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The word

What is gratitude, anyway?


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For hundreds of years, religious and spiritual traditions have deemed gratitude an unrivalled quality essential for living life well. But what exactly is it? Unlike anger, fear and disgust, it doesn’t qualify as a basic emotion, argues psychologist Robert Emmons—of University of California, Davis—who has dedicated his career to its study. There’s no universal facial expression for it, he says, and “gratitude” appears nowhere in the Encyclopedia of Human Emotions.

Philosophers and economists can only agree it’s a virtue that connects people in a transcendent way. Its power, Emmons notes, is that it motivates people to reciprocate the benefits they have received by rendering further benefits for someone else. Indeed, many donors to the Front and Centre campaign were once themselves recipients of a—sometimes-unknown—benefactor’s generosity.

Take the late game show host Monty Hall [BSc/46; LLD/87]: As a young man unable to afford tuition, his neighbour lent him money on the condition he earn good grades and one day pay it forward. He did both, raising upwards of $850 million for charitable causes, including UM, throughout his lifetime.

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How Ni Kan Iskun Aski Iskau, Elder-in-Residence at UM, defines gratitude:

“The Creator has the last word and some of us will have a chance to live—to me, that is gratitude, that I get to be here today. So, I have to have an open heart. Surviving cancer 18 years ago made me have a new respect for what I have, and I’m grateful for the experience,” she says.

The woman’s spirit, notes fellow UM Elder-in-Residence Norman Meade, is better than a man’s spirit at appreciating our very existence, because it is the woman who gives and supports life. “The deepest of the gratefulness of life belongs to the female. Women are the life-givers. We need to show more gratitude to our women, and I say to men, the most important thing you can do is show appreciation, love and gratitude to the women in your life.”

His mother taught him to carry two wallets throughout life: one for money, and one for love. “She said we would use our love wallet more than our money wallet,” he says, with a smile.

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