Like the quality of mercy, gratitude blesses both those that give and those that receive. It animates our moral sense, which Charles Darwin said is a sentiment ”originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men”. That sense vibrates with approbation in every touch of gratitude.

But it seems that in our over-stimulated society we find little time to feel it and less to express it. The squeeze of unmerciful time is not the only culprit; the sense of entitlement and complacency born of safety and affluence is even more harmful. Entitlement smothers the sentiment and complacency distracts from its need. Too often their baleful tendencies relegate it to a minor role to be worth a cue only when the drama lags, or when politeness requires a throw away line. Does that matter? I think it does.

What is gratitude? Its Oxford dictionary definition of “the quality of being thankful and readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” can be applied on several levels. We rightly express thanks for a job well done and a business, professional or social transaction satisfactorily carried out. And civility is usefully oiled with frequent thank yous. All these are worthwhile, certainly to be encouraged, but gratitude can also live in a deeper place. That’s where I wish to concentrate.

At that level gratitude rises in response to a benefit received that’s undeserved and where the benefactor doesn’t expect any return. It’s the type of benefit mentioned by Seneca in his essay On Benefits. “It matters not what is done or given, but with what attitude, since the benefit consists not in what is done or given but rather in the intention of the giver.”

It may seem counterintuitive but not everyone perceives value in gratitude. Stalin sniffed “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.” Aristotle didn’t include it in his list of virtues for he saw its character of being indebted as demeaning since it implies an acknowledgement of inferiority. Some intellectuals, like La Rochefoucauld, were skeptical about its application, sneering that in many instances it merely covers a secret desire to obtain more favours in the future.

Stalin’s cynicism can be dismissed as the flippant excuse of a sociopath, but the views of the others need examination. Gratitude is certainly a recognition of indebtedness and that can indeed imply a sort of inferiority.

Yet, acknowledgement of inferiority doesn’t have to be perceived as humiliating. In one vital case it clearly isn’t. Since before history, humankind has stood in awe and wonder before a higher power and shown reverence by giving thanks for benefits bestowed, particularly life itself. There, feelings of indebtedness and accompanying inferiority transcend their common form and become humility, a loveable quality that elevates, not depreciates value in a human being. In that state, acceptance of inferiority lies not in an indebtedness indicating superiority of one human being over another but rather in a recognition that each one of us is but a very small part of the whole. That has no sting for it applies to all of us equally, and the fact of our puniness is manifestly true. This perception is as relevant today as ever; it applies as much in a secular as a religious society for the higher power can be present either as a personal God or an impersonal force such as nature.

From this source of expressing gratitude we’re encouraged to amplify its realm to include our fellow human beings, in a form that retains the virtue of humility, the quality that dissolves shame.

And so, unlike Aristotle, I consider the indebtedness of gratitude as wholesome, not demeaning. It floats above the ordinary character of debt and connects the beneficiary to the benefactor in a bond that enriches the spirit of both, even beyond the value of what is given. At that level a deep sense of wellbeing arises and no loneliness exists. A type of unity is born, like the unity implied in certain languages that have the same word for host and guest. Classical Greek does and so does French.

Seneca has virtually all philosophers (not Aristotle) in agreement when he states, “There is as much greatness of mind in acknowledging a good turn as in doing it.” And Aesop, one of the most perspicacious observers of human nature, said, “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.” He implies that such a soul is above even considering whether gratitude’s indebtedness is demeaning.

I don’t consider myself a noble soul but whenever I feel grateful, and that needs to be often because, like most of us in our society to day, I have much to be grateful for, I see my indebtedness in a positive light, like a second benefit.

