Why Don’t We “Get” Gratitude?

by Daniel Brenton on January 11, 2009

in Gratitude

Start: Why don’t we, as a society, really “get” gratitude?

I think the bottom line there is that, as a society, we don’t teach it.

(Okay. I’m done. You can stop reading now.)

(Actually, I did have a larger idea I wanted to develop for you, so if you can hang with me a little longer, I promise I’ll deliver.)

The video here is of motivational speaker, writer — and quadriplegic — Jason Hall. (Mr. Hall does have use — very limited use — of his arms.) In this video, he speaks about how he came to understand what gratitude really is.

Give it a watch (it’s an even ten minutes) and we’ll talk further.

• • •

Now, you really didn’t watch it, did you?

Go on. Here’s a cookie. Now go watch it.

• • •

Okay, fine. For those of you who wouldn’t watch it, let me give you the “take away” that I wanted to bring to your attention. Mr. Hall’s tremendous appreciation of the necessity of gratitude came in the aftermath of what Dr. Morris Massey of the University of Colorado calls an S.E.E. — a Significant Emotional Experience. These are personal events that change how someone perceives his or her life.

Would Mr. Hall have understood gratitude so deeply had he never experienced this?

No one can know this, of course, but this raises a question: do most people in our culture not understand the value of gratitude until they have an S.E.E.?

It seems implied to me that a large percentage — possibly a majority — of our culture does not understand gratitude in a way that produces visible results.

Put less nicely, we are a nation of spoiled brats.

(“Gratitude? What’s that? And where is my stimulus check?”)

Can Gratitude be Taught?

The next obvious question is: can gratitude be taught?

I don’t have an authoritative answer to that, and I suspect, in part, this would depend on the predisposition of the child, but feel that overall gratitude can be taught. Even institutional efforts like the Herb Alpert Foundation-sponsored Half Full (see “How Not to Raise an Ungrateful Brat,” a conversation between sociologist Dr. Christine Carter and author Kelly Corrigan) affirm this.

Naturally it has to be done by parents who see the basic need for it and have secured the emotional and physical resources to follow through. This would in turn imply a family that is basically functional.

(I think I hear someone laughing in the back row.)

Coming to Gratitude the Hard Way

Despite calling and thinking of themselves as upstanding people, my parents did not recognize the need or secure the emotional resources to inculcate a sense of gratitude to me; and no, it wasn’t a Leave it to Beaver household, thank you.

In thinking back, I actually had two “come to gratitude” events in my life, and in my first one, I didn’t “get” it.

Back in my twenties I was heading home from work, southbound on Phoenix Arizona’s Tatum Road, in the slow lane, hugging the 45 miles per hour speed limit of the four lane commute artery. In a particularly scenic stretch there were only a few intersecting roads that were scarcely more than driveways for the high-end estates that overlooked the thoroughfare.

Suddenly a white station wagon lunged onto the road, directly in my path.

Entirely by instinct, with absolutely no idea what might be behind or beside me, I jumped into the left lane — which thankfully was empty — and escaped what probably would have been instant death.

Fortunately I didn’t need a change of underwear when I got home — though I suspect I was probably whiter than I am now for a little while. I sat down in a living room comfy chair and shook for probably a good ten minutes.

I didn’t think it in so many words, and being the kind of person I was at the time I certainly never expressed it, but I know that evening I was grateful that I was still alive.

But I didn’t integrate the event into my worldview. I didn’t grasp the concept of gratitude and see if I could reapply it to the rest of my life.

I didn’t “get” it.

Many years later I basically walked away from an auto accident that involved a fatality (no fault of mine, thank God). Though the shock of it wore off fairly quickly, it took me years to really sort through it. But I did finally, and I “got” gratitude that time.

Why didn’t I get it the first time?

There are three differences between the Daniel that had the near-accident back in 1982, and Daniel that had the accident he walked away from in 1999:

  1. Seventeen years. (Yes, I grew up some more.)
  2. The kind of culture that would support the type of material and ideas that are commonplace on The Oprah Winfrey Show that didn’t exist in 1982. It is only fitting to champion Oprah for bringing into popular culture people like Sarah Ban Breathnach (author of the gratitude staple Simple Abundance), yet I think Oprah was responding to a need she was astute enough to perceive that existed in our culture. Otherwise her efforts wouldn’t have been successful.
  3. 9/11, two years later.

9/11 was a cultural S.E.E. 9/11 made us all step back. Some of us turned into war-mongering superpatriots, and some of us became more reflective. 9/11 galvanized my understanding — and probably the understanding of millions of others — of the power of gratitude. This understanding of gratitude, in fact, was the main tool I used to finish processing out the traumatic impact the 1999 accident had on me.

(Katrina, oddly, didn’t have the same impact on us as a culture. I suspect it was because there was no challenge to our nationality involved — it was simply a brutal act of unstoppable Nature. Nationalism is apparently a bigger “hot button.” )

Even though I think many had a lasting change with 9/11 — they “got” gratitude — others lost the initial glimmering.

As with me and my earlier accident, for some of us it didn’t “stick.”

What We Must Do

What we must do then (yes, I’m using that imperative “must” word) is those of us who are mindful of the power of gratitude, those of us in mentoring or parenting roles, need to take that effort, need to make that choice, and then need to follow through with the commitment to teach this powerful tool to those we have chosen to lead or of whom we are responsible.

The recognition of the importance of gratitude shouldn’t take a dire personal crisis or outer catastrophe. It should be sown into our character so that it naturally blossoms in us, abundant and deeply rooted, and present whether it is needed or not.

I would like to think I am doing this, here, in my own little way.

