I don’t know about you, but ever since I was a little kid I’ve hated writing thank-you notes. They seem like a colossal waste of time, a social convention that rarely benefits anyone. Recently, this made me wonder: What is the virtue of thankfulness, or gratitude, in general? I mean, to be thankful is to respond appropriately to someone’s giving you something, for example to your parents for putting up the cash to send you to Yale. Certainly people often deserve a degree of thanks, and perhaps we make others feel good when we express our appreciation, genuine or otherwise. But once we’ve discharged our duty of thanks — e.g., written the thank-you card to Aunt Judy for the sweater she gave us for Christmas — gratitude doesn’t seem to do much in our personal lives to rank alongside the great human virtues like love, justice and forgiveness.
But a friend of mine thinks differently. He’s suggested that thankfulness is not just an occasional spontaneous feeling, nor a dutiful response to enact, but a discipline, an attitude, a way of life that we can choose to live. And when we live this way, he says, we will become better people. I believe my friend is right, and I’ve thought of several ways that gratitude can transform our lives for the better.
First, it’s worth emphasizing that gratitude is just plain good for our sanity. Consider the alternative: Without gratitude we tend to grumble when we don’t get what we want. When we do get what we want, we rarely are satisfied, ignoring what we have in search of something better. A lack of gratitude creates discontent.
Even if we are appreciative, we still fail to be truly thankful if we proudly take all the credit for what we have. This is why the opposite of pride, humility, is such a key component of thankfulness. Humility isn’t always considered a virtue: A lot of people today, certainly at Yale, think that the way to a successful life is to constantly “believe in” and promote ourselves. Yale has told us repeatedly that we’re “the best of the best,” because we outdo our peers.
But if we are humble, we’ll realize how dependent we are on help from the outside. For instance, just to get to Yale, you and I were dependent on countless fortunate circumstances, from having loving parents who valued education to our admissions officers being in good moods when they read our applications. As I see it, humility, and the gratitude that follows, isn’t a sign of weakness, but an accurate view of our place in the universe. Gratitude is good for us because it acknowledges our finitude, focusing on who we are and what we have. When we believe ourselves to be greater than we are or deserving of what we do not have, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
This brings us to a second, and more controversial, way that I believe thankfulness can transform us: Gratitude implies human dependence on something, or someone, higher. Thankfulness points us to theism. It involves being not merely thankful for something, but also thankful to the giver of that good thing.
And so often when our hearts overflow with thanksgiving — for the beauty of the natural world, for the sweetness of late-night conversations with close friends, for the return to health of a sick loved one — we want to express more than just that we approve of our present circumstances because they benefit us; rather, gratitude suggests the inherent goodness of what we have experienced. But without a god or some kind of spiritual reality, the “good” things in life have no objective value, order or purpose. Can I really be thankful to the blind physical laws that by chance served to aid me this time, when these laws have no concern whatsoever for my life and in the future are just as likely to work against me? I believe the answer is no. True gratitude insists that the world does have objective value, order and purpose, as it calls for a response of praise to a giver for something that would otherwise be random and meaningless.
Lastly, I think gratitude can make us better people by motivating us to serve others. If we understand the good things in our lives as unearned gifts, we will be more likely to give generously of our time and resources to people around us. And though anyone can respond to a gift by giving back to the giver, theists have far greater reason to give to needy people who have given them nothing, since they view everything in their lives as grace from God. God has been so generous to us; how can we refrain from generosity toward others? To the degree that Christians and other theists fail to live lives of service and generosity, we do so to our shame.
Yale Students for Christ is currently running a promotion called “Thankful Me” to get people thinking about these issues. Part of what we’re doing is service: a clothing drive organized through the colleges, where the donated clothing of Yalies will go to help the homeless. We also hope that, as Yale returns home for Thanksgiving, we will count our blessings and respond by serving our families. But beyond this holiday, we hope that Yalies will be encouraged to live lives of gratitude year-round. And perhaps, by reflecting on the good things we’ve received, some of us will consider the possibility that behind the gifts is a divine giver.
Peter Forrest is a 2005 graduate of Yale College and an associate c