GRATITUDE: Science and perspective

Author: Milan Rajković, PhD

Table of Contents

Gratitude is a concept intuitively understood by every human being. But what exactly is gratitude and what are the origins of gratitude? Why are some people more grateful than others? Is there a way to enhance the feeling of gratitude and can the spirit of benevolence be build up during lifetime? Answers to these and other relevant questions will be explored in the following text.


gratitude, science

General Introduction

In order to clarify the meaning and the scope of the concept it is necessary to first define the term and due to the extent of its implication on many aspects of our lives, and present an introduction to various aspects of its analysis.

Gratitude is an intrinsic component of human experience, and although each person is intuitively aware of its presence and significance, it may be defined in several different ways. For example, gratitude is a state of recognition of receiving a positive feedback from an external source. Or, it may be defined as a process of recognizing that a person, or a group, has received a positive outcome from an external source.

In each case there is person, or persons, recognizing positive result of one’s action or thoughts and there is an external source which may be a person or it may be an unknown or known entity, not necessarily human. Also, there is a gift or reward exchanged between two sides involved.

Research in the area of neuroscience has identified areas of the human (and animal) brain that are involved in experiencing and expressing gratitude, indicating that gratitude has an important role in the life of humans and animals. Numerous studies have also identified specific genes responsible for the ability to express and experience gratitude. Several cognitive factors have been identified that can impact on the quantity of gratitude a person feels under certain circumstance.

These encompass the perceived motives and intentions of the benefactor, i.e. the reasons for performing the favorable act which may be perceived as due to altruism, selfish motives, expected gains, the perceived value of the gift or reward, or from the gratitude itself as a feedback from previous transactions. One should not exclude metaphysical factors that could be involved in case the perceived benefactor is not a person and whether the receiver believes in free will. After all, most of the major religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, praise gratitude as an important moral virtue and a core practice to a wholesome fulfilling life. It occupies a central place in Buddhist philosophy and it inspired many philosophical treatises throughout history.

Here are few quotes by philosophers:

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
-Marcus Tullius Cicero

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The desire for imaginary benefits often involves the loss of present blessings.”

“He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.”

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
-Pericles (Athenian statesman)

“Grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.”

Adam Smith, a pioneer of political economy, considered gratitude as vital for maintaining a society based on goodwill.

Ample scientific evidence shows that gratitude, either as a feeling of or benevolence, along with altruistic behavior is a complex concept that involves many aspects of personal, psychological, cognitive, social and religious aspects, which act separately or in entangled way with each other. Thus, in order to shed light to this phenomenon it is necessary to inspect each perspective and try to provide an enveloping perception.

Social benefits of gratitude

Gratitude is, among other things, a way in which the world around us is perceived. In much simplified terms a person may feel grateful for the life he/she leads, building resilience against emotions of envy and dissatisfaction. The other perspective is a life without satisfaction for the current way of life, a life that always looks forward in the future but accompanied by feelings of envy, dissatisfaction and entitlement. Clearly the former perspective gives rise to a much better social interactions and honest relationships between individuals, strengthening the society in general.

It is easy to envision gratitude as an important social factor due to its influence on creation of bonds and relationships between persons or group of people. Various social studies have shown that gratitude motivates people to be more generous and helpful to others, help them in creating new relationships and strengthening the existing ones, and improve the workplace environment. Research suggests that gratitude inspires people to be more generous, kind, and helpful (or “prosocial”); strengthens relationships, including romantic relationships; and may improve the climate in workplaces.

Numerous studies and observations confirm that gratitude can be envisaged as an emotional experience comprised of three hierarchical levels: affective trait, mood, and emotion. These three levels are intertwined in the sense that each may influence the other two. Affective traits, as defined by psychologist Erika Rosenberg, are “stable predispositions toward certain types of emotional responding” (Rosenberg, 1998). Thus, some people may have a more grateful disposition but the main question is what this disposition depends on. Moods multiply, increase and wane throughout day or across days. And emotions are usually short-term reactions to a particular event which brings some kind of reward or gift.

Several studies have explored how gratitude affects other emotions. An important finding is that gratitude and indebtedness can be considered as separate constructs in contrast to the previously wide spread acceptance as being overlapping. (Goei & Boster, 2005). Analysis of various cases indicate that people feel much more grateful when they know a helper has benevolent intentions than when a favor is offered due to ulterior motives (Tsang, 2006). Also, a recipient’s gratitude decreases and indebtedness increases in such cases.

Several animal species as diverse as fish, birds, and bats all display a trait scientifically labelled as “reciprocal altruism”: They will commence behavior that helps another, unrelated animal of its own species even at a cost to themselves. Apparently they recognize in a instinctual manner that the other animal may repay the favor at a later date (Trivers, 1971). In the referenced paper by R. Trivers, in which the concept of “reciprocal altruism” was introduced, the author hypothesized that “the emotion of gratitude has been selected to regulate human response to altruistic acts and that the emotion is sensitive to the cost/ benefit ratio of such acts.”

The subtle relationship between gratitude and reciprocal altruism may help explain the finding that people feel more grateful for gifts and rewards provided by strangers or more distant acquaintances than they do for similar benefits provided by close relatives and that gratitude increases people’s trust in others, preferably toward people they don’t know well already (Dunn & Schweitzer, 2005).

