GRATITUDE: THE MOST OVERLOOKED VIRTUE

by michael on November 29, 2011

I am a lucky fellow. I think about my good fortune more intensely, with greater probity, this time of the year. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for many reasons, but perhaps the paramount reason is that the holiday causes me to reflect on how lucky I am to be born and raised in this country, at this time in history. I’ve done a reasonable amount of travel around the world. I can justify my assertion that I am lucky to be here at this time.

This season also reminds me of another reason that I am also fortunate, blessed and lucky. I had open heart surgery on December 21, 1989. It all turned out okay. I’m still here and I am glad, although the extra time on the planet has run up some additional bills.

In essence, I am drenched in gratitude. In my book I wrote about several virtues such as Compassion, Courage, Character and Competence. I wrote that inherent in the virtue of moral character is humility, and critical to humility is gratitude. Being thankful. Understanding that one’s good fortune is not an entitlement or someone else’s obligation to you but rather a gift of grace. Gratitude is, thus, an expression of the acknowledgement of grace.

A few days ago I read on the National Review Online blog an article by Rich Lowry titled A World of Gifts.

http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/284061/world-gifts-rich-lowry

Mr. Lowry’s subtitle was “Gratitude Is Central.” So it is. I quote a few key paragraphs:

Eventually social science works its way around to confirming eternal verities. So it is with gratitude.

An article in a psychological journal a few years ago noted that “throughout history, religious, theological and philosophical treatises have viewed gratitude as integral to well-being.” Psychology has recently worked to quantify the wisdom of the ages and confirmed — sure enough — it was correct.

A raft of recent research has established that grateful people are happier people. They are less depressed and less stressed. They are less likely to envy others and more likely to want to share. They even sleep better. As the journal article put it, empirical work “has suggested gratitude is as strongly correlated with well-being as are other positive traits, and has suggested that this relationship is causal.”

Gratitude has long been a neglected quality. A decade or so ago, the Encyclopedia of Human Emotions didn’t include it. (For that matter, neither did Bill Bennett’s affirmatively traditional The Book of Virtues.) As the New York Times reported back in 1998, “Psychologists rarely think much about what makes people happy. They focus on what makes them sad, on what makes them anxious.” They were more likely to study, in other words, the miseries of a Woody Allen than the wellsprings of joy.

Gratitude constitutes what philosopher David Hume called a “calm passion.” It doesn’t have the theatrical potential of anger and hatred, or courage and sacrifice. Nonetheless, there’s a reason it has been considered central to the good life and a good society by all major religions and by thinkers stretching from Cicero (“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others”) to Oprah (“Whenever you can’t think of something to be grateful for, remember your breath”).

Gratitude acknowledges our dependence on others and the debt we owe because of it. Grateful people want, somehow, to return the favor of their undeserved windfall. It is a sentiment that, in the jargon, is “pro-social.” A leading figure in its study, Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, maintains that it binds us to others beyond the ties of family and of commercial transactions.

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In the classic essay “I, Pencil,” Leonard Read writes an account of the production of a pencil from the point of view of the pencil. The bottom line is that no one person could ever know enough to produce it alone: “Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.” If that’s true of the humble pencil, how much more so does it hold for our civilization?

Without gratitude, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, “We are left with the numbing, benumbing thought that we owe nothing to Plato and Aristotle, nothing to the prophets who wrote the Bible, nothing to the generations who fought for freedoms activated in the Bill of Rights.” He called for “a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us.”

John Adams captured the grateful attitude when he acknowledged the hardships of this vale of tears while celebrating it all the same (if in anachronistic language): “Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.”

 For two decades I have tried to inspire my young students to ponder the good fortune in their lives and to exhibit a sense of gratitude. Gratitude builds character, humility and a sense of proportion; a sense of fairness. But, it appears it is an overlooked virtue. Let’s keep working at inculcating it.

More later.

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