The importance of gratitude
What's one of the most essential characteristics we need as we grow older? Gratitude, as Terry Martin argues in this thoughtful reflection on cultivating the art of thankfulness as we age:
These reflections were prompted by a conversation about a visit to an elderly relative who spends the whole time – on every visit – complaining that they feel their life no longer has any meaning or purpose. They were perceived as deeply ungrateful and consequently deeply unhappy. For, as Dennis Prager, an American broadcaster and author, writes: 'All happy people are grateful. Ungrateful people cannot be happy. We tend to think that being unhappy leads people to complain, but it’s truer to say that complaining leads to people becoming unhappy.'1
Gratitude and ingratitude are deeply moral qualities. Prager goes on to say that ingratitude always leads to or comes from victimhood, and that ingratitude is always accompanied by anger. The anger comes from a sense of entitlement and ensuing disappointment when expectations are not met.
Because gratitude is the key to happiness, anything that undermines gratitude must undermine happiness. And nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. There is an inverse relationship between expectations and gratitude: The more expectations you have, the less gratitude you will have.
Because so much of human life is about giving, receiving, and repaying, gratitude is a pivotal concept for our social interactions. The sociologist Georg Simmel declared that gratitude is 'the moral memory of mankind.'2 If every grateful action, he went on to say, were suddenly eliminated, society would crumble.
Gratitude is fundamentally about not taking things for granted. It is being thankful for what we have and receive.3 In other words, it is to acknowledge our interdependence, the essential social nature of our existence. We all begin our lives totally dependent upon others, and many end their lives in this way. This can result in ingratitude and resentment on the one hand, or in gratitude and thankfulness on the other. In our contemporary culture independence is highly valued and admired. Although this can often be appropriate, it can lead to a denial of the fact that much that happens to us in life is beyond our control.
Grateful people sense that much goodness happens independently of their actions or even in spite of themselves. Gratitude implies humility – a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others.4
In the timeless words of the prayer of General Thanksgiving we beseech God to 'give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days.'5
Once again, an outcome of gratitude is to be outwardly focused on service and the needs of others. The Serenity Prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), is commonly quoted as: 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.'6
Old age can be a time of looking back over one’s life, taking stock, coming to terms with missed opportunities and disappointments, yet despite it all feeling grateful for having been blessed with the gift of life.
An elderly person may not be in a position to act out their courage which may fall upon the shoulders of a carer in an advocacy role. Nevertheless, gratitude can bring both the serenity of acceptance together with the wisdom of old age. In caring for older people, we can both support them in their search for meaning but also challenge them gently to be grateful for the many blessings of their life.
1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxmORnnP3WI The transcript can be downloaded from the YouTube website.
4. Pay it Forward, Robert Emmons June 1, 2007. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/pay_it_forward#:~:text=The%20grateful%20person%20senses%20that,even%20in%20spite%20of%20himself.&text=We%27ve%20discovered%20scientific%20proof,psychological%2C%20physical%2C%20and%20social