So let’s try to define just what gratitude is in our experience. I have found it helpful to think of some things that might be thought of as gratitude, but really are not. For example, gratitude is more than saying, “Thank you” when someone gives you something. Gratitude is more than an action which we decide to do by an act of will power. You can say the words, “thank you” when there is not gratitude in your heart at all. Custom may dictate that you say the words when you don’t really appreciate what has been done for you. What it takes to turn the words, “thank you” into gratitude is the real genuine feeling of gratitude. Gratitude is a feeling that arises uncoerced in the heart. It cannot be willed into existence directly if it is not there. If you give a ten year-old a necktie or a pair of socks for Christmas, he may dutifully say, “Thank you,” but the spontaneous feeling of gratitude will probably not be there, like it would be if you gave him a new electronic game or hockey stick. Gratitude is a feeling not an act of will power. And it is a good feeling. When it rises in our hearts, we like it. It is part of happiness, not misery. Gratitude is a form of delight.
But gratitude is more than delighting in a gift. It is more than feeling happy that you got something you wanted. For example, if you give that ten year-old the electronic game, he might just rip open the package, say, “Wow,” and walk away and start bragging how much better his game is than his neighbor’s. He might not even give a thought to the kindness you did for him in giving him the game. He delights in getting the gift, but he is still an ungrateful child because his delight is not directed to you the giver. So gratitude is more than delighting in a gift. It is a feeling of happiness directed toward a person for giving you something good. It is a happiness that comes not merely from the gift, but from the act of giving. Gratitude is a happy feeling you have about a giver because of his giving something good to you or doing something good for you.
But one more qualification has to be made: generally we don’t send our employer a thank you note every payday. This does not mean that we don’t feel grateful that we have a job, and that we have the strength to earn money, and that our employer pays us fairly. What it means is that the emotion of gratitude generally rises in direct proportion to how undeserved a gift is. Where work and pay are commensurate, we do not feel pay as an undeserved kindness, but as our due, and therefore the feeling of gratitude is not very intense toward our employer. He has not done us a favor; we have traded favors.