Passing on the gift of gratitude

I'm sometimes grumpier when I stay at a nice hotel. I have certain expectations about the service that's going to be provided.

I get impatient if I have to crawl around looking for a power outlet, if shower controls are unfathomable, if the place thinks itself too fancy to put a coffee machine in each room.

I'm sometimes happier at a budget motel, where my expectations are lower, and where a functioning iron is a bonus and the waffle maker in the breakfast area is a treat. This little phenomenon shows how powerfully expectations structure our moods and emotions, none more so than the beautiful emotion of gratitude.

Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved. Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart after some surprising kindness.

Most people feel grateful some of the time - after someone saves them from a mistake or brings them food during an illness. But some seem grateful dispositionally. They seem thankful almost all the time.

These people might have big ambitions, but they have preserved small anticipations.

As most people get on in life and gain greater status, they often grow used to being shown more respect and getting nicer treatment. But people with dispositional gratitude take nothing for granted.

They take a beginner's thrill at a word of praise, at another's good performance or at each sunny day. They are present-minded and hyper-responsive. This kind of dispositional gratitude is worth dissecting because it induces a mentality that stands in counterbalance to the mainstream threads of our culture today.

We live in a capitalist meritocracy, which encourages people to be self-sufficient. But those with dispositional gratitude are hyper-aware of their continual dependence on other people.

They treasure the way they have been fashioned by parents, friends and ancestors, who were in some ways their superiors. They're glad the ideal of individual autonomy is an illusion because, if they were relying on themselves, they would be much worse off.

The basic logic of the capitalist meritocracy is that you get what you pay for, that you earn what you deserve. But people with dispositional gratitude are continually struck by the fact that they are given far more than they pay for - and that they are much richer than they deserve. Their families, schools and summer camps put far more into them than they give back.

There's a lot of surplus goodness in daily life that can't be explained by the logic of equal exchange.

Capitalism encourages us to see human beings as self-interested, utility-maximising creatures. But people with grateful dispositions are attuned to the gift economy, where people are motivated by sympathy as well as self-interest.

In the gift economy, intention matters. We are grateful to people who tried to do us favours, even when those favours did not work out. In the gift economy, imaginative empathy matters.

We are grateful because some people showed that they care about us more than we thought they did. We are grateful when others take an imaginative leap and put themselves in our mind, even with no benefit to themselves.

Gratitude is also a form of social glue. In the capitalist economy, debt is to be repaid to the lender. But a debt of gratitude is repaid forward, to another person who also does not deserve it. In this way, each gift ripples outwards and yokes together circles of people in bonds of affection.

This serves to remind us that a society isn't just a contract based on mutual benefit, but an organic connection based on natural sympathy - connections that are nurtured not by self-interest, but by loyalty and service.

If you think that human nature is good and powerful, then you go around frustrated because the perfect society has not yet been achieved. But if you go through life believing that our reason is not that great, our individual skills are not that impressive, and our goodness is severely mottled, then you are sort of amazed that life has managed to be as sweet as it is.

You are grateful for all the institutions that our ancestors gave us, like the Constitution and our customs, which shape us to be better than we would be otherwise. Appreciation becomes the first political virtue, and the need to perfect the gifts of others is the first political task.

We live in a capitalist meritocracy that encourages individualism and utilitarianism, ambition and pride. But this society would fall apart if not for another economy - one in which gifts surpass expectations, in which insufficiency is acknowledged and dependence is celebrated.

Gratitude is the ability to see and appreciate this other, almost magical, economy.

English philosopher G.K. Chesterton wrote that "thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder".

People who have grateful dispositions see their efforts grandly - but not themselves. Life might not surpass their dreams - but it does nicely surpass their expectations.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2015, with the headline 'Passing on the gift of gratitude'. Subscribe