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WEEK 21: Being grateful

See this personal virtue in your life 

Home > #3- Practice > Week 21 – Being grateful

This week, as you continue your habituation plan, you will focus on the virtue of gratitude. This week you will also meet again with your character friend.

Habituation check

Before you engage with the content for this week, take a moment for a habituation check.

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The primacy of gratitude

The Roman philosopher Cicero claimed that gratitude is not only the greatest virtue of all but also the parent of all the others.

‘What is moral gratitude, if not dear sentiment towards our parents? Who are gentlemen and countrymen, if not those that recall the benefits received from the mother land? Who are the virtuous, devoted to the gods, if not those who deserve their grace? What pleasure can there be in life without frienship? And what friendship can there be without gratitude? Who of us, with a noble education, does not bear fond memory of those who educated our souls?  Most surely, it is fitting for man not only to be bond to the benefits he has received, but to express benevolence and approval of their source’ (Pro Plancio Oratio).

This relationship of the virtue of gratitude to other virtues is an important starting point. The virtues, in fact, are connected to each other and no virtue should be studied or cultivated in isolation.  Gratitude is an excellent example, and it has been placed within an ‘allocentric quintet’ or virtues (a set of 5 virtues that put others at the centre of our attention – allos in Greek means others, in contrast with egocentric).  These five virtues are forgiveness, humility, generosity, gratitude and compassion.  These virtues feed and enhance each other so, for example, you will exercise the virtue of forgiveness better as you also cultivate the virtue of generosity to respond to the other’s wrongdoing and the virtue of gratitude for having received forgiveness yourself.

We understand gratitude better when we place it in relationship with the virtue compassion (which you have engaged with in Week 19).  What we see is that the more you are compassionate, putting yourself in the shoes of others, especially those that do good to you, the more you will be grateful. And vice-versa. The more you exercise gratitude, the more you will be a compassionate person. [KK2]  So if your character is wanting in compassion, it might not come as a surprise that gratitude is also an area of weakness in your character.

Why then is gratitude so important?

  1. Gratitude, first of all, is good for others, and it has been shown to reinforce social bonds, and make for better communities. Gratitude is considered a core virtue that is needed to address the challenges of society today. And this is not a new consideration. Already Confucian philosophy considered gratitude as a fundamental virtue to maintain social harmony and good relationships.
  2. But gratitude is also good for you.  Studies have, in fact, demonstrated that those that are grateful enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing, satisfaction of life and better mental health overall.   In his Letters to Lucilius, Seneca writes that ‘showing gratitude is a greater good for yourself than for others… if evil makes unhappy and virtue leads to happiness, and being grateful is a virtue, then in gratitude you have something of infinite worth that is born of an extraordinary and lucky soul’.

Incidentally, for those who cultivate a religious faith, gratitude is also an essential element of faith.  St. Augustine, for example, considered gratitude as the appropriate Christian response to the love and grace of God, in consideration of life and eternal life as a gift. It is not accidental that the term ‘eucharist’ that describes a core Christian liturgical practice, derives from the Greek term ‘giving thanks’.  The same emphasis on gratitude to the divine can be found in other religions as well.  In Islam, for example, the practice of daily prayer encourages believers to express gratitude to Allah five times a day for his goodness, and the pillar of fasting is meant to reposition the believer in a state of gratitude.

Is the virtue of gratitude in your character?

So what about your own character? Are you a grateful person?  Take a few moments to ask yourself the following probing questions:

  • Do you see yourself as recipient of gifts from source beyond yourself?
  • Do you spend more time complaining about what you don’t have than being grateful for what  you do have?
  • Do you remember favours received or do you take them for granted?
  • How often do you say thank you?
  • Do you have a demanding spirit of always wanting more from those around you?
  • Do you have feelings of deep respect towards those that have helped, guided and cared for you?
  • Do others consider you as an appreciative person?

Gratitude can be expressed in your character at different levels of maturity.  At at basic level you may be grateful for benefits that are self-oriented (e.g., you are thankful for your parents who pay for your university) . At higher levels there is gratitude for benefits beyond immediate individual gain, such as inspirational behaviour of other people (e.g., you are thankful for fire-fighters who risk their lives to save others).  At a deeper level, we normally observe a sense of gratitude for people and relationships that comes before gratitude for material items.

Do a brief test.  When was the last time you said thank you?  What was it for and who was it to?

The opposing vices

To have the virtue of gratitude is to be disposed not just to be grateful, but to be grateful in the right ways, to the right people, for the right things (R.Roberts). [JA2]

The virtue of gratitude can go wrong when it is not expressed in the right ways, for example, when going overboard to say thank you toward a superior is a matter of external politeness and false netiquette with no underlying sense of true gratitude.

