Gratitude is the Root of Human Excellence

Research into the benefits of gratitude is piling up. Gratitude is known to enhance positive emotions, increase self-esteem and keep suicidal thoughts at bay. It has also been found to make us more optimistic, increase our resilience and make us more giving.

Gratitude does not just have internal benefits. It also has social benefits like making us more likable, improving our romantic relationships, and improving our friendships. In short, being a grateful person dramatically increases your social influence over others.

In addition to this, gratitude is known to make us more effective leaders, improve decision-making, and help us find meaning in our work. This is in addition to a host of physical and health benefits.

In short, we are increasingly discovering that gratitude does not just make us feel better, it makes us more successful and more likable.

The place of gratitude in human success

I find it obvious that research would associate gratitude with all these benefits. This is because gratitude is, in fact, the root of human virtue. Gratitude is the fountain of human excellence. All that is best in a human being flows from a grateful heart.

Etsko Schuitema has beautifully articulated the place of gratitude in human excellence in his transactional correctness model. The big idea behind the transactional correctness model is that human virtue is a matter of being transactionally correct. In other words, human virtue is a matter of doing what is appropriate at the moment that you are in.

And this is what it means to succeed as a human being. We are used to associating success with outcomes. We tend to measure achievement based on what people have accumulated in their lives. It is precisely this notion of success that Care and Growth and Transactional Correctness challenges. From our perspective, success should be measured against what a person has contributed in their lives. We should not measure success by looking at how much a person has gotten or accumulated.

And, the quality of a person’s contribution is determined by their ability to do what is appropriate. And indeed, this makes sense. The sum total of your value as an individual must surely be a function of how well you faced all of the challenges, obstacles and opportunities that have been thrown your way. It might not show in your bank statement, but consistently doing what is appropriate is the only measure that actually means anything. After-all, it is not what others do to you that determines your worth, it is what you do to others.

Generosity and courage, the heart of human virtue

From a behavioural point of view, being transactionally correct and doing what is appropriate have two broad categories. In some circumstances, being appropriate requires generosity from you. In other situations, it requires courage. Generosity and courage then are the two core moral virtues.

There is a very good very reason for saying this. Broadly speaking, doing what is appropriate can either require that we put our possessions on the line; or it requires that we put ourselves on the line. There isn’t a third option. We either give of our stuff, or we give of ourselves. This difference defines the difference between generosity and courage. Generosity asks us to put our stuff on the line, courage asks us to put ourselves on the line. This is why courage is harder than generosity because it asks a higher price for us. Courage literally asks us to risk life, limb, and reputation.

Which of the two is required of us is determined by the situation that we are in. Some situations require generosity, some situations require courage. Some situations require us to be nice and kind, others require us to take a stand and take someone on. Part of becoming a mature person involves being able to recognize what the situation requires. This is a refined and hard-won skill. We call people who have not developed this skill “presumptuous”. This is because they are unable to see the situation as it is. These people consistently fail to act appropriately precisely because they are constantly misreading the circumstances that face them.

To be generous, you must be grateful

Generosity and courage are about action. They are both things we do out in the world. But, each has an inner quality of perception that is associated with it. This is one of the key insights in Etsko Schuitema’s transactional correctness model. Everything we do in the world has corresponding thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and motivations associated with it. These are the inner reflections of our outward actions.

Gratitude is the inner reflection of generosity. To be generous means giving to give away. Or, giving without the expectation that we should receive anything in return. When we give things with the expectation that we get something in return, we are not really being generous; we are investing.

This ability to be able to give things unconditionally is not possible in the absence of gratitude. We see this most profoundly if we look at the opposite of gratitude, which is resentment. When you are resentful, the only thing you want to give to another is a kick in the teeth. If you do manage to coerce yourself into giving, it is done in the spirit of investment.

It is only grateful people that are truly able to give away. Because a grateful person feels like they have received more than their due. This is the heart of gratitude. Gratitude is the recognition that I have received more than I believe I deserve. Gratitude is thus a real experience of fullness, of having been given more than you anticipated. This makes the grateful person like an overflowing cup. They experience themselves as having more than they want, making it natural for them to give stuff away. And once it is given, a truly grateful person forgets that they gave it and most certainly does not expect anything in return.

To be courageous, you must be trusting

We see then that gratitude enables generosity. But that is not the end of the story. Gratitude also enables our courage, but it does so in a more indirect way. How it does this is by enabling trust.

Trust is the inner reflection of courage. Courage means putting yourself on the line. It means acting in a way that may cause you personal harm. This includes harm of any sort. This may include physical harm when you courageously put yourself between a neighbour’s store and unruly looters. It could be reputation harm when you do not “follow the herd”. Or it may be harm to your significance when you have a tough conversation that might go wrong. It could be harm to your job security when you take a risk on a subordinate and give them room to grow.

A person who does not trust life will struggle to take the required risks in these situations. Courageous people have the ability to forego control over their own affairs in favour of doing what the moment requires. If you are not at all trusting, you will want to cover your wickets. Distrustful people are highly risk-averse. Because of this, they struggle to show courage when it is required.

The ability to take risks is a key ingredient to success. This is a feature of most hyper-successful people. They are all, in their own ways, courageous enough to take immense risks and really go out on a limb chasing something radically innovative and unknown. A heart that trusts and believes in the future will have the fortitude to put itself on the line in the present.

Gratitude is the root of trust

But, as I mentioned, gratitude is the root of trust. Gratitude is backward-looking in time. Trust is forward-looking in time. If you are grateful for something, it will be for something that has happened in the past. When you trust, you believe that things will be ok in the future.

Now, if you look to your past with resentment, it will be impossible to turn to your future with trust. If you look back with bitterness and the belief that you have been done in, you can’t look forward with genuine optimism. A person that looks backward with gratitude will look forward with trust. If life has always been good to me, then I will not feel anxious about the future. I will be able to take the risks required of me with the belief that I do not need to micro-manage all of my own affairs, I just need to do what is appropriate at the moment that I am in.

Gratitude then is the root of all that is best in a human being. A grateful person looks back with appreciation and looks forward with hope and optimism. They give freely of what they have and stand for justice when it is required. They are deeply loved by those around them because care comes naturally and they enable the best in others.

A grateful person is contagious. They help others see the good in things. They bring light to situations that are experienced as heavy and dark. Gratitude is also something that can be consciously and deliberately cultivated. We can choose to see the blessing in things, just like we can choose to see the curse.

If these ideas resonate with you, I highly recommend attending our personal excellence program. It is a profoundly transformative experience. You can completely re-invent your life towards any possibility should you wish to do so.

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