What's so great about being grateful: Philosophy professor Josh Harris on gratitude
Last fall, King’s philosophy professor Joshua Harris was awarded a research grant to study the psychological, philosophical and theological dimensions of gratitude. His most recent article, “The Human Arts of Graceful Giving and Grateful Receiving,” reflects on the foundational work of the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca and its relevance for understanding gratitude today. The article was published by Renovatio in October, together with a podcast conversation with Asad Tarsin of Zaytuna College, an Islamic liberal arts college in Berkeley, California.
Gratitude is something we all know about intrinsically but is sometimes hard to define. Harris defines it as a proper response that a recipient of a gift owes to a benefactor.
“Seneca says gratitude has a lot to do with being attentive not just to the thing that is being received, but also to the intention of the benefactor; the one who is giving the gift,” Harris explains. “When my friend pays for my lunch, it’s not just the food on the plate that’s being offered, it’s an extension of goodwill.”
But the effects of gratitude reverberate far beyond the immediate context of personal politeness. According to Harris, we should seriously consider what Seneca says about gratitude as being a social currency that improves relationships in society more expansively. “When Seneca is talking about fellowship, he’s talking about that social glue that holds things together. Upon analysis, Seneca thinks that social glue is this fundamental gift exchange.”
There is also an intimate relationship between gratitude to God and social gratitude, as contemporary empirical studies in psychology have demonstrated. People who have consistent attitudes of gratitude toward God also report higher levels of resilience and stronger relationships with other people. Harris doesn’t think the studies get it 100-percent correct, though.
“One quibble I have with the psychology studies is they’re very interested in talking about gratitude as an 'emotion'. There certainly is an emotional component to it—but there’s also a profoundly cognitive element to gratitude. It’s a correct recognition of a gift or blessing, not just a feeling.”
According to Harris, the more ancient concept of virtue better explains gratitude’s holistic character, including not just its emotional, but also its intellectual and spiritual dimensions.
For these reasons and others, Harris thinks that the best way for believers to begin cultivating gratitude in their lives is by practicing the spiritual disciplines of attentiveness such as prayer and worship. After all, “it’s that recognition of things as gifts which is the first step” to living gratefully.
Listen to Harris talk about the article on the Renovatio podcast: https://renovatio.zaytuna.edu/media/graceful-giving-and-grateful-receiving