Gratitude and the brain

Naturally, neuroscientists have expressed interest in finding out which regions of the human brain are active during expressions and emotions of gratitude and altruistic acts. A number of neuroimaging studies have been performed with this aim, particularly relying on the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The finding of these studies is that emotions involved in maintaining social values, such as pride and gratitude, activate regions in the mesolimbic and basal forebrain, also involved in feelings of reward and the formation of social linkage. (Zahn et al., 2009). A sequel research study found that individuals who more willingly experience gratitude have more gray matter in their right inferior temporal cortex, an area previously linked to interpreting other people’s intentions.

Several other studies, along with the one already mentioned, suggest that gratitude involves appraising the moral intentions and actions of others, is inherently social, and likely feels rewarding as well. For more grateful people this means that it could be self-perpetuating.
Another aspect of the relationship between gratitude and the brain is how expressing gratitude is processed in the brain. One paradigmatic study considered participants who were expressing gratitude in the form of charity donations of money they have received for an experiment.

Gratitude expression quantification, evaluated by the money donated to the charity, was directly correlated with more activity in the parietal and lateral prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain associated with making mental calculations. Thus, it was inferred that gratitude is not just emotional process but also cognitive. This study also that a gratitude expression can have lasting brain changes even months after the gratitude was conveyed. Another important finding based on this and other studies showed that practicing gratitude may increase brain activity related to predicting how our actions affect other people, so participants were directing their actions which would have a positive impact on others.

All the studies related to the brain indicate an intricate and deep connection between cognitive, emotional and behavioral aspects of human mental activity. Also, activities of various brain regions relate to differences in gratitude across individuals.

Gratitude and genetics

Several studies were conducted to explore whether genetics may shed more light on the fact that some people have higher dispositional gratitude than others. Some of these studies involved twins, in some cases genetically identical twins, which resulted in the identification of the genetic component of gratitude. The conclusion of one study is that a particular variation in the CD38 gene, which is involved in the secretion of oxytocin (sometimes labeled as a love hormone), was significantly associated with the quality and repetitive pattern of expressions of gratitude toward a romantic partner in both an experimental setting and in daily life.

These findings imply that oxytocin, a hormone implicated in social bonding and in the formation of meaningful and important relationships, may also be involved in feelings of gratitude. Another recent study indicates that people with particular variants of the COMT gene, which is involved in the recycling of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, have more pronounced predisposition for gratitude. This and other studies imply an important role dopamine may also play in the experience and expression of gratitude.

In summary, related to the connection between human genetics and gratitude, it may be inferred that gratitude plays an important part of the human biology and genetic heritage, suggesting additional studies are needed to find out about developmental origins of gratitude.

Developmental Origins

Genetics research indicates that gratitude has deep evolutionary and biological roots. Of special interest is how gratitude develops from an early age throughout childhood of the individual. These studies not only point to the deep human predisposition for gratitude but may also suggest parenting and educational strategies for further developing this virtue in childhood.

However, recent cross-cultural studies have found cultural differences in the development of different forms of gratitude expression, suggesting that socialization — via parents and the larger culture — likely plays an important role in the development and manifestation of gratitude in children.


As already mentioned in the introduction, gratitude is an important component of many religious traditions, and a number of studies and observations have been conducted to find out relationships between personal religiosity and gratitude. Almost all religions teach that gratitude is a reflection of individual’s integrity, courtesy and respect for others. The most extensive and personal practice of gratitude should be expressed and extended to our relatives, friends, community, even the environment.

Some studies showed that more grateful people reported higher intrinsic religiosity, indicating that their commitment with respect to religion is for its own sake. On the other hand there were individuals who reported lower extrinsic religiosity implying that their commitment to religion had other motives related to rewards and gains, such as an improved social status.

Other studies have found positive associations between gratitude and a number of religious attributes, including frequently engaging in religious practices, ascribing importance to religion, having a personal relationship with God, experiencing spiritual transcendence and so on. Another recent study that explored the relationship between religion and gratitude in people ages 17 to 24 found that religious efficacy (“experiencing an answer to one’s prayers and/or a miracle from God”) and having friends who are religious were positively associated with feelings of gratitude


There is no doubt that culture, with or without accompanying religion, plays an important role in accepting and offering gratitude as an integral part of one’s psychological and social life. Studies in anthropology and sociology indicate cultural variations in expressions of gratitude, and naturally people from different cultures may vary in their internal experiences of gratitude as well.

Differences in conceptualization of gratitude are easily noticed in different cultures: people from distinct cultures and across continents are experiencing gratitude more frequently and more intensely. In some cultures gratitude is linked with various negative emotions including guilt, indebtedness, embarrassment, and awkwardness while in some is the opposite. According to the researchers, their findings suggest that “gratitude may contain a common core with culturally ubiquitous features, in addition to socially constructed elements that change depending on the culture being studied.”


  1. Rosenberg, E. L. (1998). Levels of analysis and the organization of affect. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 247–270. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.2.3.247
  2. Goei, R., & Boster, F. J. (2005). The Roles of Obligation and Gratitude in Explaining the Effect of Favors on Compliance. Communication Monographs, 72(3), 284–300. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637750500206524
  3. Tsang, J.-A. (2006b). The effects of helper intention on gratitude and indebtedness. Motivation and Emotion, 30(3), 198–204. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-006-9031-z
  4. Trivers, R. L. (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 46(1), 35–57. https://doi.org/10.1086/406755
  5. Dunn, J. R., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2005). Feeling and Believing: The Influence of Emotion on Trust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(5), 736–748. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.88.5.736
  6. Zahn, R., Moll, J., Paiva, M., Garrido, G., Krueger, F., Huey, E. D., & Grafman, J. (2009). The neural basis of human social values: Evidence from functional MRI. Cerebral Cortex, 19(2), 276–283. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhn080

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