When something (anything of value) is taken from us (or any kind of harm is caused) by someone, we automatically feel some level of anger toward that someone. Conversely, when something (anything of value) is given to us (or any kind of aid is provided) by someone, we automatically feel some level of gratitude toward that someone.
Anger motivates a desire to exact retribution (seek compensation for the loss), and gratitude motivates a desire to express reciprocity (provide compensation for the gain). In neural terms, these emotional responses gear our actions & behavior toward equally opposite poles. Anger makes our behavior toward its target both more guarded & hostile, and gratitude makes our behavior toward its target more open & cooperative.
If we were allowed to choose between a world full of people who are guarded & hostile or a world populated by open & cooperative individuals, the choice seems fairly obvious, right? Well, we can choose. By expressing gratitude & giving others reasons to express gratitude, we can spread throughout our society exactly the kind of openness & cooperative spirit that we so often purport to seek.
But in our 21st-century culture of rampant “fulness,” one of those “fulnesses” is becoming un-usefully intertwined with genuine gratitude: gratefulness. These days, right after they remind you to be mindful, they usually suggest that you wash it down with a big swig of grateful.
And even though the terms are generally considered synonymous, the true emotional, neural expression gratitude is not the same thing as the mindful, new age expression of gratefulness. First, consider one simple difference: we talk about “being” grateful, but one cannot “be” gratitude. We express gratitude. In other words, gratefulness suggests a state of being and gratitude suggests an actual response—a change in behavior toward someone or an act of reciprocity.
Not that there’s anything wrong with aiming for a “grateful state of being,” but neurally speaking, that state doesn’t impact our behavior towards others in those powerful & purposeful ways that true gratitude is designed to do.
The Difference Between To & For
In the end, when we talk about being grateful we’re usually just listing stuff that we’re happy about. We’re not grateful to someone, we’re grateful for something. We’re grateful for our fun-filled lives, for our healthy families, for our wonderful communities, for our beautiful bike ride to work, for the chance to work with such great people, for that awesome local organic marketplace, ad infinatum.
These are ultimately all things to that we’re generally thanking the universe for (or God, if that’s how you roll). And although this can certainly result in some broadly-targeted neural gratitude toward that universe (or that community or workplace or deity), such a widely-dispersed or broadly-applied neural response simply isn’t likely to be nearly as behaviorally-impactful as targeting specific gratitude for a specific act toward a specific entity.
That’s why our brains evolved to feel gratitude in the first place: to target specifically-directed openness, cooperativeness & reciprocity in response to a specific act of giving or aid by a specific entity.
All emotions (positive & negative) have a clearly-defined, survival-advantageous purpose. Gratitude’s evolved purpose is to strengthen emotional & social bonds between individuals who might be helpful to each other in the future—to increase trust, openness, and willingness to share, aid or cooperate.
In essence, gratitude provides our minds with a very basic, but very useful equation for shaping future behavior: trust, help & cooperate with individuals who have given you something of value or provided aid. As human history has demonstrated again & again, successful societies are founded upon & grown via strong alliances. Determining who to cooperate with & learning who can be trusted to help—being able to bond with other humans—are some of our species’ most-vital survival skills.
Thus, abundant gratitude across all different cross-sections of communities is one of the most-necessary building blocks for a functional & stable society. And those fundamental societal benefits that gratitude provides are not the same benefits provided by that mindful gratefulness for something that you’re simply glad about.
Gratefulness is essentially neurally equivalent to happiness—which is a wonderful & purposeful emotion in its own right. Basically, happiness is our emotional response to “resource abundance,” and it motivates a greater willingness to expend or invest those resources, to engage openly & take risks.
But the big difference between happiness & gratitude: happiness isn’t directly targeted toward other people, and it isn’t specifically designed to strengthen trust-enhancing bonds with other individuals. As we’ve often mentioned about its polar pairing, anger—gratitude requires a target, someone who has been identified as responsible for the value gain or aid.
Happiness says to your brain: things are good, let’s enjoy it & make use of it & do new stuff with the good things! Gratitude says to your brain: we really needed that thing that they gave or did, let’s do something nice for them & maybe we’ll keep helping each other when we’re in need. Do you see the difference? I’m grateful for. I’m thankful to.
The Powers Of Gratitude (aka, True Thankfulness)
The targeting of gratitude toward others is what gives the emotion its capacity to establish & strengthen cooperative relationships between people within a community. This is why gratitude is a more powerful social & communal tool than gratefulness.
And this power to be an agent of social change is enhanced by gratitude’s reciprocal nature. Basically, if the emotion is functioning smoothly & achieving its intended result (i.e., it’s not being strongly inhibited by other competing emotions or behavioral triggers) then it engenders an ongoing cycle giving & reciprocal giving that continues to reinforce bonding, trust & future cooperation between the involved parties.*
In addition, because emotions like anger & gratitude are automatically generated, they also have the power to strengthen or change our overall feelings toward others—feelings like animosity (the roots of hate) and affection (the roots of love). In other words, even if we love someone, when they do something to harm us we still automatically feel some anger toward them. And if they harm us enough over time, our ever-piling anger & pain might cause us to actually stop loving them.
Conversely, even if we hate someone, when they do something to genuinely help us (and we suspect no malicious intent) we will still automatically feel some gratitude toward them. And if they help us enough over time, our ever-piling gratitude & gains might cause us to actually stop hating them.
The capacity to turn enemies into allies. The ability to change guardedness & hostility into openness & cooperation. Growing love from the soil of animosity. Building lifelong bonds of trust & affection. These are the powers of gratitude.
Of course, all emotions (even the “positive” ones) contain hidden risks within their intended-to-be-useful wiring. For example, the “resource abundance” that triggers happiness & its resource-expending behavior—sometimes we perceive an abundance that’s actually false, or we miscalculate the abundance (or our enthusiasm) and over-expend in the short term, leading to problems in the long term.
The risk in being overly “gratitude-prone” is that misplaced gratitude (resulting from wrongly-identifying the giver, or wrongly-perceiving the giver’s motives) can lead to misplaced trust, which can obviously have harmful results. In other words, even in a gratitude-filled world, some people are always going to be snakes—they’ll take credit for things they didn’t do, or they’ll do nice stuff just so they can do worse stuff later.
Those of us who are more prone to the openness of gratitude are also undoubtedly at greater risk of being victimized by the snakes. Years ago, my own grandfather—in his late 80s & living alone after moving his wife into a nursing home—was befriended by a young woman in the community who began helping him around the house & taking him to lunch. He expressed his gratitude by loaning her ever-increasing sums of money for concocted problems. Soon after, she & the funds disappeared.
It is depressing, but it happens. Gratitude is often seeded to exact subsequent cruelties. But more often, it is not. More often, gratitude is truly what it was built to be: a kind response to a kind act, a charge of emotion that helps build the foundation for future acts of kindness. Ultimately, the benefits of gratitude are worth the risk.
Being grateful is great, and we should all be grateful for all kinds of things this Thanksgiving—happiness is delicious & potent stuff. But seeking targets for our gratitude, reciprocating kindness with kindness, that’s how to genuinely spread the “holiday spirit” throughout our communities.
Follow the lead of your anger or gratitude—the choices are yours. One way or the other, reciprocity makes the world go ‘round.
* Another primary emotion (detailed on this chart) that contributes to the cycle of giving—an emotion that might even motivate you to share with or aid a total stranger—is generosity. To explore more about the differences between gratitude & generosity, read Narrative Complexity’s essay on emotions.