The Metaphysical Emotions: Part 2, Gratitude

We know that gratitude is one of the most robust predictors of emotional, physical and relational well-being. And yet, gratitude, this critical piece of mental health, is a metaphysical emotion. 

I've written about this before, how Robert Emmons alerted me to the metaphysical structure of gratitude. Emmons is the world's leading expert on gratitude. You can check out a popular treatment of his research in his book Thanks!

In a talk I once attended, Emmons spoke about some of the conceptual issues associated with gratitude. One of the issues was the distinction between gratitude for and gratitude to.

Gratitude is a social emotion, the thankfulness we feel having receiving a gift (or some benefit). Gratitude implies a gift, which in turn implies a giver. This is gratitude to.

But what about gratitude for? Emmons raised the question of environmental gratitude. Can you feel gratitude for the sunrise, a beautiful mountain, for life itself?

To be sure, we can feel lucky and fortunate for all these things. But without a giver can we, properly speaking, feel gratitude for these things? Who are we saying "Thanks!" to when we feel gratitude for our life? An indifferent, silent cosmos?

In short, since gratitude is a social emotion, feelings of gratitude for ontological realities--life, flowers, new birth, ocean breezes--require a metaphysical framework. Gratitude implies a gift and a giver.

By contrast, the best a non-metaphysical worldview can give you is a feeling of preciousness. Cosmically, life is an outlier, a wildly improbable event. So we should preserve and cherish it. Watch any cosmology show hosted by an atheistic scientist and you'll see this feeling evoked. Carl Sagan was really good at it.

And yet, preciousness isn't the same as gratitude. Most importantly for our purposes, feelings of preciousness are not a fundamental aspect of mental and physical health. In fact, preciousness can cut in the opposite direction. For some, preciousness evokes cosmic terror and despair. And I've heard atheists describe the emergence of life in the cosmos as an accidental event of no real import. Life is a cosmic fart. We're just cosmic pond scum. Sure, being a statistical anomaly can lead to awe, but it can also lead to nihilism.

All that to say, feeling cosmically lucky is not the same as gratitude. Proper gratitude, and its role in human flourishing, implies giving thanks, and giving thanks requires a metaphysical posture.

Like I said, mental health requires a religious orientation to the world.

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