What is Gratefulness?
Gratitude, gratefulness and our view of ourselves
Gratitude and resentment
If we want to understand gratefulness, we probably have to start with the distinction between gratefulness and gratitude. In English, strangely, there is only an adjective “grateful” for both. I cannot be “gratituded,” and being “gratified” is something else entirely. This confuses matters because, despite the missing adjective, gratitude is not the same as gratefulness.
Both are states of being thankful for something that we received, and generally we must have received that as a gift, not in exchange for something else. If I buy a chocolate cookie by paying through the nose for it in my favourite old-world artisan bakery chain, I have no reason to be grateful. I got what I paid for.
Even if I get three cookies for the price of one as part of a promotion campaign, I might be happy to get the deal, but I won’t, generally, feel that I have to be grateful for that. I can safely assume that this beneficence is not directed towards me, but that, in the end, it is going to benefit the bakery and that this is why they do it.
Gratitude then is only appropriate when I am the recipient of a benefit that is directed personally towards me and that I did not deserve or compensate the other party for.
Kant’s Praiseworthy Motivation
A core feature of Kant’s ethics is his insistence on the value of one’s motivation for the morality of an action. As opposed to utilitarianism, Kant does not look at the consequences when judging actions, but only at what he calls the “good will.”
And then, there is the issue of goodwill. Gratitude is not only an attitude or a behaviour that we show towards a benefactor – it is also an emotion, a feeling of friendliness and goodwill towards the other person. Imagine someone who does not like receiving gifts – perhaps he is someone who feels himself to be undeservedly wealthy, and now, having participated in a charity lottery, he wins against his will. He is called up to the stage to receive that prize that he doesn’t want. After all, the whole point of participating in the lottery was to help others, not to walk away with the main prize himself. Will this person feel gratitude towards the lottery organisers? Likely not. He will resent winning the prize. So this aspect of friendly goodwill as a reaction to the benefit is really crucial to gratitude.
This brings us to the opposites of gratitude. “Ingratitude” is one, “resentment” the other. Ingratitude is the mere absence of gratitude, a neutral state of mind. Resentment is opposite in sign to gratitude, its negative twin.
Gratitude and gratefulness
What distinguishes gratitude from gratefulness is the presence of a benefactor.
Robert A. Emmons writes:
Although a variety of life experiences can elicit feelings of gratitude, gratitude prototypically stems from the perception of a positive personal outcome, not necessarily deserved or earned, that is due to the actions of another person.
Fitzgerald (1998) identified three components of gratitude: (1) a warm sense of appreciation for somebody or something, (2) a sense of goodwill toward that person or thing, and (3) a disposition to act that flows from appreciation and goodwill. 
So gratitude is personal, directed towards another particular person who has done something good to us that we don’t feel we deserved or paid for. Gratefulness 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.
Rusk, Vella-Brodrick and Lea Waters add:
One could also say that gratitude is always gratitude to someone, while gratefulness emphasises what we are grateful for, even if there is nobody to be grateful to for that thing.
As Daniel Klein explains in , the existence of a benefactor is sometimes a grey area. I can feel gratitude to someone for baking me a cake. I can feel gratefulness for a sunny day. But what about feeling grateful about the safety on my city’s streets? It’s not like that is directly the work of God. The safety of the streets is man-made, and a whole range of people, from politicians to police officers, but possibly also priests, writers and philosophers, doormen, passers-by and alert taxi- and bus-drivers have played their part in making the streets safe. Do I feel gratitude towards all of them? Or only an impersonal gratefulness?
To make things a bit more complicated, we can feel grateful towards inanimate objects. Adam Smith (in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” cited after Daniel Klein) writes that we sometimes feel attached to a house we lived in or a tree in whose shade we have been sitting for years. This attachment may take the form of an impersonal gratitude towards the beneficent thing, although the thing itself might not fulfil any criteria for agency. Similarly, we can feel resentment and even hate towards inanimate objects. Adam Smith had to resort to “a stone that hurts us” as an example, but today it would be hard to find someone who has never screamed at a computer screen in frustration.
And, finally, there is the Socratic gratitude:
So yes, inanimate objects can cause gratitude as well as resentment.
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus emphasises that, in a world that works according to physical laws, nobody ought to be afraid of either the gods or one’s own death.
Do we neglect gratitude?