Will you help me?

I’d very much like to thank Brenda Arnall, author of the weblog It’s a New Day, for pointing me to Mr. Hall and his message.

(And those of you who didn’t watch the video: go back and watch it.)

Copyright © 2009, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.

End

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Dragos Roua January 11, 2009 at 1:58 pm

This is touching, Daniel. Brutal emotions, or SEE, as you call them, are just pointers to our deeper nature. We’re facing those emotions when we’re in need for a deeper connection.

Would it be so much easier to have that connection on a daily basis if we could bring more gratitude in our lives.

OTOH, I don’t think gratitude is an emotion itself, it’s more like an energy exchange that we do with the Universe: sending “thank you”‘s and receiving joy of life.

Reply

Daniel Brenton January 11, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Dragos –

You’re right — this is more complex. I feel there is an emotional component, but clearly it’s not the whole picture.

– Daniel

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Julie Obermiller January 11, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Your piece has me on a journey of introspection now. When my brother was killed at the age of 17, a Marine on his own base in the USA, I saw first hand the grief of those who had left things unsaid and vowed to let my feelings be known always- leaving nothing unsaid. Did I become more aware of the importance of gratitude BEFORE I was diagnosed with a chronic, incurable illness? I do believe I had a heightened awareness of gratitude and love shared, but how good was I at conveying it? At 36, my own medical SEE took away the notion that I had just begun life’s journey and had plenty of time. Yes, there is something about feeling the brush of angel wings that makes you keenly aware that each moment, each day might be your last. You wonder “If I were to die today, would those important to me know how much they mean to me?”

Yes, I think I now have to give a great deal of thought to those people in my life whom I consider to be models of gratitude. I need to ask myself if they, too, have a personal SEE.

One wonders though, if there is anyone who has NOT faced personal tragedy, or was it just not tragic enough?

Reply

Daniel Brenton January 11, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Julie –

Thank you for that.

It occurs to me that there may be folks who never “come to gratitude,” no matter how many or how big the S.E.E. might be.

(I’m picturing some very dour people.)

I’m afraid I’m not a psychologist or sociologist (and I don’t play either on television), so honestly I don’t have any real data to back up my thoughts here. Though it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the “positive emotion” psychologists Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons might have their own answers to these kind of questions.

I’m please I’ve provoked some thought and introspection. This is the best I can offer anyone.

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Angela January 11, 2009 at 9:36 pm

I enjoyed reading this; your ability to entertain as you teach is a welcome perk…this video was powerful and the lessons crucial. Thanks Daniel.

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Brenda January 11, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Thanks for the acknowledgement, Daniel…I was happy to share the website as I found it inspiring as well.

You’ve raised some interesting points. While I agree that we should make a greater effort to instill a sense of gratitude in our children, I wonder if age doesn’t have as much to do with it as education. When you’re young, you think there will always be time to tell people you love them, to appreciate kindnesses shown to you, and to recognize that life holds many blessings. It may not be one big SEE but a lot of little ones adding up to make us grateful individuals. I think that sum my my personal experiences anyway.

I don’t know but it’s interesting food for thought. Sounds like you’ll have to continue your research in this area and write more in the future.

Reply

Daniel Brenton January 11, 2009 at 11:12 pm

I don’t know but it’s interesting food for thought. Sounds like you’ll have to continue your research in this area and write more in the future.

Oh, all right. If I must.

You raise an excellent point about experience. At the time of the second accident I mentioned, I had been married (and a stepfather) for seven years, which was much more responsibility than I had previously. I could see that the cumulative experience may have predisposed me to recognizing gratitude when I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Thank you for your comment. I’m sure we’ll be communicating again soon.

Reply

Jonathan January 12, 2009 at 8:23 am

Great post, Daniel, and well-worth thinking about further. I think there are also cultural reasons why we don’t “get” gratitude. We are a nation of “rugged individualists,” after all – a people whose mythology and folklore all references sole figures building an empire out of nothing more than dirt and gumption.

What room is there for gratitude in that mythology? Gratitude – the appreciation for the resources or gifts that surround you irrespective of your having earned them – seems at first blush to be at odds with all that folklore. I see this changing as more people recognize that as inheritors of America, we stand on the shoulders of every generation that came before. So it is changing and there is an opening for more discussion of gratitude.

Culture changes slowly. But it DOES change. Thanks for being part of the change.
Jonathan

Reply

Daniel Brenton January 12, 2009 at 11:20 am

Jonathan –

Yes, there are probably a great number of causes in this, and there would probably be people who would argue that we really aren’t a selfish culture. (It would be a ludicrous argument in my humble opinion, but there would be those who would say it.)

From what little statistical training I have, part of me wants to think about measuring it, but the “inputs” are probably varied, and what “output” would we be measuring? How would we measure success?

I do, however, feel we need success.

(There may be some sociological index that could be interpreted as a “selfishness quotient,” but I know nothing about these things, nor how to quantify them.)

Thank you for the comment, sir.

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Cricket January 12, 2009 at 11:34 am

What a great post and wonderful video. Having two children I deal with this every day. I feel as I have aged I have developed gratitude far more than I ever had in my younger years.

For me, the process of living is pretty similar for each of us. For every gain there is a setback. For every step forward (success), a failure. For every moment of joy there is a time of sadness. The balance of events of our lives it much like a pendulum that swings. Every extreme condition is offset by its opposite. Slowly, we learn to appreciate the the gifts on both sides.

Maybe with youth there is not enough “bad times” for most of us. Gratitude came for me later because I was always blessed at home and I didn’t know what I was missing until it was gone.

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