The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


It might seem “hokey,” as the University of California psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky puts it, “trivial at best and corny at worst.” But her experiments have repeatedly shown that keeping a gratitude journal—writing down a handful of things we feel fortunate for at the end of most days—can create measurable differences in self-reported happiness. Perhaps your neighbor put out your trash, or you noticed a beautiful spider’s web covered with hoarfrost on your morning commute. Perhaps the plane landed safely or your mother made a recovery. For Lyubomirsky, gratitude is defined as “counting one’s blessings.” And her work has helped the gratitude journal become a cornerstone in the positive psychology movement, which aims, in the words of one of its founders, psychologist Martin Seligman, to make “the lives of relatively untroubled people happier.”

One of the things that seems most to appeal about gratitude is the way it short-circuits those feelings of inadequacy and desire, which drive consumerism. Not only is consciously “counting one’s blessings” free to do, it also makes us happy with what we’ve already got, seeming to protect us from the voraciousness of the free market. This, however, hasn’t always been the case.

How does EUPHORIA create a stock-market bubble, or PANIC lead to economic depression? Emotions are an important element of the modern study of economics, but we aren’t the first to think about the link between finance and feeling. The eighteenth-century philosopher and economist Adam Smith, one of the architects of modern capitalism, is usually remembered for his phrase the “invisible hand” of the free market. But he also wrote a lot about what he called “the affections of the heart,” and saw the two as inexorably linked. For Smith, gratitude was central to a prosperous society: he believed it was not simply a pleasant feeling of being thankful for good things, but also created a desire to reward the people who help us. To feel grateful is to want “to recompense, to remunerate, to return good for good received,” he wrote. He also thought these effects radiated outwards through a process of sympathetic resonance (see: EMPATHY). So even if you’d only witnessed generosity, your own gratitude buds would be tickled and you’d find yourself compelled to repay the kindness by doing a good deed for someone else.*

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, philosophers and psychologists who wrote about emotions seem to have been far less interested in being appreciative. There is no full discussion of it in Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and it rarely appears on the many lists of emotions drawn up by psychologists over the next hundred years. Those who did write about gratitude seem to have regarded it as more burdensome. For instance in 1929 the Harvard-based psychologist William McDougall pointed out that it could provoke complex and contradictory feelings, not just awe and admiration, but also ENVY, RESENTMENT and EMBARRASSMENT. (Some of these discomforts are identified in other languages. In Japanese we find arigata-meiwaku, which roughly translates as a favor someone insists on performing for you, even though you don’t want them to, and when it backfires, convention dictates you must be grateful anyway. See also oime and greng jai.) While Smith had imagined gratitude as a horizontal network of exchanges, McDougall regarded it much like pity. He thought it fixed hierarchies of power, with benefactors bestowing riches on needy recipients, and the latter made painfully aware of their inability to help themselves. For this reason, McDougall thought gratitude produced “negative self-feeling,” or what nowadays would be called “low self-esteem” (see: FEELING GOOD [about yourself]). It seems that for McDougall, writing on the eve of the Great Depression, balancing the desire for autonomy and the value of self-sufficiency with any acknowledgment of need was a troubled and complex business.

After years in the psychological wilderness, gratitude is back in vogue. But not as it was before. The sense of obligation that Smith saw as so crucial to gratitude, and which seemed so burdensome for early-twentieth-century psychologists, has been dropped. Instead, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues define gratitude as “a sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation” (WONDER in particular is intriguing here, as it suggests a lack of agency by any other human). Gratitude’s primary value is placed in maximizing good feelings for the grateful individual. Counting one’s blessings, according to Lyubomirsky, reliably increases positive mood because it helps us extract enjoyment from any situation. By stopping us taking things for granted, it also counters the effects of what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” the all-too-familiar experience of growing used to the good things in our lives, so that they end up making us less happy. Practicing gratitude makes life’s inevitable disappointments easier to bear by helping us search for the upside, and lessens the pain of envy and greed by encouraging us to value what we already have (rather than becoming preoccupied by what we think we need). All of these are impressive positive results of keeping a gratitude journal. But it’s curious that there’s only one brief mention in Lyubomirsky’s study about the reciprocity that Adam Smith was so interested in: “The expression of gratitude is also said to stimulate moral behavior such as helping, and to help build social bonds.” Feeling grateful might be quietly transformative. But it seems perhaps we have learned to value it less for its ability to ignite compassion than for how good it makes us feel about ourselves.