When you think about gratitude and its place in our culture, you might not immediately think about morality—that is, matters of right and wrong.
Often, we make gratitude sound like it’s all about you. In the domain of self-help, we hear that gratitude is the single most important ingredient to living a successful and fulfilled life—or that when we are grateful, fear disappears and abundance appears.
In fact, research does support the idea that gratitude helps people who practice it. They report fewer physical symptoms of illness, more optimism, greater goal attainment, and decreased anxiety and depression, among other health benefits.
If you stop with feeling good, gratitude certainly seems more like a platitude than a moral emotion that motivates reciprocity and altruism. But here is where I think many of us get gratitude wrong.
There is a much older, pre-self-help conception of gratitude as an emotion with moral motivations. To first-century philosopher Cicero, gratitude was a matter of religious obligation “to the immortal gods.” Modern psychologists such as Michael McCullough and colleagues have systemized it this way: Gratitude is a “moral barometer”—an acknowledgement “that one has been the beneficiary of another…