President's Column - March 2003

The Magic of Gratitude
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada

What is the worth of saying "Thank you?" My answer is that it is priceless, when it is said in sincerity. The magic power of a simple expression of gratitude has almost limitless potentials.

Only recently, Dr. Robert Emmons began research on the role of gratitude in happiness and well-being. Just the simple exercise of writing down the things for which one is grateful already yields beneficial effects.

My thesis is that a genuine expression of gratitude, whether verbally or non-verbally, can also transform personal relationships, improve work climate and create a more peaceful world.

Why do parents and kindergarten teachers teach their children to say "thank you"? Perhaps it is just a matter of good manners, one of the marks of being a good kid.

As adults, we are still conditioned to say "thank you", almost routinely, when others serve us a cup of coffee or give us something. We can say this as a well-practiced social script, without much thinking or feeling. Occasionally, there may be slight hint of appreciation, but rarely a heart-felt gratitude.

People sometimes employ gratitude as a tactic of impression management or ingratiation. They may mouth appreciation to you because of your position of power, but deep down, they really hate you. Faked gratitude, like its evil twin flattery, almost always backfires in the long run.

The burden of gratitude

Those who are in the habit of helping others may, sooner or later, be in for a shock. Instead of receiving gratitude for their kindness, all they receive in return is resentment and hostility.

On several occasions President Bush has publicly expressed his frustration and puzzlement. He cannot understand why nations, which have benefited greatly from generous American aids, have turned against the USA.

I am sure that on a personal level, many have had similar experiences. Sometimes the person you have helped the most becomes your worst enemy.

But why? Why are people so ungrateful?

According to the theory of psychological reactance, people do not want to be indebted to others, because the burden of gratitude limits their freedom and threatens their sense of autonomy.

Their inability to repay makes them feel even worse. As a result, they lash out against their benefactors and justify it by attributing ill motives to kind deeds and recalling instances of wrong doings. Such antagonism may even be unconsciously motivated.

I am not sure whether psychological reactance reflects human nature or the Western cultural of individualism and competitiveness. In any event, such ingratitude has the effect of discouraging others from being generous and kind.

The practice of remembering the source

Back in where I grew up, children were taught the ancient Chinese virtue: "When you drink water, remember its source." Somehow, this statement has stayed with me all through my adult years in North America, influencing how I relate to others.

Another deeply entrenched Chinese traditional value is filial piety - the duty and privilege of honoring and caring for our parents. One of the bases for filial piety is that we owe our parents our very lives. We need to be forever grateful to them for giving birth to us and caring for us. This is an example of remembering the source.

Over my long career in university teaching, I am privileged to be the recipient of many letters, cards and other expressions of gratitude from graduates, because, according to them, I have made a difference in their lives. Interestingly, most of these expressions have originated from oriental students.

Why? One plausible explanation is that oriental students may have been taught from their childhood that they should respect and love their teachers as their parents. This is perhaps another case of remembering the source.

If we carry this logic further, we should remember with gratitude all the people who have in some way contributed to our lives. Some may have helped us financially. Others may have brought happiness to us when we were sad. Still others may have walked with us in times of darkness.

The practice of remembering the source makes us better people and helps create a more positive community. It will correct the common practice of only remembering the bad things others have done to us.

For many people, the negativity bias is so strong that a single incidence of a bad deed is sufficient to cancel out a thousand good deeds. Worse still, the bad deed may be nothing more than a case of misattribution or a figment of one's imagination.

Just pause and think for a moment how much better marriage will be, if both partners only remember how they have helped each other in the perilous journey of life. Or, what a happy environment the work place would become if we are all engaged in habit of remembering the many small ways in which others have been helpful to us.

To carry this practice to its logical conclusion, we have to remember the ultimate Source of life, from whom all blessings flow. A sense of awe and gratitude will fill our hearts, as we look at the nature around us, meditate on God's goodness, or reflect on the mysteries of life.

Conclusion

The practice of remembering the source is more power than the exercise of counting our blessings, because the former inspires the latter.

Why don't you try to recall all the individuals who have been good to you? They may include your parents, siblings, Pastors, Sunday school teachers, professors, nurses, counselors, or others. Then express your gratitude in a personal and appropriate manner.

Don't be disappointed if no one responds to your grateful spirit. What really matters is that most of them would treasure it, as I do, and take it to heart.

When more and more people embrace the practice of remembering the source, the magic of gratitude begins to work its wonders at home, at work, in schools and in churches.

I dream that one day, there will be a continuous chorus of gratitude to acknowledge all those who dare to be kind, caring and generous, regardless of the cost.