What is gratitude?

We say ’thank you’ in passing when someone keeps a door open for us. We feel intense gratitude when someone saves our lives. But what is gratitude? What has science to say about that?


Gratitude is a social emotion with a positive valence, and it is occurring together with other positive emotions such as cheerfulness and satisfaction (Jans-Beken et al., 2018). The feeling originates if four requirements are met: awareness of the intention of the giving person, perceived cost for the giving person, value to the receiving person, and perceived responsiveness to the receiving person. Let’s explain this.


When someone receives a benefit from another person, it is important that the giving person is willing to present the benefit. The receiving person has to acknowledge that there is some cost involved for the giving person. The benefit also should have a certain value to the receiving person (Tesser, Gatewood, & Driver, 1968). Important in this exchange between people is that the benefit that is given, meets a need of the receiving person (Algoe, 2012). When all four requirements are met, gratitude will be felt by the receiver.


Let me illustrate this with an example. Imagine a single mother with three children on welfare. This month the washing machine broke down and she had to buy another one. Now, she is out of money to feed her children. A neighbor, who is a gardener, sees what is happening and he gives her $200 to help her out. This is a lot of money for the mother and the money fulfills a great need of her and her family. The mother feels immensely grateful to the neighbor. 

What if?

But what if the neighbor was forced by his partner to give the $200? What if the neighbor was a millionaire? What if the mother was not on welfare but worked as a lawyer with a six-figure income? The mother would sense that the neighbor did not really intent to give the money.  Moreover, $200 is not a lot of money for a millionaire. And when the mother earns enough money to support her family, even when the washing machine would brake down, there was no need to fulfill. Gratitude would not the emotion felt; she even might feel offended!


We can conclude that in human interaction, gratitude is a positive feeling that arises when a delicate mix of ingredients is met. So, let’s keep doing things for each other, enjoy this wonderful feeling, and thrive!


  • Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in everyday relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 455–469.
  • Jans-Beken, L., Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Lataster, J. (2019). Reciprocal relationships between State gratitude and high-and low-arousal positive affects in daily life: A time-lagged ecological assessment study. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(4), 512–527. 
  • Tesser, A., Gatewood, R., & Driver, M. (1968). Some determinants of gratitude. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(3), 233–236.

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