The Benefits of Gratitude: Self-Love and its Limitations for an Ethical Life

Christmas is six weeks behind us, yet a post on gratitude is probably appropriate for any season. In December, the “Gift Guide” of SF Chronicle published A Gift of Gratitude by Nancy Davis Kho.

Kho is author of the “Thank-You Project,” whose objective is to inspire persons to compose one letter a week, expressing appreciation for those who’ve positively influenced their lives. Kho cites a touching first-person example. A letter written to her dad impacted him to such a degree that he framed it above his desk. Tragically, he died only six months later from cancer.

By regularly composing letters of gratitude, Kho noted the salutary effects. Stress and anxiety would abate as she reflected on good done to her in the past. Such effects come as no surprise from the Christian doctrine that humans are made in God’s image and thus reflect his character. Kho saw fit, however, to cite a scientific study, not religion to buttress claims about gratitude’s benefits. She writes,

Neuroscientists consider an authentic expression of gratitude to be one of the most effective ways to reset the parasympathetic nervous system; studies say it improves the quality of sleep, decreases blood pressure and can even improve asthma control.

Kho’s citation of recent empirical research is intriguing for several reasons. As a broad generalization, secular audiences are receptive to any mention of “science” in support of issues, particularly controversial ones such as gender identity or climate change. There is much to say here about the importance of defining terms, but the idea is clear: empirical evidence carries great weight with many people, ethical topics included. Kho concludes her article with the infomercial-esque pitch that, “I stumbled onto the scientifically proven formula for creating increased resiliency, happiness and hope.”

Kho’s article made me think of arguments made in The Nature of True Virtue, a short ethical treatise written by New England theologian Jonathan Edwards’ (1703–1758). Edwards lived in a time where many intellectuals were arguing for moral systems that had nothing to do with God. Traditional Christian teaching grounded ethics in human obedience to divinely revealed commands and Edwards’ proceeded to defend this view in an eighteenth-century context.

Edwards’ insight is evident as he explores the causes of ethical living rather than its mere effects. He concedes that in this world, men and women act rightly apart from a relationship to God. Nevertheless, he believed that the intrinsic motivations for doing such are of greatest significance.

The antithesis of virtue, sin, lies in selfishness, or more specifically, self-love. Edwards writes,

No affection whatsoever to any creature, or any system of created beings, which is not dependent on, nor subordinate to a propensity of union of the heart to God, the supreme and infinite Being can be of the nature of true virtue.

Any assessment from experience would likely conclude that men and women act uprightly most of the time. For example, citizens of a country pay taxes, honor contracts, and obey traffic laws. They are compelled, however, on pain of privation such as fines or imprisonment. If, some noble persons obey out of intrinsic regard to the law or lawgiver(s), distinctions between each could not be found in the effects produced.

And this brings us to Nancy Kho’s reflections on gratitude. Judging from Scripture, an attitude of appreciation and thankfulness being beneficial to oneself and others makes sense, yet there are fundamental flaws for an ethical foundation built on self-gratification. What happens when biologists argue that monogamy is an unnatural condition that tends towards unhappiness? Or what about loving and remaining with a difficult spouse rather than seek a divorce? Here we find that an ethics of self-love clashes with that grounded in divine love.

If people are better morally when they maintain an attitude of thankfulness argued Edwards, this should be attributed to God’s grace not man’s goodness. He explains that, “The present state of the world is so constituted by the wisdom and goodness of its Supreme Ruler, that these natural principles, for the most part, tend to the good of mankind.” Pity, gratitude, parental affection, “agree with the tendency of general benevolence, which seeks and tends to the general good.”

Society benefits from such actions, but it could be otherwise. Self-love is thus an inadequate foundation for morality. Many in 21st century western society boast of unprecedented opportunities for individual happiness without the restraints of institutions and traditions. This is true in some respects. On the other hand, our culture is marked by an increasing narcissism and though such an ethos is producing socially-inept persons, the remedy from many quarters remains the same: “love yourself!”

Apart from principle and systems, there is a profound humbling that comes when love for God is the basis for an ethical life. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus encountered a sincere moralist who claimed to have kept the commandments Jesus mentioned, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ He eagerly answered: “All these I’ve kept since I was a boy.” In a surprising twist Jesus tells the young man, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” From a human perspective, the young man had lived a righteous, balanced, complete life. But it was this very perspective that obscured the divine judgment.

Jesus’ words remind us anew that despite our best efforts we always “lack one thing.” Self-love deludes us into believing we are sufficiently moral in ourselves, yet looking to Christ draws us to the proper source of goodness, to whom we pray “grant what you command.”[1]

Nancy Ko’s Thank-you Project is admirable, and following suit would be a benefit to most of us. And yet, there is much Christ asks of us that won’t make sense, scientifically or otherwise, if we are our chief end.

[1]This line comes from a prayer in Augustine’s Confessions which was vehemently opposed by the British monk Pelagius who believed that a person had complete power to do good apart from God’s prior grace acting upon them.