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Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others – Cicero (106–43 B.C.)

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman orator, asked the gods to bestow on him every virtue but then realized that he needed only one: gratitude.

I ask my media ethics students to show gratitude as a means for them to come into greater contact with their conscience, the moral center of their value systems.

This article shares the results of this “Gratitude Experience” assignment meant to elicit happiness at the start of our first face-to-face classroom in 1 ½ years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we shall see, the virtuous byproduct of gratitude is happiness. First, though, we should document philosophically the status of gratitude in the pantheon of ethical values.

For centuries, philosophers have touted the effects of gratitude on our psyches. Yet, we seldom acknowledge gratitude, even to loved ones, friends and mentors. Why is that?

Many of us believe that our accomplishments are due to hard work, progress, and upward mobility. As one philosopher puts it, “Restlessness is the precondition of progress. Nothing should be good enough for very long. The idea of being content with what we have and who we are has come to feel strange and dangerous. At best, gratitude appears like the consolation prize – the loser’s counsel.”

Students are taught in lessons compounded daily to achieve at ever higher levels. When they fail to do so, many feel stressed.

One study found that college students who failed to achieve goals felt more anxious and depressed. Thus, gratitude is especially important for them because it is the antidote for overemphasis on ambition and success.

Gratitude asks us to slow down, stow away the phones, find a quiet place and discover our deepest emotions.

Gift of Gratitude  

The philosophy of gratitude is as old as the ancients. The Roman stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, also known simply as Seneca, writes that gratitude is a gift that we bestow on ourselves.

In discussing his views, cultural critic Maria Popova notes that “true generosity is not transactional.” In other words, we should not express gratitude to a person simply for the hope of any reward or future good favor in return. Seneca believed the gift is performing “a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes a distinction between “gratitude” and “appreciation” or “gladness:”

“To say that I am grateful that it did not rain on my wedding day, for instance, is just to say that I am glad it did not. To say that I am grateful that my cancer went into remission is just to say I am glad that it did and that I appreciate the extra life and health that state of affairs entails. By contrast, to say I am grateful to a good Samaritan for saving my life implies more than that I am glad.”

As the late American philosopher Robert C. Solomon (1942-2007) writes in The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford Univ. Press), “Gratitude is one of the most neglected emotions and one of the most underestimated of the virtues.” Religious writings focus on gratitude toward God, but secular musings—including works by Aristotle—fail to mention it as a core principle.

According to Solomon, people do not like to think of themselves as indebted: “We would rather see our good fortunes as our own doing (whereas the losses and sufferings are not our fault).” Those who embrace gratitude must acknowledge vulnerability and dependence on others. Nevertheless, he asserts, “gratitude lies at the very heart of ethics. It is more basic, perhaps, than even duty and obligation.”

Jeremy David Engels, associate professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University, researched indebtedness for his book, The Art of Gratitude. Engels found that it was a persistent theme, with people wondering what they owed others for past gifts. Engels turned to the New Testament and found that Christ believed debt, monetary or otherwise, should be forgiven so gratitude may be expressed without obligation.

In contrast, if gratitude ranks as high as Christ, Cicero, Seneca and Solomon believed, then “ingratitude” must rank below “dereliction” and “irresponsibility.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy affirms this with citations by David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Seneca. Hume wrote that “Of all crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude.” Similarly, Kant expressed that ingratitude was “the essence of vileness and wickedness.” Seneca ranked ingrates below thieves and adulterers.

Gratitude also may be a neglected virtue because studies show that some people feel more grateful than others. However, those who fail to show gratitude also may experience fewer incidences of happiness and more of depression.

In “Gratitude – Parent of all virtues,” psychologists note that gratitude “seems to have one of the strongest links with mental health of any personality variable.” In fact, multiple studies attest to this, especially when it comes to happiness.

As Jonathan Haidt notes in The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books), we all have different levels of happiness, based on our biology: “In the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you, good fortune or bad, you will always return to your happiness setpoint—your brain’s default level of happiness—which was determined largely by your genes.”

When we show gratitude, he says, we strengthen our core relationships and experience happiness in the process.

In “Want To Be Happier? Be More Grateful,” Science Daily focuses on an exercise done in 2008 at Kent State University. Researchers recruited students from six courses and asked them to write letters of gratitude to those who had helped shape their lives in a positive manner. They were instructed to write one letter every two weeks over six weeks. After each letter, students completed a survey to assess their moods.

Their happiness levels rose each week after each letter.

Byproducts of Gratitude

Students in Iowa State’s media ethics classes were given an extra credit assignment to test if their happiness levels rose when they expressed gratitude. They were asked to select a beloved or admired person and show gratitude face-to-face or in a telephone call, email, or letter. Students were instructed not to divulge how that person had helped shape their lives but only to report their mood after completing the exercise.

Of the 46 students who completed the assignment, 45 reported enhanced levels of happiness. One person who did not specifically report any effect on happiness nevertheless wrote that he “gained a lot” from the assignment.

