Something Freely Given

On the Nature of Gratitude

The simple habit of saying “thank you,” and the notion of gratitude that underlies it, can be a key to understanding many of the basic assumptions, preferences, and needs of Western culture. Yet most people think surprisingly little about gratitude, unless they are in the middle of experiencing it intensely, or until they feel seriously hurt by other people's failure to be grateful when they should be.

We often express dismay at an apparent drop in the “standards” of gratitude in society as a whole (people have always tended to complain that gratitude seems to be dying out). But it continues to be a common virtue; otherwise, our society would show far worse signs of disintegration than it does. Ingratitude is excoriated today, as it always has been. And gratitude remains an omnipresent knitter-up of the fabric of modern life. We are rarely grateful enough for it.

In the early twentieth century the German sociologist Georg Simmel claimed that gratitude is what in fact holds all of society together. He called it “the moral memory of mankind.” When I decided to try to answer questions about thankfulness arising from my own observations, I found myself agreeing with Simmel that gratitude is of inestimable importance to all of society. I would go further and claim that it also contributes to the spiritual well-being of every person, but especially of those who are thankful—in the true meaning of the word. These days we have a new take on gratitude, and the...

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About the Author

Margaret Visser is the author of several books, including The Way We Are and The Geometry of Love.