You feel gratitude when someone did something especially nice for you, which cost them more effort, trouble or money than you expected from them. For instance, when a friend gifts you a rare first edition of your favorite book, or when a co-worker offers to take over your shift when you have a doctor’s appointment.
Gratitude has a few essential ingredients. First, someone needs to do something that is nice or good for you. This can be a single act, like getting someone a nice gift, or a series of acts, like a friend who always supports you when you are down. Something that is good for you does not always feel nice in the moment. For instance, in retrospect you can feel grateful for a strict teacher who enabled you to pass a difficult exam, even though you may have ‘hated’ her during that time.
Secondly, you need to know or believe that the nice act was done deliberately and with good intentions. If your co-worker swapped his shift with you for personal reasons and without knowing that it would help you, you would be relieved but probably not grateful.
Thirdly, the nice act has to be something more than what you would expect from that person and in that situation. If you expect everyone to give you something for your birthday, you may not feel especially grateful for each gift. But you would feel grateful when someone gifts you something that took them a lot of effort to find. Because gratitude depends on expectation, it is generally easier to feel grateful to people you don’t know well, because you expect less from them. You would arguably feel more grateful toward a stranger who ran after you with the wallet you dropped, than toward your partner doing the same thing.
In the past decade, gratitude has been one of the most studied positive emotions. Researchers have identified many prosocial effects of gratitude. Grateful people thank their benefactor and are kind to them. They feel an urge to reciprocate: to give or do something back that feels equally nice. But beyond the simple precept of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’, gratitude helps to build deeper relationships between people1. One researcher summarized this effect in the ‘Find, Remind, and Bind’ theory: gratitude helps you find potential new friends or partners, it reminds you of the good people we already know, and it binds you closer to these people2.
Other studies point out that, separate from any social effects, there are also several personal benefits for the grateful person. People who often experience gratitude are happier and more confident, because they focus on how fortunate they are and what good people they have around them. These findings have inspired initiatives to promote practicing gratitude in everyday life, such as exercises to keep a weekly gratitude journal or to write gratitude letters to benefactors.
For centuries, philosophers and writers have pointed out the importance of gratitude in life. For instance, Cicero called gratitude “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Practicing gratitude is also a central component of many religions.