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Gratitude is more than simple sentiment; it is the motivation that can save the world

AP Photo/David Goldman
Pay it forward.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As my regular academic work slows down in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, my thoughts have turned toward gratitude. In a visceral way, I feel thankful for my family, for my work, for the exhilarating November air on a brisk walk around my neighborhood, for my friends both here in Ann Arbor and online, and for being alive in this very interesting era—in what I believe is still close to the dawn of human history, yet a time of great abundance compared to what has gone before in past centuries.

Gratitude is a surprisingly powerful force in our souls—powerful enough to badly contradict simple economic models filled with “agents” who are in it only for themselves (and maybe for their dynasty of direct descendants). Evolutionary psychologists and evolutionary philosophers call gratitude reciprocal altruism, and point to it as a central part of what makes us human. We may not be the only species that displays reciprocal altruism, but we seem to be one of the few, and the only species in which we know reciprocal altruism to be associated with strong emotions of gratitude.

Gratitude is an important foundation of friendship, and for lucky people like me, of lasting marriages.  But gratitude is also one of the foundations of larger social units. Here, the trick, as near as I can make it out, is for a society to have a ready answer to the question “Where do all the good things in my life come from?” Or to be more precise, to have a ready answer to the question “And where does that come from?” For many cultures or subcultures, the answer at the end of the chain is God or other divine beings. At the other extreme, in the worst excesses of tyranny, the answer at the end of the chain is the great dictator himself (usually) or herself (still rare). When a culture—like the more secular side of American culture, or international cosmopolitan culture—has no ready answer to this question of what underlying power to be grateful to, it is bound to be harder to motivate people to do what it takes to keep society from flying apart at the seams—harder, but not impossible.

It matters how well we can encourage people to feel existential gratitude and then “pay it forward” by looking after the general welfare of their communities, humanity, or all of life. I am not talking about the desire to “save the world” in one particular way, but the desire to find one’s own way—or a way made one’s own—to make the world better than it would have been otherwise. Those who already feel in any measure the desire to save the world should contemplate how to kindle that desire in the hearts of others. A good place to start is to ponder (without exaggerating its strength) the origins of one’s own desire to do good in the world.

Like many a bookworm, I spent much of my childhood reading. That I was not destined to be an English professor was intimated by the way in which the voices of all the authors of most of the books I read merged into a single authorial voice. I felt a great deal of gratitude for those authors who made thoughts leap in my head and stories play out in my mind’s eye—gratitude, and admiration. I wanted to be like them someday—to be able to cause someone else the pleasure I got from reading. Later, as an adult, my reading of history and life experience at long last made me feel in my gut deep gratitude and admiration for the framers of the US Constitution that, for all its imperfections, has made it so I have had the freedom to believe as I choose, and to express those beliefs in both word and deed—even when others don’t agree. In all nations, and with all varieties of opinion, I hope that most of those who enter the public arena around the world have a desire to be like the wisest men and women in the past in trying to build a strong and good foundation for human flourishing and the flourishing of life itself for ages to come.

Energized by gratitude toward God, authors, framers, or the beautiful blended image of all those who have done us good, let us go forward to do what we can to make the world a better place. It won’t be easy. We need to be carefully self-reflective about our other motives, intelligent in our tactics, and always pay attention to the crucial task of trying to inspire others to take on the role of white hat as we go forward. But I believe the universe, though it may be heartless and too often cruel, is fair enough that even a very small army of human beings, honestly trying to do good, will make something good come to pass.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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