The title of The Psychology of Gratitude sells the book short. In this compilation of 14 essays, editors Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough go beyond the field of psychology to incorporate research from anthropology, philosophy, biology, theology, and even primatology. This breadth of research gives a deservedly thorough treatment to a human emotion and virtue that, until now, social science has largely overlooked.
The volume both defines and explores the contours of gratitude. Theologian David Steindl-Rast distinguishes gratefulness from thankfulness. Thankfulness, he says, is marked by personal gratitude for undeserved kindness “because it typically expresses itself in thanks given to the giver by the receiver of the gift.” Gratefulness, on the other hand, is transpersonal: its experience goes beyond an emotion directed toward any one person to encompass an “oceanic feeling of universal belonging,” such as when someone feels grateful for a beautiful sunrise.
Other authors consider the beneficial consequences of gratitude. Psychologist Philip Watkins shows that gratitude is part of a cycle of virtue: Gratitude causes happiness, while at the same time, that feeling of happiness fosters gratitude. Barbara Fredrickson draws on previous research to theorize that gratitude broadens a person’s capacity to express love and kindness, which helps that person build lasting friendships and other social bonds. If someone feels grateful toward another person, she suggests, he’ll try to promote the well-being of other people in general, not just of his original benefactor.
The book does touch on negative aspects of gratitude. Both Robert Solomon, in the foreword, and Emmons, in the introduction, note that gratitude is sometimes accompanied by a “perceived inferiority of the receiver relative to the giver,” which could induce feelings of humiliation, resentment, embarrassment, or jealousy. Solomon and Emmons also note that people sometimes associate gratitude with femininity, dependence, and feelings of undeserved merit.
These associations point to the role that culture plays in shaping our definition and experience of gratitude. Such distinctly sociological aspects of gratitude are mentioned in passing, but an exploration of the sociology of gratitude is strangely absent from the book—a surprising omission given that it is dedicated to an emotion that is primarily social in nature. This absence, however, speaks to the larger point that Emmons makes: Because social science has neglected gratitude in the past, there remain vast opportunities for scientific attention and analysis in the future.