Decency is not transactional…
Again, by your leave, I’m going to deviate from my usual diet of politics and such and focus on a topic that is more personal, more intimate, yet just as important as (community-based or partisan) politics: gratitude. As I look around today’s political landscape, I see more enmity than friendliness. This is as true among Democrats as among Republicans. Sadder still are instances where someone who has helped another person in a significant manner regarding an important matter is turned on by the person who was helped. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe that gratitude should be the rule rather than the exception.
Theological-Psychological aspects of Gratitude…
Gratitude is a broad term and needs some elaboration. In general terms, there are two kinds of gratitude. One has a theological aspect as well as a psychological aspect. The theological aspect entails giving thanks to God for what we have, i.e., family, good friends, health, having the financial means to support our families, etc., as well as gratefulness for the wonders and beauty of nature, which brings one closer to God and to the Divine Plan. This aspect of gratitude is a central tenet of all major religions – e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. And Christianity maintains that beyond being grateful for temporal blessings, we should be thankful to God for the spiritual blessings bestowed on us, principally the gift of salvation via Jesus Christ.
On the secular side, psychologists and the mental health folks report that being grateful for family, good friends, health, having the financial means to support our families, etc. stimulates a slew of physical- and mental-health benefits. Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people. Grateful people sleep better. Gratitude reduces many harmful emotions – envy, resentment, frustration, regret – and increases happiness and reduces depression. Gratitude reduces aggression while enhancing empathy. Grateful people are more likely to behave in an altruistic manner, even when others around them behave less kindly. Gratitude improves self-esteem and helps people appreciate other people’s accomplishments. Recognizing all that you have to be thankful for —even during trying times—fosters resilience and increases mental strength. Research indicates that gratitude not only reduces stress, it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. (Amy Morin, 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude, Psychology Today, April 03, 2015)
The deepest craving of human nature…
Then there is the everyday, people-to-people kind of gratitude – gratefulness to people who have done us a service of some kind. The principle of thanking other people for their acts of kindness, gifts, and love toward us is also something that religions promote. Whether one is religious or not, it is generally considered good to acknowledge the efforts of others on one’s behalf and to demonstrate our gratitude. In my estimation, this simple virtue is not practiced often enough. How many times have we felt grateful to someone who did us a service but for whatever reason did not express it?
Now, as a rule, people don’t do good deeds – lend a helping hand to someone in need, provide an ear to someone who needs to talk something out, help someone get a job or get into grad school or other program, etc. – with the expectation of being rewarded. Good deed practitioners do what they do because it is right to do, because they genuinely want to help. Often, they are manifesting their upbringing and/or their religious beliefs. In essence, people help others as an act of decency, and decency is not a transactional, quid-pro-quo, matter.
Still and all, deep down, I believe people like to feel appreciated, to feel respected. And respect is at the heart of this aspect of gratitude. To acknowledge someone for having helped you is to accord that person respect, the greatest payback one can give. As psychologist and philosopher William James once noted, “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.”
Gratitude foments well-being and pays forward…
Public health professional Najma Khorrami summarizes research that addresses the health and other benefits of gratitude. Gratitude increases dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. These are key neurotransmitters that give us feelings of contentment. The more we express, or practice, gratitude, the stronger the happiness-producing neural pathways become, similar to how exercise strengthens the body. Gratitude promotes optimism, which leads to greater well-being. University-based research (University of California, Davis; University of Miami) indicates that study participants reported feeling more optimistic about their lives after regularly expressing gratitude. In turn, in a recent Harvard University study, optimism has been shown to be a life-lengthening trait. Another study found that overall well-being seems to be influenced by optimism, which can be strengthened by gratitude.
Expressing gratitude strengthens relationships and can produce an ‘upward spiral,’ a sort of positive feedback loop, in which strong relationships give you something to be grateful for, which in turn fortifies those very same relationships. A Harvard study found that the prime predictor of health and happiness in a person’s life is the quality of his/her relationships. Recipients of gratitude are likely to pay it forward. For receiving appreciation makes us feel loved, which can inspire us to initiate more positive and helpful actions toward others. (Najma Khorrami, 4 Science-Backed Reasons Gratitude Brings You Happiness, SUCCESS, July 16, 2017) Khorrami has also written on how gratitude can and does strengthen relationships. The key aspect of those dynamics is that recipients of gratitude feel genuinely valued and appreciated. (Najma Khorrami, M.P.H., Gratitude Helps Strengthen How We Make Others Feel, Psychology Today, January 03, 2021)
Let’s do some boomeranging…
In these days, bombarded as we are by the horrible effects of the coronavirus pandemic and of the lies, racism, and calls to insurrection of Donald Trump and his minions, anything that can lift our spirits, that can help us and others feel good is, or should be, welcomed. Showing gratitude (and conveying our respect) to those who have helped us – in tangible or intangible ways – is a simple but meaningful way to inject some positivity into our lives. For while the parent of gratitude – decency – is not transactional in nature, it does have a boomerang effect: what you send out comes back, sometimes ten-fold.
Maybe now that we’re homebound and have time on our hands, we can start putting together a boomerang list. I’m sure we all have people in our lives to whom we owe gratitude. It’s never too late to bring some sunshine into their lives. c/s
Copyright by Salomon Baldenegro. Praying hands by Albert Durer in public domain. All other images copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. To contact Sal Baldenegro write: firstname.lastname@example.org