Gratitude: It’s More Than a Feeling, But It’s Not Less

By Jay Richards Published on November 22, 2018

You don’t want me to tell you to be thankful for your many blessings. You’ve known that since you were a kid. Your mom probably made the point every time your appetite waned while the vegetables on your plate remained. Somehow the thought of poverty in China and India was supposed to light a spark of gratitude in your heart.

We Have More Than Most

But facts are facts. If you’re reading this, chances are you enjoy more wealth, health, personal freedom, and leisure time than 99% of humans throughout history. In the U.S., our grandparents in 1960 spent almost 18 percent of their income on food. On average, each of us spends less than 10 percent today. In 2016, when most Americans thought things were falling apart, the absolute and average net worth of U.S. households reached an all-time high. The bounty isn’t just enjoyed by the one percent. If you make at least $32,400 a year, you’re in the top half of American incomes but in the top 1 percent of income earners worldwide.

Even if none of that were true, though, every second of your life depends on God upholding it. God’s gratuitous love is everywhere. It’s beyond counting. A priest reminded me of this yesterday in confession. I already knew it. But it still felt like a revelation, like something I’d forgotten.

“Gratitude,” said Blessed Solanus Casey, “is the first sign of a thinking, rational creature.”

The American founders thought that we could know by reason alone that we have duties to God. If that’s right, then you know you should be thankful, even if your mom never mentioned the starving children in China and India. Even if you didn’t grow up going to church and Sunday School.

“Gratitude,” said Blessed Solanus Casey, “is the first sign of a thinking, rational creature.”

And in 2017, when the last embers of faith are being extinguished from the public square, we still have a national holiday to thank God for His blessings. 

Count Your Blessings. Ugh.

And yet we constantly need to be reminded to be grateful. If you grew up in a church anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, you probably sang “Count your blessings, name them one by one.” I know I did.

This video captures the song in all its saccharine glory:

 

In the next day or two, someone will tell you to count your blessings — literally. Your mom or wife or child will coax you to come up with a list of 30 or 50 or 100 (!) things you’re thankful for. My wife takes special pleasure in postponing the Thanksgiving meal until we do this.

If you’re like me, you’ll find the task tedious, and end up listing individual fingers and toes to bulk up the list.

What makes gratitude hard is what distinguishes it from many other virtues: It isn’t just an action or habit. It’s a feeling or state of mind.

Why do we find gratitude so tough? Why do we need to be reminded of it?

A State of Mind

What makes gratitude hard is what distinguishes it from many other virtues: It isn’t just an action or habit. It’s a feeling or state of mind. You may feel sad or angry or nauseated but still keep the Ten Commandments. You might be discombobulated but still exercise patience, prudence and bravery. You may be irked with your spouse, but still treat him or her kindly.

Gratitude isn’t like that. You can thank God for His blessings, thank your neighbor for lending you his lawn mower, write thank you notes to everyone who came to your birthday party, and sing Danke Schoen until your voice gives out. And still not feel thankful. That is, still not be thankful.

 

Notice how closely the being and the feeling are? Most virtues aren’t like that. If you’re patient with an irritating co-worker just when you’d like to snap his head off, you’re on the path of virtue. If, in contrast, I pray “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food,” but feel indifference, I’m not really grateful. I’m just going through the motions.

At a certain state of maturity, it’s not that hard to go through the right motions. Despite the revelations of famous men groping and assaulting women with seemingly reckless abandon, most adult men are capable of not groping women. Most of us can and do obey the law. We don’t torture animals or small children. We have basic impulse control.

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Elusive as a River Sprite

But our feelings? Those seem out of reach. My feelings are hopelessly fickle. I wake up and feel anxious for no good reason, and then feel calm and lucid in the middle of a crisis.

Gratitude? That’s as elusive as a river sprite. I tend to feel most thankful when I’ve almost lost something, or thought I was going to lose it. Other times, life is humming along, but I’m grumpy. Or I just take everything for granted.

And then, every so often, I’m overwhelmed with God’s goodness and blessings. I feel grateful. I am grateful.

So why go through the motions, even when we don’t feel it? Because just as our actions often reflect our feelings, our feelings — of love, forgiveness, gratitude — can follow our actions. We become grateful by cultivating it, by choosing to act thankful, even when we don’t want to.

Gratitude is more than a feeling. But it’s certainly not less.

 

This commentary was originally published on November 22, 2017.

Jay Richards is the Executive Editor of The Stream and an Assistant Research Professor in the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • #EpluribusAwesome

    I’m grateful for flying saucers heading out from Boston to points unknown 🙂 Happy Thanksgiving Dr Richards!

  • John Wright

    Jay Richards,

    I have enjoyed your articles and book: “The Privileged Planet”, with
    Guillermo Gonzalez. I’m looking forward to reading “The Hobbit Party”.
    I keep up with things from Discovery Institute, books, videos,
    articles – esp the “Nota Bene” articles. Your video on “Journeys Home”/
    EWTN with Marcus Grodi was very helpful for me, helpful as I was

    confirmed Catholic this year. I’m a former Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.

    The included video in your article -“Count your blessings”– is a very

    joyful video. It made me smile! Note the videos might not play on Firefox
    browser while viewing article. For me, the videos from the article worked

    on Chrome browser and Android.

    Thanks, In Christ,

    -John from Seattle

  • Robert J. Cihak, MD

    Amen! Thanks again, Jay. YOU are one of the people I’m grateful for.

  • Juan Garcia

    Jay: Thank you. As a 72 year old man who spends 10 hours per night on dialysis, I often have trouble sleeping. Last night it rained in our area where the California fires are occurring. As I laid awake and listened to the rain, my heart filled with gratitude to God for his love that brings restoration both naturally and supernaturally. I wept as I considered how blessed I am to even have health care and the support from a loving wife, family and brothers and sisters in Christ. I also wept for the love shown in our area by Christians in our area who are helping the victims. We are quick to recognize tragedy, but often forget that these tragedies give us opportunities to demonstrate God’s love to those effected.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

  • Aliya Daniella Kuykendall

    Jay, I appreciate your reflection, but at the same time I’m not convinced gratitude is as unique a virtue as you said it is. Love is the chief Christian virtue, and it is also more than a feeling, but not less. Love is patient and kind. I think most anyone on the receiving end of love, patience, and kindness can tell the difference between when it is heartfelt and forced, and feels much better loved when it is heartfelt. I believe God cares about our hearts/feelings in more areas than that of gratitude, or else he would not have made the commandment not to covet, and Jesus would not have told us that hate and lust are the same as murder and adultery. I guess I’m just saying, I agree with what you say about gratitude, but it’s not only gratitude. Don’t you think our faith as a whole has always been more, but not less than, good habits and actions? Don’t you think, as my pastor says, “It’s all about the heart”?

  • Jay, as I’ve written elsewhere on this very site these days, I keep myself in mind of the conflict between Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23a, as in opposition to my circumstances. By those passages I should be dead; by my circumstances I am not. It is better than I deserve! Thank You, Lord!

  • sc_cannon

    I have so much to be grateful for, nice bed, nice TV, nice pets, great wife, clean water, nice truck… but I guess being human I am always looking at the rate of change and am not as grateful about what I have as I should be.

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