Thanksgiving Part 1 – Is Gratitude a Feeling or a Virtue?

Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity to illustrate one of the central themes of my books – that our emotions are sensations that tell us about the presence or absence of virtues in our lives.

In The Secret of Emotions, I present a list of words.  Here are just a few of them: Enthusiasm, Faith, Forgiveness, Friendship, Generosity, Gentleness, Grace, Gratitude.

Look at them closely.  These words represent both virtues and emotions.  How can that be?  It appears that when we experience virtues, they generate strong emotions, and when we feel strong emotions, we are motivated to practice the corresponding virtues.

The correlation between emotions and virtues is strong, yet subtle.  One of the best ways to illustrate it is by considering the virtue of gratitude, or thankfulness.

When we were children many of us were forced to write thank-you notes to friends and relatives for gifts that we weren’t really grateful for.  As adults, we have maintained the habit of saying “thank you” for even small favors as a way of showing courtesy.  When we say “thank you” as a courtesy, we often don’t feel any sensations of gratitude because we are not really grateful, we are simply being polite.

But think of a time when you truly were grateful – when someone went beyond the call of duty and did something extra special for you.  Can you remember that feeling?  That sense of, “this is so wonderful, I really can’t thank you enough!” There is a sensation there, isn’t there?  That sensation is the emotion of gratitude, and it is generated by the virtue of being grateful for one of the many gifts you have received in your life.

Gratitude the virtue is something we can learn, develop and practice.  Gratitude the feeling is something we can ignore, numb, and minimize, or we can celebrate it, cultivate it, and express it every chance we get.

The Thanksgiving season is a good time to think about our relationship to gratitude.  For all of the many times we say “thank you” how often do we really allow ourselves to feel the sensation of gratitude?  If we don’t feel it, then are we really practicing the virtue, or just giving it lip service?  Does it matter?

Here is my favorite quotation on the subject:

“Thankfulness is of various kinds. There is a verbal thanksgiving which is confined to a mere utterance of gratitude. This is of no importance because perchance the tongue may give thanks while the heart is unaware of it. Many who offer thanks to God are of this type, their spirits and hearts unconscious of thanksgiving. This is mere usage, just as when we meet, receive a gift and say thank you, speaking the words without significance. One may say thank you a thousand times while the heart remains thankless, ungrateful. Therefore, mere verbal thanksgiving is without effect. But real thankfulness is a cordial giving of thanks from the heart. When man in response to the favors of God manifests susceptibilities of conscience, the heart is happy, the spirit is exhilarated. These spiritual susceptibilities are ideal thanksgiving.”         ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

According to this, it does make a difference whether we simply utter our thanks, or actually feel it – and one of the differences is that true thankfulness will make the heart happy.  That is something worth thinking about as we enter Thanksgiving week.

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