Along with many others I had a teacher in high school who had an enormous influence on me. In fact, although neither of us knew it at the time, his influence would be life –changing for me. His name was Mr. Cook and he was a teacher of classical Greek. He was not a large man nor of charismatic personality but quiet and calm, not particularly noticeable, but kind. When I was in Middle School I decided that I wanted to learn Greek, but though I had taken Latin, I had no Greek. I went to Mr. Cook and asked him whether he would let me join his class. Without hesitation, saying only that he expected me to study, he agreed, even though I was a year behind. He went further than that. On his own time, after class he tutored me until I caught up. There was no expectation of payment or even thanks, nothing. It was really not part of his job; he just did it out of natural generosity.

Over the next years until I was ready to take the final Ontario- wide exams Mr. Cook was a constant inspiration to me. He made me love the subject, even to the point where I actually studied.

In those days there were no student loans, let alone free tuition for helping students to go to university. You either had to pay the fees, which put most families out of contention including mine, or win a scholarship. There weren’t many of those and all were competitive at the provincial level. I fervently wanted to go to the University of Toronto but I knew that a scholarship was my only hope and a forlorn one at that.

As it turned out I was lucky. With Mr. Cook’s tuition and encouragement I was able to win the Duke of Wellington prize in Classics, which paid my way through university. I feel I’ve never owed anyone more than Mr. Cook, other than my family. Without the selfless benefit he bestowed on me I would’ve left education at the door of my high school. The gratitude I’ve felt over the years makes me appreciate even more what he did for me and his intention in doing it. Ever since, I’ve been well disposed towards teachers.

I don’t know how many people express gratitude out of desire for more favours, as La Rochefoucauld claims. There must be some, for hypocrisy drips its poison over a wide plain.  But that doesn’t rule out the existence of gratitude; it merely defines away what may seem gratitude but is really specious.

Gratitude is a positive emotion, arising when we receive a benefit we know we don’t deserve. It stimulates feelings of harmony and internal balance, and reminds us that the benefit giving rise to it indicates we’re valued and have much value in life. But it’s also a moral sentiment – fostering prosocial behavior. It’s largely responsible for initiating and maintaining desirable social relationships. Sometimes the natural empathy it engages can even lead into the terrain of altruism.

The human psyche is so infused with it that Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others.” And Seneca, his astute fellow Stoic, underlined its virtue by condemning its opposite – “it is no surprise that among the large number of extremely grave vices, none is more common than those stemming from an ungrateful mind.”

As a Renaissance figure profoundly influenced by the Stoics, Shakespeare was in accord with this when he put in the mouth of the Third Citizen in Coriolanus, “Ingratitude is monstrous”. For the Bard, a monster is a creature, sometimes human, that’s unnatural, contrary to nature, a condition particularly abhorred by the Stoics.

While the grateful attitude perceives benefits as undeserved, alongside it another attitude has grown up with a different perspective. In contemporary society many people are led to believe they’re so worthy, so “awesome”, that they deserve any benefit they receive; they’re entitled to it. The two attitudes are completely incompatible. Feeling grateful for something to which one is entitled is impossible. It’s not that ingratitude is actually favoured by those who feel entitled; it’s that there’s no room for gratitude, largely because its essential quality of humility is absent. In their egos the space is too cramped for it.

Being unable to feel gratitude for receiving a benefit has a cost – the sensibility to appreciation is adversely affected.  Appreciation, in the meaning of recognizing the quality, value or significance of something, is an essential part of enjoying it. Enjoyment can be nullified by taking things for granted, an outlook that arises from the sense of entitlement. Without appreciation the perceived nature of a benefit received is belittled, in extreme cases virtually ceasing to exist; in either case enjoyment is blighted. Nevertheless, even though those who feel entitled show this tendency, sometimes they actually do appreciate what they receive. However that form of appreciation is anemic; it’s unnourished by the juices of gratitude, which create the energy necessary to lift it to a state where the highest enjoyment resides.

The dictionary definition of gratitude is underlined by its Latin origin, ‘gratus’, which also means ‘pleasing’. Gratitude is truly one of the most pleasing of emotions. Perhaps as such it has an evolutionary role. It encourages people to link together in relationships that not only promote peace but also encourage the giving of mutual help in the face of threats to survival. Can you want to hurt someone to whom you feel grateful, or not want to help? The answer to those questions is linked to trust, the great social adhesive.

Feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Also, like anti depressant medication, gratitude increases circulatory levels of the neuro-transmitter, serotonin. The result is a positive effect on general health – improvement in sleep, lower fatigue and increased cardiac function. Part of the effect is an increased sense of wellbeing.

The gratitude- inducing neuro- transmitters play an important role in reducing allostatic load (bad stress), a rising threat to health these days for it’s a leading cause of depression. Causing the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex to shrink, bad stress can result in reducing memory and cognitive functions. It can also increase free-floating anxiety through abnormal growth in the amygdala. Other factors release helpful neuro-transmitters too, but gratitude is among the most valuable.

Gratitude is one of the commonest emotions, indeed so common that until recently psychologists have shown little interest in examining it. But now they do. Studies have shown that regions in the medial pre-frontal cortex are activated when participants report grateful feelings. This area is associated with empathy and feelings of stress relief. In their book, The Psychology of Gratitude, Emmons and McCullough point to grateful people scoring high on agreeableness and forgiveness and low on narcissism and envy. They too are more likely to be optimistic, tending to find good in bad circumstances. In addition, concentration on what we can be grateful for diminishes feelings of resentment and envy, also regret, disappointment and frustration. These findings tend to accord with what Seneca opined centuries ago, “A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”

Gratitude has a transcendent quality. It encourages people to connect with something larger than themselves; in some cases it can be scaled up to apply to another nation. Once, I saw this occur first hand.

One of my Sigma Chi fraternity brothers at the University of Toronto was Ken Taylor. I remember staying up late one night in the fraternity house talking with him, as first-year students often do, about adjusting to university life and our futures. I could not have known that much later Ken, as Canadian Ambassador to Iran, would shoot to international fame for his actions during the Iranian revolution of 1979.

In November, fanatical Iranian students invaded the American Embassy and kidnapped fifty-two Americans, holding them as hostages. In the riot, six others managed to escape and found their way to the Canadian Embassy. Ken and his wife took them into their house and hid them for several weeks. At that time, the fury of the revolutionaries in Teheran was so intense that the Taylors would have been murdered if what they were doing were discovered.

Ken not only hid the six but he provided important intelligence to the American authorities and eventually arranged for their escape, procuring Canadian passports and cover for them in a visiting Canadian film crew set up for the purpose.

After the hostage crisis was resolved and Ken’s actions were revealed, a rush of gratitude spilled across the Canadian border in radio and TV programs. Not for a day but every day for weeks, sometimes scaling the ladder of hyperbole. The North American neighbours, while generally well disposed towards each other, display a certain coolness, even testiness at times. But not then. Gratitude swept across the whole border, 6400 kilometres long, like the warm Chinook wind that blows from the Continent’s North-West in the middle of the winter, melting ice and tempting flowers to bloom. Canadians felt honoured that gratitude was so effusively expressed and Americans felt good about expressing it. For an important moment, millions of people sensed a human feedback loop arise that bound them together in an embrace of unity, a spiritual flash of permanence in a world of change.

There, gratitude showed its essence – an act of thanks for a benefit bestowed not necessarily deserved, earned or sought after. Ken Taylor didn’t have to take the enormous personal risk he did. No one asked him to do it, nor did he expect any recompense. He just did it because he was a good man. Americans responded to that with warmth. And both nations were drawn together. Entitlement didn’t get a look in.

To stop the venom of entitlement dividing us, reducing our resilience to adversity and stealing our joy we need the antidote of gratitude. It links us together, transcends expectations and gives vent to feelings far superior to the dull acceptance of what’s deserved, particularly when that’s often not actually deserved at all but only thought to be. But as in human tissue, it needs exercise, and that requires time. Perhaps the rising interest in the subject from science and psychology will encourage people to believe that its obvious utility is worth the effort.


Tony Grey