On the Sincerity of Gratitude

What does it mean to say thank you?

1,800 slips of paper, folded into double-edged triangular pieces and slotted together concentrically, tilted at varying angles to give depth and filled with a variety of enduring origami flowers, is how I say thank you to those who wrote a recommendation letter on my behalf.

I’m not sure how else to express the sincerity of my gratitude without an extravagant action like this. As I creased each edge, I wondered about my motivations and noted the sensations of gratitude. What, exactly, was the purpose of this action? __ Prepositional gratitude, or to be grateful to x, for y, is an “interpersonal phenomenon.” Last night, we considered this distinct from appreciation; Merriam-Webster defines grateful as ‘appreciative of the benefits received,’ although the definition of thankfulness, or ‘concious of the benefits received’ better represents our understanding of gratitude.

To explore this, it’s helpful analyze what gratitude feels like and expressing that feeling separately. We’ll start with the former.

That is, a sense of gratitude is an extension of awareness, or more specifically, the knowledge of the significance of what has been given. The extent that we feel grateful is determined by our attention and ability to empathize. Within these outer boundaries, the actual sensation of gratitude seems to be affected by a host of contextual factors.

I can trace the sensation throughout my chest. It tightens from the top of my stomach, up through the inner side of my heart, fading out along the collarbone. It begins again at the diagonal from the nape of my neck to the bridge of my nose. Tingling just under the surface of my scalp, almost creating a feeling that my brain was replaced with an opaque spherical object, impenetrable to thoughts: empty, solid space.

The feeling, of course, changes as I cycle through things that I presumably should feel grateful for: my parents, computers, books, air conditioning, indoor plumbing. Previous emotional experiences with the thought-object intensify the sensation. I’m now unconvinced that I feel grateful for tools like air conditioning; rather, I need to imagine the lives that were dedicated to creating the groundwork for these innovations, the repetitive years building components at factories. What did that feel like? What were their dreams and worries? Perhaps I need to revise the definition in the beginning of the essay further: I am not only conscious of the benefits received, but also inclined to somehow return the favor, regarding deliberate actions by others.

It’s unclear to me how my values affect gratitude. Arguably, I place a premium on actions that offer larger perceived benefits than others. It’s a more intense feeling of gratitude for a person who gives me a book than a movie, even though both take the same amount of effort. The emotional weight attached to the movie by the giver may be greater, yet it’s more difficult for me to empathize with this relationship and appreciate its significance.

I shared last night that I considered gratitude to be a feeling of indebtedness, or a sort of imbalance in a relationship. This lens places a larger emphasis on the interpersonal nature of gratitude that framing it as an extension of awareness. It also, however, lends itself to a transactional tint. I think it’s necessary to use this view to explain some of the motivations behind expressing gratitude.

Discussing expressions of gratitude is confusing, frankly. I suppose we could say say two spectrums exist: internally or externally motivated, and sincerely or insincerely expressed.

Internal motivation arises from being concious of the benefits received, whereas external motivation is socially determined or expected. Bring to mind thanking someone for the food on your table or for holding the door open or passing you the salt. It requires low effort and has little value. Yet a thank you is socially expected, despite the negligable utility of such an action. This type of expression is also frequently insincere: it has happened so many times it loses meaning.

A internally-motivated sincere expression of gratitude occurs upon reflection, I imagine. How, though, do we demonstrate sincerity? It somehow has to satisfy the internal need to balance out the sense of gratitude as well as provide an equal level of perceived value to the other person.

Yet are both categories of expression selfish? If being given a gift creates an emotional imbalance, expressing gratitude is merely a method to even out the emotional debt that now exists. We will not owe them anything after saying thank you. This seems preferable to remaining in debt to someone else. It’s possible that demonstrating gratitude increases the chance that they will repeat the gesture; at the very least, it is a signal of what you value.

A few sources from the week: http://www.econtalk.org/a-j-jacobs-on-thanks-a-thousand/ https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/gratitude https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/gratitude/definition https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/gratitude/#ConMat

Written on December 7, 2018