Man praising at sunset in grass field

As the study of gratitude has gained popularity in psychology, the case for the ways in which practicing intentional gratitude improves one’s life has been made multiple times and in multiple ways. Further, the hallmarks of what makes up the complex emotional construct we call gratitude and what markers we can consistently point to as evidence of a grateful life have been and continue to be thoroughly explored. Maybe at this point, the next and most necessary step is to explore the quality of the gratitude someone expresses—the cost of giving thanks if you will—and its impact on whether or not the general feeling related to being thankful translates to a wholesale reorientation of one’s life around gratitude.

It is abundantly clear that gratitude is more than just the set of good feelings that accompanies everything from a stranger holding the door for us to the full-body relief of being given a meal when we thought we’d go hungry again. Rather, as some have posited, gratitude is the pivot on which all other positive emotional responses turn. As noted in Tiffany Musick Matthews’ article “What Good Is Gratitude?” there are a raft of personal and spiritual benefits that come along with living thankfully. Better health, more restful sleep, and less anxiety are just some of the benefits of making a practice of gratitude and shifting from the “state” of feeling grateful to the “trait” of living that way. 1

Despite these clearly defined benefits, there is no evidence of a sweeping cultural shift in the direction of consistent thankfulness. Even a casual examination of the stories retold in various media outlets each day offer more evidence of discontent than the counting of our blessings in any consistent fashion. And doctors still prescribe pills rather than plans for thanksgiving to address the very same problems studies indicate gratitude can help assuage. So why aren’t people more grateful?

Related Article: Choosing the Right Type of Happiness

Community and Quality—It Takes Two to Make a Thing Go Right

The answer, it would seem, comes where the necessity of community and the choice to embrace being thankful in all situations intersect. First, gratitude involves other people. It is not completely self-actualized. Rather, it cannot be extricated from relationship, and that means we can’t control where gratitude will take us on an interpersonal level. It’s paradoxical, but we sometimes fear the possibility of feeling better because it’s outside our control. And, not to trivialize the situation, people so often let each other down

So the trust that accompanies deep gratitude is a choice to engage with people who, as humans, will likely make being thankful difficult. And to keep engaging. This purposeful sense of relationship provides the second reason gratitude isn’t a pop culture wave washing over America. There are different qualities of gratitude, and the ones that lead to the trait rather than state of thankfulness are more difficult to employ. This makes defining the difference between being grateful when it is convenient and being grateful period critical. It also means that as much as one can form a propensity toward extending deep gratitude, one can develop a habitually shallow orientation toward gratitude as well.

Psychologist Robert Emmons makes a point of steering the conversation toward defining the quality of thankfulness when he quotes German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s take on gratitude: “In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”

Bonhoeffer, who was later executed for his open resistance against the Nazis, wrote this from a prison cell. During the same period, he worked to distinguish a difference between cheap and costly grace, a distinction that bears a great deal on his understanding of thankfulness.

“Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin,” he writes. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves … Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.”

Thus, it is not enough to give grace if it is easy or merely because it benefits the giver. That cheapens the grace. Expensive grace costs, and that cost is integral to the value of what is being given.

The same principle, it would seem then, applies to gratitude. It’s easy to be thankful when we’re provided exactly what we’re hoping to get or when what we get is more than we expected to receive. Costly gratitude, however, is an expression of true thankfulness regardless of the circumstances. It may actually entail being grateful when we don’t get what we want or need. And costly gratitude definitely involves finding meaningful ways to create chances for others to be grateful as well. In fact, while cheap gratitude is focused on the self, an emphasis on the relationship context is what makes deep gratitude costly.

Cheap Gratitude Is Not Enough

Some would argue that a self-invested sense of gratitude is all humans have, that our sense of thankfulness is and can be nothing more than a deeply embedded component within our drive to improve our lives and the result of the way in which our brains operate at the physiological and neural levels. In this framework, gratitude is a constant, almost autonomic process of evaluating social situations in search of the most appropriate response for self-preservation. In a sense, it is seeking to guarantee ownership of our decision-making by replicating the correct emotional response. 2 And in many situations, gratitude is the most effective response to accomplish that goal; thus, how one is grateful is much less important than when they are. But if people merely task gratitude with the purpose of improving their own circumstances, then the potential for a cheap, self-serving thankfulness is very high. They also disconnect thankfulness from the broader social and spiritual purpose it serves within relationships.

