Magic of Gratitude
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
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
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
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.
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
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.