Is Gratitude Queen of the Virtues?

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Consider these recent headlines: “Want to be Happier? Be More Grateful,”  “The Formula for Happiness: Gratitude Plays a Part,” “Teaching Gratitude, Bringing Happiness to Children,” and my personal favorite “Key to Happiness is Gratitude, and Men May be Locked Out.”

Buoyed by research findings from the field of positive psychology, the happiness industry is alive and flourishing in America. Each of these headlines includes the explicit assumption that gratitude should be part of any 12-step, 30-day, or 10-key program to develop happiness. But how does this bear on the question toward which this essay is directed? Is gratitude queen of the virtues? In modern times gratitude has become untethered from its moral moorings and collectively, we are worse off because of this. When the Roman philosopher Cicero stated that gratitude was the queen of the virtues, he most assuredly did not mean that gratitude was merely a stepping-stone toward personal happiness. Gratitude is a morally complex disposition, and reducing this virtue to a technique or strategy to improve one’s mood is to do it an injustice.

Even restricting gratitude to an inner feeling is insufficient. In the history of ideas, gratitude is considered an action (returning a favor) that is not only virtuous in and of itself, but valuable to society. To reciprocate is the right thing to do. “There is no duty more indispensable that that of returning a kindness” wrote Cicero in a book whose title translates “On Duties.” Cicero’s contemporary, Seneca, maintained that “He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.”  Neither believed that the emotion felt in a person returning a favor was particularly crucial. Conversely, across time, ingratitude has been treated as a serious vice, a greater vice than gratitude is a virtue. Ingratitude is the “essence of vileness,” wrote the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant while David Hume opined that ingratitude is “the most horrible and unnatural crime that a person is capable of committing.”

Findings from the Science of Gratitude

Gratitude does matter for happiness. As someone who for the past decade has contributed to the scientific literature on gratitude and well-being, I would certainly grant that.  The tools and techniques of modern science have been brought to bear on understanding the nature of gratitude and why it is important for human flourishing more generally. From childhood to old age, accumulating evidence documents the wide array of psychological, physical, and relational benefits associated with gratitude.  Yet I have come to the realization that by taking a “gratitude lite” approach we have cheapened gratitude. Gratitude is important not only because it helps people feel good, but also because it inspires them to do good. Gratitude heals, energizes, and transforms lives in a myriad of ways consistent with the notion that virtue is both its own reward and produces other rewards.

To give a flavor of these research findings, dispositional gratitude has been found to be positively associated qualities such as empathy, forgiveness, and the willingness to help others.  For example, people who rated themselves as having a grateful disposition perceived themselves as having more prosocial characteristics, expressed by their empathetic behavior, and emotional support for friends within the last month.  When people report feeling grateful, thankful, and appreciative in studies of daily experience, they also feel more loving, forgiving, joyful, and enthusiastic. Notably, the family, friends, partners and others that surround them consistently report that people who practice gratitude are viewed as more helpful, more outgoing, more optimistic, and more trustworthy.

On a larger level, gratitude is the adhesive that binds members of society together. Gratitude is the “moral memory of mankind” wrote noted sociologist Georg Simmel. One just needs to try to imagine human relationships existing without gratitude. Adam Smith believed that gratitude was essential to a free society, inspiring people to care for one another without coercion, incentives, or governmental intrusion. For Smith, gratitude was a foundational component of the moral capital needed if a society was to flourish. Modern research has shown the virtue of gratitude is not only a firewall of protection against such corruption of relation­ships; it contri­butes positively to friendship and civility, because it is both benevolent (wishing the benefactor well) and just (giving the bene­factor his due, in a certain special way).   Gratitude also mitigates toxic emotions and states and curbs antisocial impulses. Recent research corroborates insights from the moralists. George Mason University psychologist Todd Kashdan and his colleagues found that gratitude lowered levels of aggressive responding indicated that gratitude inhibits destructive interpersonal behavior.

Cicero, Smith, Simmel and the other moralists knew long ago what modern social science is now demonstrating. Gratitude takes us outside ourselves where we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships, relationships that are mutually reciprocal. In this sense, it, like other social emotions, functions to help regulate relationships, solidifying and strengthening them.  Herein lies the energizing and motivating quality to gratitude. It is a positive state of mind that gives rise to the “passing on of the gift” through positive action. As such, gratitude serves as a key link in the dynamic between receiving and giving. It is not only a response to kindnesses received, but it is also a motivator of future benevolent actions on the part of the recipient.