This has often been obscured in the formation of the bumper sticker culture of gratitude that sprang up in America during the last couple decades of the 20th century. Emmons points out that “[m]uch of contemporary culture is … enamored with gratitude … [T]hese popular books consist of reflections on gratefulness, along with strategies for cultivating an attitude of gratitude. The essential message of these volumes is that a life oriented around gratefulness is the panacea for insatiable yearnings and life’s ills.” He disagrees, believing gratitude is “a multilayered concept that defies easy description or analysis.” As a result, there is something to the idea of the need to understand the nature of the gratitude that is being expressed and experienced as much as the need to feel and respond to it. This need begs the following question: Is all gratitude equally building? The answer, it would seem, depends heavily on who is the focus when a grateful orientation is pursued and how gratitude itself is defined or undefined.

Pushing toward a deeper expression of gratitude requires a particular vulnerability to others. In other words, it only happens in community, and it requires an honesty we are loathe to employ—that others deserve our thankfulness as much as or, likely, more than we do. This makes it critical to invest in what it means to give the various people with whom we are in relationship chances to be grateful. We must also define what it looks like to express deep gratitude in a variety of relational contexts, from the ones most intimately connected to our lives to the people we encounter on the street.

Related Article: What Good is Gratitude? The Role of Thanksgiving in Personal Development

Gratitude in Community—God First

The first and most important relationship in which we must invest in deep gratitude is with God. This is critical in that it immediately puts us in a situation in which it is difficult to operate from a position of deservedness. We are grateful because what we have been given is not the result of our own work nor is it something we can earn. From that starting point, our gratitude is rooted outside of our own control. This perspective has the capacity of heading off one of the potential pitfalls that come with gratitude. In some cases, cheap thankfulness can actually be confused with feelings of indebtedness, leading to a sense that gratitude is a form of repayment—something that can easily be seen as negative or a burden. 3

Costly gratitude requires an exchange. It calls friends to look for ways to out-give each other. It reminds parents to be grateful for their children when they’d rather not be and encourages children to value their parents’ sacrifices. It casts neighbors in a different light and coworkers as something more than competitors for the next promotion. Focusing first on our gratitude to Christ orients us toward deeper grace. As to what that means for the grateful person, Thomas Merton put it this way: “To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us—and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.

This is likely the reason the Bible is so insistent regarding our need to be grateful in all things. As the psalmist puts it in Psalm 28:7, “The LORD strengthens and protects me; I trust in him with all my heart. I am rescued and my heart is full of joy; I will sing to him in gratitude.” That promise of stability is further emphasized in Hebrews 12:28: “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe.” This gratitude is not designed to gain the individual who feels it anything in return. He or she has already been given what they need—God’s love. As a result, no matter what happens, we are encouraged to be thankful. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude.” (1 Timothy 4:4).

Love and Marriage

Engaging this type of expensive, outward-focused gratitude will definitely return personal benefits such as the ones discussed earlier. But, costly gratitude can also lead to improved relationships. In the Psychology Today article “Is Gratitude the Antidote to Relationship Failure?” Amie Gordon contends that committed love relationships grow and deepen when partners are committed to building upon habitual thankfulness.

“We found that gratitude can help relationships thrive by promoting a cycle of generosity,” she writes. “That is, that one partner’s gratitude can prompt both partners to think and act in ways that help them signal gratitude to each other and promote a desire to hold onto their relationships.”

This may be easy when the relationship is new or when conditions outside of it are positive. But the choice to be grateful without the expectation of getting anything in return, even when there is disconnection or hurt, is a form of that costly grace. The cycle that follows, according to Gordon, is: increased gratitude leads to a greater desire to work on the relationship, which leads to a partner feeling more appreciated, which completes the loop and leads to more corresponding gratitude from that partner.

This cycle of gratitude is in line with a trait of healthy relationships psychologists call the Michelangelo Phenomenon. Partners intuitively steer each other toward the traits they most value or appreciate within the relationship itself, a winnowing and seeding process that can in turn push people to becoming more idealized versions of themselves. In short, this series of interactions helps create a situation in which each partner can grow into the person he or she hopes to be.

“In ongoing, close relationships, a consequence of such day-to-day adaptations is that close partners fundamentally sculpt each other’s selves, chipping away some aspects of the self and revealing others,” writes Stephen Drigotas in “The Michelangelo Phenomenon and Personal Well-Being.”

Or, as Proverbs 27:17 puts it, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” While this phenomenon is generally subconscious, the ways in which people work to help bring out the best in their partners are generally practical, intentional choices made on a regular basis. And critical to this process is developing the trait of gratitude in relationship.

