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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

What is gratitude? A feeling, an action, or a character trait?

Updated: Jan 8

A woman standing in a field of yellow flowers with an expression of gratitude

Gratitude. That’s a word one hears a lot at this time of year, the season of Thanksgiving. We are encouraged to have an attitude of gratitude, to demonstrate, express, or practice gratitude, and to be grateful. So… is gratitude a feeling, or an action, or a character trait? Or possibly all three?

Type the question “what is gratitude?" into the Google search bar and it will generate more than 500 billion results. That’s a LOT of answers. Let’s look at some of them…

What is gratitude?

First, it’s a noun. That means it’s a person, place, or thing. Chances are there is at least one person named Gratitude; and there is one place, the city of Gratitude, Maryland; but I’m pretty sure gratitude is a thing. What type of thing?

The word gratitude originates from the Latin word gratus, which means pleasing or thankful. It is defined as the quality of being thankful and a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Synonyms for gratitude include acknowledgment, appreciativeness, indebtedness, thankfulness, gratefulness, honor, and praise.

Gratitude can be a spontaneous feeling as well as a conscious positive emotion. It is something that can be expressed to acknowledge a feeling of thankfulness. And gratefulness is considered not only a temporary mood but also a more lasting personality trait.

Therefore, gratitude is a feeling or emotion, and a behavior or action, and a personality or character trait. And possibly more. Let’s explore each of these qualities of gratitude.

Gratitude can be a feeling or an emotion

Gratitude often originates as a feeling. We recognize that we have experienced something good, something positive, and we feel grateful.

Gratitude researchers, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, psychology professors from the University of California, describe the experience of gratitude as having two components:

  1. An awareness or recognition of a positive outcome we have received or obtained.

  2. Acknowledging that an external source is responsible for the positive experience or outcome.

The emotion of gratitude we experience may be temporary or more long-lasting. One way to extend the good feelings of gratitude is to make gratitude an intentional action we practice with regularity.

Gratitude can be a behavior or an action

The practice of expressing gratitude can either flow out of feeling grateful or it can come first. As explained in Gratitude Is a Choice, our actions can lead to feelings as well as the other way around.

Behaviors that demonstrate gratitude are numerous and include saying thank you, writing a note of thanks, giving gifts, keeping a gratitude journal, and meditating on what we are thankful for.

Gratitude can become a way of life when we practice it consistently. It can even be considered a character trait or virtue.

Gratitude can be a personality or character trait

The Roman Statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), is credited with saying, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” To be considered a grateful person is to embody a desirable character trait.

Having a predisposition to gratefulness is a stable trait that helps us be more resilient in the ups and downs of daily life. Even when things are going wrong, the grateful person sees lessons to be learned and focuses on the bright side.

Gratitude is a worthwhile trait to cultivate. In upcoming blogs, we will explore the many benefits to experiencing gratitude, explore how it makes us more successful in our relationships and professional lives, and how we can make gratitude a way of life.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” ~ Melody Beattie

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