Deconstructing gratitude: a complex emotion

July 13, 2023

Photograph styled by Miriam and Rebecca

Rebecca Pattni and Miriam Chan discuss gratitude, and how friendship is what they are most grateful for

Gratitude, according to Andreas Matthias, “is a more general feeling of being thankful for some state of affairs that we have done nothing to deserve, but where we cannot identify a particular agent to be grateful to.”

As I (Miriam) grew up Christian, gratitude to God was something I practiced every day but never questioned. We said grace before every meal, and at the end of the day I knelt beside my bed with my hands clasped together thanking God for whatever blessings he bestowed on my little six-year-old life.

For theists, this figure becomes God. As I (Miriam) grew up Christian, gratitude to God was something I practiced every day but never questioned. We said grace before every meal, and at the end of the day I knelt beside my bed with my hands clasped together thanking God for whatever blessings he bestowed on my little six-year-old life.

For me, (Rebecca) the religious connotations of gratitude tarnish the word with an unfair reputation, perhaps leaving people wary of the concept as a whole. In other words, gratitude is such a complex emotion, that no dictionary can really encapsulate the feeling.

Studies in ClinMed found an association between practicing higher levels of gratitude and lower levels of stress and depression; resulting in increased wellbeing, better relationships, better sleep and greater resilience.

Despite these findings, is gratitude without action enough? What is it about gratitude that actually makes us feel better about ourselves and others?

The Heart of Gratitude, a painting by Miriam Chan

When questioning the heart of gratitude and what it essentially means to be grateful, we drew our attention to the mundanity of life.

Imagine you’re on your way to work, buying a coffee as usual but instead, today, you pass a homeless person. Do you have a moral responsibility to deny yourself this coffee because that £6 could be given to someone who needs it more?

Is it enough simply to stick your nose to the heavens and proclaim, “I am grateful for this chai latte!” while the homeless person lifts his cup for a couple of pennies?

Peter Singer thinks not. In his essay Famine, Affluence and Morality, he writes “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally to do it.”

Yet, by denying yourself this coffee, and giving the money to someone who deserves it more, are you really being grateful for what you have?

Gratitude could be interpreted as a weakness of character, feeling as though you owe someone a ‘thanks’

Or are you denying yourself what you want and what you’ve worked for simply because of the guilt you feel.

It’s this distinction, a fine line, the liminal space between guilt and gratitude that we wish to explore.

Gratitude could be interpreted as a weakness of character, feeling as though you owe someone a ‘thanks’ which can remove your sense of control. Feeling we are in debt to someone else eradicates the sense that we are choosing to be grateful – we feel boxed in to appreciate something we may not feel truly grateful for.

Are we moving away from a dependence on each other? Gratitude requires a sense of selflessness, the admission to surrendering to our own vulnerability. So, is a lack of gratitude selfish?

By challenging the foundations of what it means to be grateful, we began to understand the importance of our friendship. Having someone who has known you through all of the odd fashion phases and quirky hobbies in your life is definitely something worth appreciating.

The reassurance that we would always meet each other, in some way, meant that we could be free to explore other friends and experiences

Accepting that we would always be there for each other, despite the distance we may have felt through different schools, different countries, and separate friendship groups, is comforting. Knowing that we could be ourselves, even if that meant being complete opposites, was unlike any other friendship we’d had before.

The reassurance that we would always meet each other, in some way or another, meant that we could be free to explore other friends and experiences without feeling confined by this friendship.

A true friendship shouldn’t limit you.

We understand that constant contact and reassurance isn’t necessary to sustain our bond. We can go months without speaking and pick up right where we left off. In a way, that’s the beauty of friendship, that you can sustain something so personal despite the chaos of life.

This foundation ensured the belief that our friendship will be able to stand the test of time and solidified our bond forever. For this we are truly grateful.

Miriam is currently at Woodhouse studying Art, English Literature and Psychology. She enjoys drawing, painting, watching horror movies and sewing her own outfits.

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