Is Gratitude Queen of the Virtues?

Gratitude is about more than personal happiness.
image: Getty
September 18, 2012

Editors' Note: Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher, participated in the comments section when this essay originally appeared on our site, but the comments are now closed. We invite you to like our Facebook page and post your thoughts there. Also, discover more of his thoughts on gratitude in this essay, "What Must We Overcome as a Culture or as Individuals for Gratitude to Flourish?

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?         Related Questions What Must We Overcome as a Culture or as Individuals For Gratitude to Flourish? Can Virtuous Habits Be Cultivated?

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?