We have much to be grateful for. Developing and practicing gratitude as a habit and outlook on life is important to our well-being and that of society. So why do we teach children and young people the opposite: an attitude of entitlement and grievance, of resentment and victimhood?
Reasons for Gratitude
We may be grateful for our own life and for the fact of life itself; grateful that there is anything at all rather than nothing. We are grateful, if we pause to reflect on them, for our vision and other senses, for our mind and knowledge. We appreciate our mental and physical health, perhaps most when they are compromised.
We are born, live, and die, not as the unencumbered, autonomous individuals we sometimes in our individualism imagine, with no debt, even of gratitude, that we didn’t ourselves choose to take on. We are, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, dependent rational animals. We depend on others for life and love, for our language and culture. We acquire, largely by inheritance and from others, the conceptual tools that enable us to think rationally, the technology that enables us to sustain and improve our lives materially, and the wisdom and faith traditions that enable us to discern meaning and purpose in our lives.
Gratitude reflects and recognizes reality—the truth about our human condition that escapes the self-centered child or narcissistic adolescent, but that adults learn with maturity and experience. We depend on what we are given but haven’t earned, don’t control, and aren’t entitled to on the basis of our own merit.
Benefits of Gratitude
Parents and religious and spiritual teachers across cultures and traditions have long emphasized the benefits of gratitude for human well-being. They have received growing scientific study and support in recent years. The habit of gratitude, the research indicates, can be cultivated at any age and benefits adults, children, school and university students, and employees, as individuals and in groups.
In my family, we incorporated into our daily spiritual practice our own variation of the age-old advice to count our blessings, not (directly) from an ancient wisdom tradition, but from the Three Blessings exercise tested and recommended by psychologist Martin Seligman.
Gratitude, a wide range of studies suggest, is associated with increased positive mood, greater resiliency, better physical health, less fatigue, and better sleep. It fosters the development of other virtues such as patience, humility, self-control, and wisdom. In addition to such benefits for individuals, gratitude seems to improve groups—increasing job satisfaction, strengthening relationships, and encouraging kindness, helping, and giving.
Some research emphasizes—in addition to the benefits associated with “general gratitude,” of less anxiety, less depression, and greater well-being—that further benefits accrue from the “religious gratitude” taught and practiced in almost every world religion.
Dr. David Rosmarin of Harvard Medical School, and author of a practical, evidence-based guide for clinicians on integrating spirituality, religion, and cognitive-behavioral therapy, found, along with his fellow researchers, “that religious gratitude—toward God—was associated with additional reductions in anxiety and depression and increases in well-being.”
Given the extraordinary increases, especially among children and young people, in anxiety, depression, and suicide in this millennium, we should expect that those involved in the teaching and learning of children and young people would give great prominence, as previous generations did, to cultivating the habit of gratitude.
Entitlement and Ingratitude
We find instead, just the opposite. Cultivating habits of gratitude is a challenge when young people learn to respect all cultures but their own, all faiths but the one they have grown up with.
When love of country isn’t nurtured in schools and colleges but treated with contempt, it’s hard to feel gratitude for the sacrifices that previous generations have made and the traditions they have learned, contributed to, and passed on.
Even arriving, as many do, with moderate politics and the traditional values of their family and community, students absorb the message that the country was rotten from the start—its whole history, its founders, and its Constitution are sources of shame and guilt.
Increasingly, young people are encouraged to approach college not in a spirit of gratitude for the opportunity they have to share in the rich body of knowledge, wisdom, and skills opening up for them, but often in a spirit of entitlement.
An army of administrators, eager to maintain the diversity (except intellectual or viewpoint diversity) of its student body, creates an environment of hypersensitivity to any transgression of accepted ideology of cultural and political leftism shared by a large majority of faculty and administrators. Anything that might make a student feel “unsafe.”
Talk of snowflakes is unfair because it blames the students for what administrators perpetrate—the “coddling of the American mind,” protecting it from views, arguments, and evidence that might challenge received opinion.
Entitlement involves exaggerated feelings of superiority and deserving more than others. As a psychological trait, it may lead to chronic unmet expectations and a habitual, self-reinforcing cycle of behavior with dire psychological and social costs. It’s the opposite of humility and gratitude, cultivating which may protect against the trait. Some research has suggested that it has increased in frequency among millennials. As a cultural phenomenon, expressed in student rage at a speaker or professor who says, or is expected to say, something they disagree with, it’s widespread on campuses and even, in the violent form of Antifa, on the streets.
In short, gratitude is based in the reality of the human person and our place in the world and universe. It fosters other virtues such as humility and wisdom that enhance happiness. It has many physical, psychological, spiritual, and social benefits. No individual, family, or society can thrive without it.
Entitlement is delusional and destructive. It misperceives reality and our place in it. It fosters other negative traits and vices, such as anger, resentment, self-righteousness, a sense of superiority, emotional fragility, and of course, ingratitude. Entitlement has many negative effects.
In all those areas where gratitude builds and protects, entitlement damages and destroys.
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is,” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.