipedia
The expression and practice of gratitude might differ from time period and culture, but its essence remains consistent. Gratitude is a “purpose”, a “foundational virtue” that’s the parent of all other virtues. That sounds pretty darned important. But what about today?
The Scientific Gratitude Definition
Dr. Robert A. Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, offers this 3-part gratitude definition in his Greater Good essay for the University of California, Berkley:
- We affirm that there is good in life, benefits that we have received.
- We recognize that the the manufacturers & givers of our benefits are sources outside ourselves – all the big & little things that are the goodness of our lives.
- We show appreciation to God or a higher power if we’re spiritual, and other people through whom the benefits have come to us, or pay that kindness forward.
This is the scientific definition that today’s philosophers, researchers and scientists use. It’s similar to the Oxford dictionary definition of gratitude that we started with, isn’t it?
Dr. Emmons states, “I think one of the reasons we see the positive effects of gratitude is because you have a different orientation for looking at oneself, looking at other people, and looking at the world – a positive triad that, in general, leads to more functional, positive outcomes.”
What is Gratitude Today?
Besides defining gratitude, Dr. Emmon (and many scientists after him or with him) made scientific discoveries that prove the importance of gratitude that the ancients inherently believed.
Gratitude still sounds important today! We want all these things. So: how do we cultivate gratitude in our lives in the modern world?