The virtue of gratitude can go wrong either when it is not expressed to the right people (e.g. your parents) or when it is expressed to the wrong people (e.g. those who have treated you wrongly with whom the virtue of justice or forgiveness may be more appropriate).

The virtue of gratitude can go wrong when it not expressed for the right things. For example, when gratitude is associated with sheer obligation, indebtedness or guilt.

An example of gratitude

Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations begins what a long list of what we may consider ‘a letter of gratitude’ in which the emperor lists all the people who have loved, inspired and shaped him: his parents, grandparents, mentors, teachers, friends… As he does so, he makes it clear that if we do not celebrate those that have contributed to what we are, there will be little left of ourself.

In Marcus Aurelius’ list, the longest expression of gratitude goes to his father. Here are some excerpts:

I learned from my father gentleness and undeviating constancy in judgments formed after due reflection; not to be puffed up with glory as men understand it; to be laborious and assiduous.

He taught me to give ready hearing to any man who offered anything tending to the common good; to mete out impartial justice to every one; to apprehend rightly when severity and when clemency should be used; to abstain from all impure lusts; and to use humanity towards all men. Thus he left his friends at liberty to sup with him or not, to go abroad with him or not, exactly as they inclined; and they found him still the same if some urgent business had prevented them from obeying his commands.

I learned of him accuracy and patience in council, for he never quitted an enquiry satisfied with first impressions. I observed his zeal to retain his friends without being fickle or over fond; his contentment in every condition; his cheerfulness; his forethought about very distant events; his unostentatious attention to the smallest details; his restraint of all popular applause and flattery…

As to the things which make the ease of life, and which fortune can supply in such abundance, he used them without pride, and yet with all freedom: enjoyed them without affectation when they were present, and when absent he found no want of them…

His manners were easy, his conversation delightful, but not cloying. He took regular but moderate care of his body, neither as one over fond of life or of the adornment of his person, nor as one who despised these things. Thus, through his own care, he seldom needed any medicines, whether salves or potions. It was his special merit to yield without envy to any who had acquired any special faculty, as either eloquence, or learning in the Law, in ancient customs, or the like; and he aided such men strenuously, so that every one of them might be regarded and esteemed for his special excellence.

He observed carefully the ancient customs of his forefathers, and preserved, without appearance of affectation, the ways of his native land. He was not fickle and capricious, and loved not change of place or employment. After his violent fits of headache he would return fresh and vigorous to his wonted affairs. Of secrets he had few, and these seldom, and such only as concerned public matters. He displayed discretion and moderation in exhibiting shows for the entertainment of the people, in his public works, in largesses and the like; and in all those things he acted like one who regarded only what was right and becoming in the things themselves, and not the reputation that might follow after.

He never bathed at unseasonable hours, had no vanity in building, was never solicitous either about his food or about the make or colour of his clothes, or about the beauty of his servants. His dress came from Lorium—his villa on the coast—and was of Lanuvian wool for the most part. It is remembered how he used the tax-collector at Tusculum who asked his pardon, and all his behaviour was of a piece with that.

He was far from being inhuman, or implacable, or violent; never doing anything with such keenness that one could say he was sweating about it, in all things he reasoned distinctly, as one at leisure, calmly, regularly, resolutely, and consistently… To be strong in abstinence and temperate in enjoyment, to be sober in both—these are qualities of a man of perfect and invincible soul. [MA]

In an age where we have learned to be critical of our parents and to think of them in terms of their shortfalls and our traumas, this expression of praise and gratitude is revolutionary.  Confucius has also focused on particular value are gratitude as expressed towards one’s parents and prececessors.

If you were asked to write an expression of gratitude to your father, what would you write?

One small act of gratitude

As with every virtue, try to practice on small act related to the virtue of gratitude this week.

Engage your character friend

This week you should plan to meet with your friend for a fourth time. Here is a suggested outline for your time together:

  1. Give account of your habituation plan.
  2. Talk about the virtue of gratitude that you have considered it this week.  Read together out loud the words of Marcus Aurelius to his father and share with each other why you are grateful for your own fathers (imperfect as they be).  Then share why you are grateful for each other as friends.
  3. Ask your character friend for feedback on gratefulness in your own character.  How would they rank you? Where might they see areas of improvement?

Additional resources

  • Reflections from the Christian Scriptures on the story of the Nine ungrateful lepers
  • Read more about an empirical study on the relationship between compassion and gratitude in Gratitude and Related Character Virtues. In general, the Jubilee Centre offers focused research resources related to the virtue of gratitude.
  • Read more about  how virtues can be clustered into larger groups in the Jubilee Centre’s virtue taxonomy (p.9) that includes four categories: intellectual virtues, moral virtues, civic virtues and performance virtues.  Or consider the VIA classification which suggests six overarching virtue strengths: wisdom/ knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

You are working on phase #3 – Practice.  Here is the next activity > Week 22 – Being passionate

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