In addition to increased happiness, students wrote that the experience had changed or brightened their moods. They felt loved, uplifted, inspired, and thankful. Some spoke about the lasting impact on their psyches and several experienced the rare emotion of joy. The following excerpts illustrate the students’ experiences with of happiness, love and mood (the students cited here gave permission to publish their reports without names):

  • “I felt a sense of clarity and relief after this. Almost as if I do not express thanks enough. It brought me joy. … It was a great way to uplift my spirit and those around me.”
  • “I shared with my best friend and roommate how much they meant to me and how lucky I was to have them in my life. I shared the influence they have had and how much joy they have brought me. It made me feel good seeing them happy. I know they appreciated my words a lot. We hugged, and even afterward, there was a palpable joy in the atmosphere.”
  • “After telling my grandma how much she means to me, I had instant happiness inside of me. Almost like butterflies, it not only me feel so good but her too. It made my heart so full and filled with joy, giving me energy the rest of the day. I thought about it for hours after that and thought to myself: why I don’t do things like that more?”
  • “After telling my mom how much she has impacted my life and how much she means to me I was very touched to see her reaction. I told her in person [and saw] her cry tears of joy [and that] brought me joy.”
  • “It felt so good to be able to tell someone how I felt about them - it definitely increased my happiness! It felt so good that I immediately did the same thing with one of my roommates when I got home. I normally love showing others I’m grateful for them through my actions, but telling them directly through words is a whole other experience. I will definitely be doing it more!”
  • “I was feeling a little stressed. However, just a few minutes of thanking my siblings and speaking to them on the phone changed my mood completely. After the phone calls I took note of how much better I felt. Not only did I feel lighter and happier, but I also felt less stressed and more willing to accomplish my tasks for the day. In short, my happiness increased significantly.”
  • “I talked to my grandparents on the phone and told them how much I loved them and expressed my gratitude. … Love and gratitude have a funny way of going hand-in-hand, and the more we show both the more happiness I think we feel!”
  • “This experience definitely uplifted me and provided me with an abundance of happiness. I will most likely be doing this again on my own time because I feel the people in my life deserve to be told they are important and valued to me.”
  • “After telling someone that I love very much how much they mean to me, I felt a little awkward and vulnerable at first. I realized I always knew I felt those things about them but just assumed that they knew them without me telling them out loud. It turns out they didn’t know I felt that way. … I felt uplifted and happier too. I felt that I could sleep better at night knowing that they knew how I felt about them.”
  • “After my phone call with the person who has influenced me and been there for me the most, I feel amazing. ... It really showed me the power of physically letting someone know that you appreciate them. Their response was so heartwarming, it was contagious.”
  • “Oftentimes, I find myself wanting to tell people in my life how much I appreciate them and am blessed to have them by my side. With that being said, as I have gotten busier with school and work, I have had less time to set aside time to make sure the people in my life feel appreciated. I went out of my way to tell somebody close to me how much their friendship means to me. … This really uplifted my spirits [and] I hope to keep this assignment in mind in the future.”
  • “This experience really put life in perspective for me and re-focused my mind on what is important in life. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the daily difficulties and stressors of life. This experience reminded me that the humans in my life and the relationships I have with them is the most important thing.”
  • “This experience really brightened my entire day because of the way it made [a friend] feel and what it meant to her to hear that. ... Additionally, after I talked to her about her impact on me, I felt empowered to continue to do more to brighten others’ days as well. It truly was a rewarding experience.”
  • “For the gratitude assignment, I contacted my aunt Darlene. … After we hung up, I felt really great and happy and the same feelings carried with me throughout my day. I’m sure my aunt would say the same. My mood was drastically better after the experience and it makes me want to continue to reach out and express gratitude to those in my life more often!”
  • “I decided to tell my best friend how much she means to me, and why I believe she has had a positive impact on my life for the past 10 years. After having this conversation with her, I almost felt a sense of relief. I felt really happy and emotional because telling her why I’m grateful made me reflect on how important she truly is to me.”
  • “I recently reached out to an old classmate/friend of mine who was a big part of my adolescent years. … After telling her what I needed to say and expressing my gratitude we stayed on the phone for about an hour just talking. It was after the call that was I able to reflect and breathe. The feeling afterward was like coming off of an emotional high and it left me in a positive mood for the entire day.”
  • “After having a bad day, I decided to call my dad who doesn’t live near me and who I don’t get to talk to as often. I told him how much he means to and not only did it make him happy, but it brightened my mood. It made me feel so happy to tell someone how important they are and what they mean to me. It reminded me that there are great people in my life and they should be told that more often.”

As these reports illustrate, students who did the assignment made an impactful discovery, not only about gratitude, but also the concommitmant emotions that we too easily dismiss or overlook in our daily skedaddle.  

Parent of All Values

One student from Nigeria gave permission to share her gratitude letter to her parents:

“I don’t even know where to begin.

“I have been sitting in front of my computer all week trying to figure that out. How do I even start to tell you how grateful I am?

“Obviously, I am forever grateful for all the sacrifices you’ve made for me over the years but even more so for the person that I am today. Being a new adult is probably one of the most terrifying experiences but not once have I felt that I couldn’t conquer what needed to be done. I feel secure, strong, confident. I feel that I can leave more good in the world. I am not afraid of a lot of things because I have been able to see you both display enough courage for an entire village.

“I believe that if I am able to have just a crumb of that courage then I don’t have to be afraid of anything. My upbringing has taught me about kindness, compassion, and empathy. Those are all things that seem to be rare today. …

“You have experienced way worse than I could even imagine and yet that has not stopped you from standing up for those who have no voice and protecting those who cannot protect themselves. I hope to be that way too.

“I am grateful for you. That God deemed me worthy of your guidance and love. I hope that someday I will be able to impart the same wisdom to my children and that I never ever forget the things I have learned from you. Thank you for all your bravery, sacrifice, courage, faith, and love.”

This is a powerful example of how the “Gratitude Experience” invited students to explore the deepest echelons of their conscience. In media ethics class, we study kindness, compassion, empathy, influence, guidance, courage, sacrifice, faith, love, and community. The above letter references that. Of course, so did other excerpts from the assignment, and together they all set an upbeat tone for our face-to-face sessions.

Exploring gratitude does more than spark happiness. It teaches students where to locate their conscience, how to listen to and communicate with it, share its epiphanies, and apply its tenets as journalists and practitioners.

What better vehicle to do that than by showing—and sharing—gratitude?

  • Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University, is author of Living Media Ethics (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press).