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Gratitude wine toast

This Thanksgiving, Don’t Confuse Gratitude with Humility

To treat gratitude as a form of humility is an affront to all who choose to create values and benefit us.

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This Thanksgiving, as Covid abates, we have much to be thankful for. We should acknowledge the efforts of so many of the industrious people who have helped us make it through the worst of the pandemic. Recognizing what is good in life, including what others have contributed, is also helpful in pausing to take stock of our lives, as many of us have good reason to do during the holidays.

But there is an increasingly popular view of how to use gratitude to take stock that we should be on guard against.

A leading advocate of the view is psychologist Robert Emmons, touted as “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude.” Emmons argues that his research reveals how cultivating gratitude about the good things in our lives contributes to better physical and mental health. But for Emmons, expressing gratitude means recognizing “the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves, [not] from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride.” “We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves,” says Emmons, “but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others.”

Many have begun to follow Emmons’s advice and keep gratitude journals of all the good things in their lives. But is the idea of gratitude as “humble dependence” on other people correct?

No. This view denies crucial facts about the efficacy of human choices.

Supposing that we are all “humbly dependent” undercuts any basis for expressing real gratitude. Clearly we owe a debt of gratitude to the healthcare workers and scientists who have helped us through the pandemic. But if we are all humbly dependent on others, then so are these pandemic workers. How then can they take credit for their accomplishments? Didn’t they depend on teachers, employers, insurance companies, and taxpayers? And aren’t those on whom they depended themselves dependent on still others?

If everyone is humbly dependent and no one can ever take credit for his or her accomplishments, then it’s not obvious why we should ever be grateful to anyone for the good works they’ve done for us. 

Part of expressing gratitude is thinking our benefactors deserve our praise, and should be proud of themselves for making the right choice.

Surely many who sympathize with viewing gratitude as humility will acknowledge that people can at least be credited for their actions in the sense that they sometimes act on their better character traits in an unforced way. But even as he grants this, Emmons suggests that anyone who has accomplished anything must acknowledge that their parents, teachers, mentors, and peers helped make who we are possible. He generally downplays the idea that “we are our own creators and that our lives are ours to do with as we please.”

If no one can take ultimate credit for what kind of person he or she is, any “gratitude” we express for someone’s good works will just be passed on like a perpetually hot potato, with no one ever being able to enjoy it. It’s not clear why anyone would want to receive gratitude as empty as this.

It’s true that no one creates himself out of a vacuum. But some take the abilities and resources they start with and choose to make something new and valuable with them. Some people take what they are given to become successful nurses, doctors, scientists, and businesspeople, while others who begin with the same — or even richer — opportunities don’t. None of us decided it would be nice to live through a pandemic, but some found ways to transform their lives for the better in the face of it, while others with the same resources and abilities decided to sit on the couch.

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It’s because they’ve made a difference with what they have that we give people credit for their accomplishments. We say “thank you” for a benefit which someone didn’t have to create or bestow. Part of expressing gratitude is thinking our benefactors deserve our praise, and should be proud of themselves for making the right choice.

There probably are psychological benefits from recognizing what’s good in our lives. Too many people take what’s good for granted. Appreciation for the good does include expressing gratitude to our benefactors. But just as others deserve credit for what they do for us, so do we when we do accomplish things for ourselves. And then we should also take genuine pride in our own accomplishments.

This Thanksgiving, do take a moment to express gratitude to the family and friends who have added meaning to your life. And raise a glass to the heroes of science and industry who’ve helped us weather the storm of Covid. Do it not because we are humbly dependent on others, but on the premise that they should be proud of their own accomplishments.  

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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, PhD in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. Ben is an associate editor of New Ideal.

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