As this is Thanksgiving week in the US, I have been thinking about gratitude. Especially in difficult times like the current moment, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it can be helpful to remember all of the things for which we have to be thankful.

In a philosophy discussion I was leading not too long ago, a nine-year-old child reflected that we should always be grateful to have a life, no matter what is going on in our lives. He said, “When you’re alive, you’re always happy to be alive.” For him, gratitude entailed not thankfulness for anything in particular, but a constant state of awareness of the gift of being alive.

For many people, though, considering the specific reasons they have to be grateful can be enhance their joy in living. Psychological research suggests that giving thanks is associated with greater happiness.

This year the New York Times is inviting its readers to engage in an activity that asks them to say in six words what makes them grateful. Selections from the responses will appear in a forthcoming newsletter.

But what is gratitude? My colleague Karen Emmerman created an exercise to inspire exploration of this question. 

Start with an anecdote about receiving a gift that is disappointing. As a result, you are not feeling particularly grateful. You can use an example from real life, but it also works to make something up or think of an example from a book. Then ask the students to think silently on their own for a few minutes about these two questions (writing ideas down if they’d like):

1. What does it mean to be grateful for something?
2. Do you have to be grateful if you don’t like the thing you got?

After the students have reflected about these two questions, ask them to share their answers. You might spend some time determining exactly what gratitude is. At least one person usually suggests that gratitude can involve pretending to like something you do not like. It’s helpful to ask questions to push the students to think about whether gratitude has a broader meaning. 

The discussion around this question is often quite rich. Students sometimes start with fairly prosaic answers to the second question, such as, “Yes, you should be grateful even if you get rocks as a present.” Try to probe further and get them thinking about whether one really does need to be grateful if someone gives them something awful. Is it really the thought that counts? What if the person gave you something they really wanted for themselves just so they can borrow it? What are the limits of gratitude? Does it count as grateful to express gratitude that you do not genuinely feel? Is feeling grateful important?

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