Gratitude: Achieving a Balanced and Altruistic Life

In my previous blog, I wrote about the Black Lives Matter movement and argued that to change society for the better we have to listen to others to learn about the inequalities they face. Yet, this is only the first step. It is one thing to acknowledge and consider

why problems exist, but quite another to take action. Before offering assistance to help develop an equitable world, I think we need to ask what we are grateful for in our own lives.

Being grateful for our own situation probably seems selfish when we consider the difficulties others face. Yet, over the past two decades or so, psychological studies have shown that those who are grateful with what they have are happier and less stressed than those who are not. In particular, a study by Desteno et al. (2010) showed that those who were grateful were more likely to be altruistic. Altruism is defined as a behaviour where people are willing to fight for the good of others and their society, without expectations of receiving anything in return.

Interestingly, the findings showed that grateful people were not the wealthiest in society. Rather, they were content with having life’s essentials – good health, nourishing food, decent housing, loving families and friends, an education and a job where their talents were supported, and time to pursue hobbies. They did not feel a need to “keep up with the Joneses” and showed far fewer signs of greed, envy, or jealousy. Being grateful for their life and opportunities indicated that they wanted the same for others.

Admittedly, being grateful is not always easy. Life inevitably has its pitfalls, which make us focus on our problems. We also live in a materialistic society where we are taught to value superficial qualities such quantity over quality. Yet, being grateful for important things in life can help us through difficult times. The virus lockdown is very difficult, but it is asking us to simplify how we live, and through this, it is possible to see what is fundamentally important to survive and for what we should be thankful. So how do we achieve this?

A New Use for the Ancient Humoral Chart

When I was chair of my academic department, one of my responsibilities was to welcome our first year undergraduate students when they arrived at the university. As a medical historian, I would relate ancient humoral theory to a good education. In humoral theory, a healthy person had an equal balance of the four humours in their body: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. A person maintained this equilibrium through diet, exercise, and good sleep, for instance.

I used this chart for my students to demonstrate how they could achieve a healthy balance in their undergraduate careers. I changed the humours to four categories: studying, socialising, exercising, and joining a club in an area of interest to them. Like a humoral imbalance, excess in one area would harm the others. Too much socialising would have an adverse effect on their studies. On the other hand, spending most of their time studying would mean they could miss out on fun occasions and making friends. This chart can also be used to find a balance in personal gratitude.

To make a gratitude chart, think of a pie sliced into four quarters. Each slice contains a list of aspects we feel are necessary to live a good life. The sections could be divided in the following way.

1. Life’s basic necessities. To me these are good health, a wholesome diet, well-built and environmentally friendly housing, access to good healthcare, quality education, and enough money to maintain a worry-free life.

2. Loved ones. This could include family, friends, a considerate support group, colleagues, and pets.

3. Opportunities. A good education in a field that supports one’s talents, imagination learning a sport, playing a musical instrument, taking up a hobby, travel, or working in a supportive environment, for example. In philosophy there are arguments about the difference between opportunities and real opportunities, which need to be considered. An example of this is equal pay for women. I work in a University where there is the opportunity for equal pay between men and women, but in reality, it is not a real opportunity. It is extremely difficult for women to get above a certain pay threshold, and even more difficult if someone is black or of another ethnic minority, so the “opportunity” is limited.

4. Material objects. This should be items that are truly important and hold a lot of meaning and/or use. For example, I am grateful for my bike. It is my main source of transportation, it helps keep me healthy, and it is good for the environment.

An imbalance in one of these categories could affect the other areas. If this happens, we may develop feelings of envy, greed, and lack and therefore be less inclined towards altruism.

Although being grateful for our own lives and experiences will not resolve issues of inequality, it will help us to see life from a better perspective. This is necessary if we wish to help make the world a beneficial place for all. So, I ask, what would be on your gratitude wheel and how might you use this to promote an equitable society?

Desteno, D; Bartlett, M. Y.; Baumann, J; Williams, L. A.; Dickens, L (2010). "Gratitude as moral sentiment: Emotion-guided cooperation in economic exchange".Emotion.10(2): 289–93.doi:10.1037/a0017883.PMID20364907


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