Gratitude – What Is It?

What is gratitude?

Is it an emotion? Is it a thought that we construct? Is it a value that we cultivate? No one is sure.

Anthropologist Jonathan Haidt suggests the existence of an emotion called elevation—“a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness and compassion.”  He further believes that gratitiude motivates you to become a better person, and engage in altruistic acts ourselves.

Paul Ekman, the leading researcher on mapping emotions to facial expressions, is hestistate to refer to gratitude as an emotion, because he can’t find a set of expressions that universally characterizes gratitude, like a smile for happiness or frown for anger. Ekman says, “Not everything we experience is an emotion; we also have thoughts, attitudes, and values, for example.”

Robert Emmons, the leading researcher on gratitude, calls gratitude a secondary emotion.  He refers to Ekman’s research and agrees there isn’t a universally recognizable expression. Emmons thinks this may be because gratitude lags after the event and is often felt later.

No one questions gratitude exists and the discussion of where it arises from is valuable.


Gratitude is one of the most reliable ways to make you happier. Emmons says gratitude has the strongest link to mental health of any personality trait – stronger than optimism, hope or compassion. Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, says that her research found that gratitude and joy arose together in people’s experiences. Better sleep, less envy, and a longer lifespan are just a handful of many benefits that come from cultivating gratitude.

Being so pivotal to our well-being, understanding the source of gratitude can help us create practices to nuture its growth.


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