Most of us associate gratitude with saying “thank you” to someone who has helped us or given us a gift. From a scientific perspective, gratitude is not just an action. Gratitude is a positive emotion, which is really important because it serves a purpose
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It has been defined by many people throughout history. Having different definitions for a word is not inherently wrong, but, as a science that has to have measure effects, positive psychology defines gratitude it in a way that shows that the effects of gratitude can be measured.
Positive psychologists contend that gratitude is more than feeling thankful for something, it is more like a deeper appreciation for someone (or something,) which produces longer lasting positivity.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, gratitude is simply “the state of being grateful”. That does not tell us much about what gratitude means within psychology and positive psychology, though.
A more helpful definition comes from the Harvard Medical School, which says that gratitude is:
“a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power”
That gives us a better idea of what gratitude means in the context of psychology, but surely we can deepen our understanding with a few more definitions. One idea comes from Psychiatry researchers, who define gratitude as:
“the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation” (Sansone & Sansone, 2010).
Another definition of gratitude that comes from researchers is:
“an emotion that is typically evoked when one receives costly, unexpected, and intentionally rendered benefits, and is thought to play a key role in regulating the initiation and maintenance of social relationships” (Forster et al., 2017).
Another simple definition of gratitude that comes from psychology research is:
“a social emotion that signals our recognition of the things others have done for us” (Fox et al., 2015).
This definition is important because it brings a social element into the definition of gratitude.What is Gratitude? 10 Definitions
The social aspect of gratitude is referenced in another definition which comes from a theologian, who says:
“if we acquire a good through exchange, effort or achievement, or by right, then we don’t typically feel gratitude. Gratitude is an emotion we feel in response to receiving something good which is undeserved” (Lacewing, 2016).
Another definition of gratitude emphasizing its social aspect comes from social psychology researchers, who claim that:
“gratitude is a positively valenced emotion that can arise when another person – a benefactor – does something kind for the self (Algoe et al., 2016).
One psychologist that deals with moral issues claims that:
“gratitude is not goods delivered in response to payment. It is a response to a gift … Gratitude, as a response to a gift, is also a form of generosity, of graciously crediting the other for something that was not strictly owed” (Roberts, 1991).
A great source that might help us understand further is Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on gratitude in psychology. Emmons says that gratitude:
“has been conceptualized as an emotion, a virtue, a moral sentiment, a motive, a coping response, a skill, and an attitude. It is all of these and more. Minimally, gratitude is an emotional response to a gift. It is the appreciation felt after one has been the beneficiary of an altruistic act” (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000).
Emmons defines gratitude in another paper in a slightly different manner. He (and his coauthor Robin Stern) say that:
“gratitude has a dual meaning: a worldly one and a transcendent one. In its worldly sense, gratitude is a feeling that occurs in interpersonal exchanges when one person acknowledges receiving a valuable benefit from another. Gratitude is a cognitive-affective state that is typically associated with the perception that one has received a personal benefit that was not intentionally sought after, deserved, or earned but rather because of the good intentions of another person” (Emmons & Stern, 2013).
We should have enough definitions of gratitude at this point to understand what it means in a psychological, social, and religious context. Gratitude is a positive emotion that is felt after being the beneficiary of some sort of gift. It is a social emotion that is often directed towards a person (the giver of a gift), though it is also often felt towards a higher power. Gratitude is often felt when a gift is not necessarily deserved, or when the gift was not given in some sort of reciprocal sense. The social aspect of gratitude should be clear from these definitions.