Cultivating Gratitude

Despite all of the benefits that living a grateful life can bring, gratitude can be effortful.  It does not necessarily come easily or naturally. Grateful behaviors and thoughts, along with their numerous benefits, often remain theoretical concepts, which are transient and unpredictable experiences in the majority of people’s lives. A growing number of social commentators contend that gratitude is a diminishing virtue in modern times and that we are less grateful than in other historical periods.  A spirit of ingratitude corrodes human relationships and becomes epidemic within a culture when entitlements and rights are prioritized over duties and obligations, laments Senior Fellow Roger Scruton of the American Enterprise Institute. Is it any wonder then, that the biggest fear that parents now have for their children is a sense of entitlement and the resentment produced when life fails to deliver what their children think they are entitled to?

Gratitude, at least initially, requires mental discipline. This is the paradox of gratitude: while the evidence is clear that cultivating gratitude, in our life and in our attitude to life, allows us to flourish, it is difficult. Developing and sustaining a grateful outlook on life is easier said than done.  A number of evidence based-strategies, including self-guided journaling, reflective thinking, and letter writing and gratitude visits have shown to be effective in creating sustainable gratefulness.

At the core of all of these practices, however diverse, is memory. Gratitude is about remembering.  If there is a crisis of gratitude in contemporary life as some have claimed, it is because we are collectively forgetful. We have lost a strong sense of gratitude about the freedoms we enjoy, a lack of gratitude towards those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom, and a lack of gratitude for all the material advantages we have.  On the other hand, grateful people draw upon positive memories of being the recipients of benevolence, a giftedness that is neither earned nor deserved. This is why religious traditions are able to so effectively cultivate gratitude—litanies of remembrance encourage gratitude, and religions do litanies very well. The scriptures, sayings, and, and sacraments of faith traditions inculcate gratefulness by drawing believers into a remembered relationship with a Supreme Being and with members of their faith community. A French proverb states that gratitude is the memory of the heart—it is the way that the heart remembers. The memory of the heart includes the memory of those we are dependent on just as the forgetfulness of dependence is unwillingness or inability to remember the benefits provided by others. Do you want to be a grateful person? Then remember to remember.


Through the ages, the virtue of gratitude has played a central role in debates over the nature of human nature. Yet outside of happiness, gratitude’s benefits are rarely discussed these days; indeed, in contemporary American society, we’ve come to overlook, dismiss, or even disparage the significance of gratitude as a virtue.  Expressions of gratitude to God by athletes and other public figures are met with cynicism. How can modern social science research on gratitude inform decisions on the perennial ethical questions of how one should act and what type of person should one be? Is gratitude vital to living the good life?  How encouraging would it be to begin seeing the headlines such as: “Gratitude Powers a Sense of Purpose,” “More Grateful Teens Less Likely to be Depressed, Delinquent,” “Gratitude Leads to Generous Giving,” and “Gratitude Works! How Gratitude Prompts Corporate Social Responsibility.” Research along these lines is underway, but much more is needed.  Only then will modern research catch up with the timeless insights of the ancient moralists.

Questions to consider in the discussion:

  1. Are we currently experiencing a crisis in gratitude in this country? If so, why, and what would be a remedy?
  2. Is there room for gratitude in an entitlement society where rights and demands are prioritized over gifts and responsibilities?
  3. How can leaders, policy makers and other persons of influence provide ways to counter a societal spirit of ingratitude to make more room for this virtue? Should they?

Discussion Summary

What does it mean to say that gratitude is the queen of the virtues? In support of this assertion I offered emerging empirical evidence documenting that gratitude is essential for human flourishing.  In retrospect I acknowledge that creating this evidentiary base may have been insufficient to make my case.

Therefore, let me frame the discussion somewhat differently in this summary by making two central points. First, I assert that gratitude is the truest approach to life and therefore qualifies it as the most basic of the virtues. Second, I propose that gratitude is the queen of the virtues because its opposite, ingratitude, is the king of the vices.

Gratitude as the Truest Approach to Life

There is a basic reality about gratitude. We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. If we are lucky, in between we have roughly 60 years or so of unacknowledged dependency. The human condition is such that throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people. And we are aware of this dependence. Moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has referred to humans as “dependent rational animals.”  To be alive is to be in relationships with others, relationships that are vital to our well-being. Gratitude takes us outside ourselves where we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships, relationships that are mutually reciprocal.

Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness. As such, we are called to gratitude. If we choose to ignore this basic truth, we steer ourselves off course.

So gratitude is essential if we are to truly understand ourselves. In some respects this is a profoundly counter-cultural idea. Modern psychology has placed great emphasis upon individual autonomy and self-sufficiency. Gratitude requires, however, that we affirm our dependency on others and recognize that we need to receive that which we cannot provide for ourselves. Until this dependence is acknowledged, gratitude remains a potentiality at best.

Ingratitude is the King of the Vices

Ingratitude is a vice that represents a profound moral failure, a defect of character. In his texts, Shakespeare uses the terms ‘ingrate’, ‘ingrateful’, and ‘ingratitude’ some 40 times, often modified by the adjectives ‘monstrous’, ‘hideous’, or ‘grotesque.’  Where gratitude is appropriate, even mandatory, being ungrateful is a sign or symptom of lack of socialization, whether the inability to appreciate what others have done for you or, worse, the grudging resentment of one’s own vulnerability and the refusal to admit one’s debt to others.