In his foreword to “The Psychology of Gratitude” , Robert C. Solomon observes that gratitude (and gratefulness) are much less studied and talked about than the other emotions.
Why is that?
Solomon thinks that the reason might be that gratitude is a mildly humiliating emotion — the feeling that we owe a debt to someone. And feelings like that contradict the way we would like to perceive ourselves: as masters of our own destiny, as strong and independent agents who are able to take control of their own lives and destinies.
Interestingly, it just that feature that makes gratitude into an intensely relational emotion: gratitude points directly outward, to the others who interact with us and benefit us, and demands of us to feel appreciation and goodwill towards them. In this sense, gratitude could be seen as the basis of ethical behaviour: a feeling that demands of us to act in a “good” way, in a way that is directed towards benefiting others and that is motivated by kindness and thankfulness: “Thus gratitude lies at the very heart of ethics. It is more basic, perhaps, than even duty and obligation.” (, p. vi)
But there is more to gratitude. The other main emotions have a facial expression associated with them: fear, anger, joy, sadness, surprise and disgust can all be easily detected in a person’s face. Not so gratitude or gratefulness. Solomon points out that there is also no fixed behavioural response associated with gratitude: fear makes us scream and flee, anger causes us to attack, joy to smile, disgust to furrow our brow, wrinkle our nose and turn the other way. But gratitude? It can only be expressed verbally, by saying “thank you” and adding all sorts of other explanations. It is easy for a child to paint “anger,” but impossible to paint “gratitude.”
Gratitude, finally, does not “feel” in a particular way. One can easily recall how anger feels, or how sadness or joy feel. But gratitude? Besides a mild embarrassment there doesn’t seem to be a specific way of how it feels to be grateful.
A comprehensive overview of Erich Fromm’s philosophy of happiness. We discuss his life, his ideas and his main works, both in their historical context and how they are still relevant for us today.
What is the point of gratefulness?
Solomon gives an interesting answer to this question. If gratefulness (unlike gratitude) is not directed towards a specific person; if I can be grateful for a situation that is not caused by a specific benefactor; then to whom am I actually grateful? When I’m grateful that it didn’t rain on my birthday, or that the bus came late and I didn’t miss it this morning, who is the object of my being grateful?
If I believe in God, then this would be the obvious object of my gratitude. What but about non-believers? It seems strange to assume that I’m just grateful to “the universe” or to “good luck.” Sometimes, we might be grateful to society, but society is not a suitable object of my gratefulness about the weather.
Solomon suggests that the point of gratitude in a general sense (gratitude for life) is to acknowledge how much of life is out of our control. This then automatically leads to a higher appreciation of life and to a re-evaluation of our role in the universe.
We are generally pretty self-centred. We see ourselves at the centre of our own little universes and we tend to perceive everything that happens in relation to our own interests. That car there cut in front of me just to anger me. This computer broke down just as I needed it. And now that I wanted to hike on my birthday, it rains. Naturally.
Gratefulness can be a way to change that perspective, because it opposes precisely the view that I am all that counts. The undeserved benefit that another bestowed on me makes me aware of my limitations and of the power of others over me and my happiness. Solomon:
And so it seems that gratefulness is, indeed, a very special emotion and attitude. It is a feeling directed at no one, whose primary benefit might be that it improves our own life and happiness by helping us to reframe our own worldview and to acknowledge the intimate connection that we have towards all the things and people that surround us and that make our existence possible.
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Thanks for reading! What do you think? Did I forget to mention something important? Tell me in the comments!
Read the next part in this series here:
It seems that we should only be grateful for something good done to us. But already the Stoics had seen that sometimes benefits come disguised as burdens.
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 Emmons, The Psychology of Gratitude. An Introduction. In: Emmons R. A. and McCullough M.E. (eds). The Psychology of Gratitude. Oxford University Press, 2004.
 “Gratitude or Gratefulness? A Conceptual Review and Proposal of the System of Appreciative Functioning.” Journal of Happiness Studies, 2016.
 Daniel B. Klein, Gratefulness and Resentfulness: A Virtuous Asymmetry. On papers.ssrn.com, 2021.
 A. D. M. Walker, Gratefulness and Gratitude. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society , 1980-1981, New Series, Vol. 81 (1980-1981), pp. 39-55.
 Emmons R. A. and McCullough M.E. (eds). The Psychology of Gratitude. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Cover image by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.