Related Article: In Sickness & in Health: Handling Conflict in Marriage and Relationships

All in the Family (As Long As That Family Includes Close Friends)

Returning to an earlier idea, one of the barriers to gratitude is the vulnerability the thought of being grateful can create in people. A 2011 New York Times article by John Tierney took aim at this idea in conjunction with the Thanksgiving holiday, which he calls the most “psychologically correct holiday of the year.” To compensate for this fear, he suggests that people begin their intentional shift toward the trait of gratitude by focusing on making expressions to family members and close friends. These relationships, even if strained, are the closest people have and carry a level of familiarity that others do not. In this way, testing the waters of gratitude in community can be done where the rules of that society are most clear. In essence, this can allow the fear of opening up to be limited, making the first steps easier to take. Close friends are also a starting point, potentially a better one than family if those relationships are strained or dysfunctional.

People We Meet

The most difficult group to address in the spectrum of relationships with regards to gratitude is likely the myriad people we meet, interact with briefly, and walk (or drive) away from on a daily basis. They are the strangers we wait in line behind at the store; the people who clean the theater after our movie ends; the legion of brief moments of human contact we have. In short, they are the people we have the least incentive to be grateful for in any more than a fleeting way because we assume we will not see them again. And this is why this group is likely the best measure of whether or not gratitude has become our practice. If there is going to be any indication of our having moved from the state of gratitude to the trait, it will come in how mindful we are of the people around us rather than merely whether our own needs have been met.

This is also a group that allows us to live out our calling to be witnesses of the love of Christ. When we commit to deep gratitude, we commit to giving even the people who may not benefit us directly reasons to be thankful when we come in contact with them. And that carries the potential to spread as those people move on about their days. However, if the impetus behind those acts cost the giver nothing, they are not apt to move beyond mere self-improvement.

“People feel grateful when they have benefited from someone’s costly, intentional, voluntary effort on their behalf,” explain Michael McCullough, et. al. in “An Adaptation for Altruism? The Social Causes, Social Effects, and Social Evolution of Gratitude.” “Experiencing gratitude motivates beneficiaries to repay their benefactors and to extend generosity to third parties. Expressions of gratitude also reinforce benefactors for their generosity.”

This is the source of concerted efforts to pay forward gratitude, such as the philosophical notion of the Random Acts of Kindness movement. Further, this is a way to spread peace, as another study claims that grateful people are less likely to respond aggressively when provoked because gratitude enhances their empathy. 4 Without a word or a tract, gratitude allows for our relationship with Christ to be writ large in the small moments. But this kind of gratitude cannot be a part of our lives unless we are vulnerable enough to choose difficult thankfulness an confident enough to engage in the communities our lives proffer us.

Learn More: PLNU’s MACC program prepares future counselors and therapists to help others flourish.


Recently, the research on emotions like gratitude has been picked up by the field of neuroscience. Perhaps surprisingly, the results of these early studies seems to underscore the importance of gratitude within a relationship context. In University of Southern California graduate researcher Glenn Fox’s estimation, thankfulness is “at the center of good human conduct and serves as a fulcrum by which people seek to do right by others.”

Fox and a team recently studied the physiology of gratitude using fMRI technology to identify where the brain responds to the experience of being thankful. The scans showed the brain activity accompanying the feeling of gratitude encompasses areas of the brain known for feeling happiness and interpersonal bonding.

Science confirms the importance of the relationship context for gratitude. If we want to develop the trait of gratitude, we clearly must settle for nothing less than costly gratitude—that is, gratitude that takes place in community.

1 Philip C. Watkins, Kathrane Woodward, Tamara Stone, and Russell L. Kolts. “Gratitude and Happiness: Development of a Measure of Gratitude, and Relationships with Subjective Well-Being.” Social Behavior and Personality, 2003, 31(5), 431-452.

2 Roland Zahn, Jorge Moll, Mirella Paiva, Griselda Garrido, Frank Krueger, and Edward D. Huey. “The Neural Basis of Human Social Values: Evidence from Functional MRI.” Cerebral Cortex. 19(2), 276-283.

3 Sara B. Algoe, Johnathan Haight, and Shelly L. Gable. “Beyond Reciprocity: Gratitude and Relationships in Everyday Life.” Emotion, 2008, Vol. 8(3), 425-429.

4 C. Nathan DeWall, Nathaniel M. Lambert, Richard S. Pond Jr, Todd B. Kashdan, and Frank D. Fincham.“A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, March 2012, 3(2) 232-240.

By Michael Dean Clark

PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.