Why is ingratitude such a profound moral failure? The principle of reciprocity, upon which human societies are based, states that one has an obligation to help others who have helped us, while at the same time not harming others who have helped us. Directing ingratitude toward our benefactor is a way of inflicting harm upon that person. The moral rule underlying reciprocity is violated when one is not grateful for the benefit received. While occasionally each of us respond to a benefit in a manner which may be interpreted as an ungrateful response by our benefactor, there is clearly a psychological disturbance in the personality that habitually responds to benefits with indifference, resentment, or ingratitude. This is a flagrant violation of natural law.

Violations of this type elicit what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has called moral disgust.  Moral disgust is triggered by actions that reveal an absence of normal human decency, actions like ingratitude that show the lower, darker, and more “monstrous” side of human nature. Haidt argues that moral disgust makes people shun those that trigger it. It certainly tends to be the case that we are motivated to avoid people who are ungrateful, and this shunning contributes to their self-centered misery.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said that “no other vice is so hostile to the harmony of the human race as ingratitude.”   Thanklessness is never virtuous, and to me, qualifies it as king of the vices.

I offer the following Two New Big Questions for reflection and discussion:

1. During the 2012 Presidential campaign President Obama made waves in his now infamous comment “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.”  What are the implications of this statement for the proper place of gratitude in civic society? What is the connection between gratitude and self-reliance?  Does gratitude toward the government minimize the role of individual entrepreneurship and achievement? Does encouraging gratitude lead to a reliance on entitlements and destroy incentives for individual accomplishments?

2. One might take exception to the notion that “gratitude works” or “pays off.”  In this line of thinking, gratitude is a virtue because of its intrinsic nobility or worthwhileness, not because of its utility in producing benefits for the user. Yet we know humans desire to be happy, and many, if not most decisions in life revolve around what will produce the greatest long-term happiness. If happiness is not the ultimate motivation for practicing gratitude, how do we encourage people to pursue it?  In other words, why be grateful?

3 Responses

  1. Lime says:

    This whole essay is valuative in subject matter and thus while it may entertain it  contains no  true  or false  empirical matters to accept or reject ; just enjoy or reject for the fun of it.

  2. Christian Miller says:

    Professor Emmons,

    Thank you for your excellent essay. I really enjoyed it a lot, and agree with most everything you say. I remain very interested in the title question, and was not sure what you own view is. I guess a lot will hinge upon what “queen” means here. I assume the question, more literally, is whether gratitude is in some sense the “fundamental” or “foundational” or “supreme” virtue.

    But this invites the question – supreme for what? For happiness? While gratitude might make a signficant contribution to happiness, it seems that other virtues would too like generosity and love and hope. Or is gratitude supreme in that it is in some way prior to having all the other virtues? But traditionallly practical wisdom was thougth to play this role. Furthermore, it seems like you could have some virtues without having gratittude, such as the virtue of courage.

    So I would be interested in hearing more about what the question means in the first place, and also about what you think is the correct answer.

    Thank you again for the great contribution.

    • Robert Emmons says:

      Thank you very much for your thought-provoking comments and for calling me on the fact that I did not give a simple or direct answer to the question at the center of the essay! As for what is more basic and foundational, we can debate that all day long and the answer may depend upon one’s worldview. Is unlimited love is the supreme virtue, or wisdom, or any one of a number of others? As a research scientist, I take a different tack and examine relevant empirical findings.

      We can answer this question with three domains of evidence: (a) gratitude does lead to happiness, better health, overall well-being, and other indicators of flourishing in life in a manner that is causal and not merely correlative; (b) as a moral motive, gratitude leads people to act out of concern for others, primarily by increase generosity and altruism, and (c) Gratitude mitigates toxic emotions and curbs antisocial impulses.  The German moral philosopher Balduin Schwarz identified the problem when he said “the ungrateful, envious, complaining man…cripples himself. He is focused on what he has not, particularly on that which somebody else has or seems to have, and by that he tends to poison his world.”  In empirical research on human strengths, gratitude consistently emerges as one of the strongest predictors of various indicators of human flourishing. Gratitude has clearly been linked to positive social outcomes, including empathy, generosity, voluntarism, compassion, forgivingness and the provision of social support. Indeed, grateful people tend to be helpful people. Gratitude does appear to play a unique role in the human moral apparatus in that it is both a response to the benevolence of others but also generates benevolent actions on the part of the receiver. As an integral element of moral character, gratitude is an open and receptive stance toward the world that energizes a person to return the goodness they have received. Gratitude’s intrinsic function is to affirm the good in life, embrace that good, and then transform the good in purposeful actions to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.