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Should We Expect Gratitude When Being Kind?

My dad once told me a long time ago, “If you’re doing somebody a favor, don’t expect anything back. If you do, don’t help them to begin with.” Though all this time, I have kept his words in my mind and tried to think his way, I can’t stop wondering if there was anything wrong with me expecting my kindness to be responded to. If asking for gratitude is something I shouldn’t do or even think of, what’s prompting me to do good things and help others? And if so, what is gratitude about? How come it exists, and why are we taught to say “thank you” as a common social practice in every society?

What makes people choose to do good things?

Self-interest is undeniably one of the reasons behind people’s good deeds. It may not be apparent, as nobody wants to admit that they only help others for themselves explicitly. If someone does that, they are likely to receive harsh criticism for being a selfish prick or even worse. However, that doesn’t change the fact that we are constantly educated to behave kindly, not only by our parents and the education system but also religions if we follow any.

Christianity, for instance, has the idea of heaven and hell, into which people are categorized after they pass away. Good people, meaning people doing many good deeds for others, are granted a miraculous trip to heaven where they can rest in peace for the rest of their afterlife. Adopting the idea that God is all-knowing, people hope to receive rewards, increasing the likelihood of committing to kind behaviors when alive.

If you think about it, helping others in exchange for something back is similar to being an excellent person to go to heaven. The only difference is that while heaven only exists in the afterlife, gratitude in the form of either words or actions is something we can receive right at or after the moment of helping when we are still alive. As gratitude is so much within reach, there’s no doubt that some part of us, even though we may not admit it, wants to receive something back after doing any good deed.

Nonetheless, psychologists claim that there is more than just self-interest that takes part in our decisions to kindness. According to Dr. Steve Taylor, pure altruism can exist without people asking for benefits. Wesley Autrey was a construction worker that pushed a young man off the track when a train was crossing. When asked why he did it, Audrey said he felt “it was right.” Without taking any time to analyze if their actions bring them any good afterward, people may immediately act to help others in urgent situations.

Using the real-life story above, Dr. Taylor demonstrated his support for the existence of pure altruism, where kind acts are motivated by empathy. It’s a cognitive ability of people to feel sympathetic to others, and being social animals enhances such emotions when we see others in need. In other words, altruism is not unnatural but instinctive in humans, and we all feel the urge to aid others due to our sense of connectedness within a society.

So, if people can do good deeds without rewards, what is gratitude about, and how has it become a social practice?

Gratitude and its origin

Gratitude is a feeling, expressed via words or actions, that communicates appreciation for others for their positive contribution to our lives. Science has proven multiple positive impacts of gratitude on both individuals and communities, and it’s widely understood that the recognition and everyday expression of gratitude plays an irreplaceable role in connecting human beings, improving us as social beings, and maintaining social discipline.

However, the root of gratitude has been scarcely discussed, with most sources focusing only on the Latin-root etymological origin of the word. According to researchers, the shared emotion can be traced back to the “reciprocity” behavior in our primate forms when they exchanged goods and services that would help both parties and facilitate a better chance of surviving. At that time, as verbal expressions of gratitude weren’t an option, primates were believed to assist each other back and forth by actions, from simply scratching one another’s back to providing food and shelter when in need. In other words, it’s a fundamental part with immense contribution to our evolution.

As it turns out, gratitude is as natural and necessary as human empathy, which makes up our altruistic kindness. Expecting gratitude from others, therefore, is neither strange nor wrong. Helping each other without asking for anything back is a good practice, but saying thank you and being motivated by gratitude is also necessary to blend in and live in a well-organized society.

Is it wrong to ask for gratitude?

Gratitude is taken and taught as a value and social practice, and every proper person needs to understand the essence of appreciation, including the help and the helped. Therefore, it’s not a wrong thing to expect a “thank-you” or a simple action of appreciation, like smiling or nodding one’s head, for example, after doing a good deed. Also, it’s all right to feel disappointed if you receive an ice-cold expression or ungrateful attitude in exchange for your kind attempt. Had Wesley Autrey been told off by the ill young man for having saved him, he wouldn’t have been able to give such a kind response to the reporter.

Nonetheless, demanding an extravagant return, such as an expensive gift or a big favor, is a different story. Many people may use the fact that they used to assist a person as an excuse to force the latter into doing something for them, even if such a task is out of the latter’s consent or capability. Such a practice can be considered a corrupted interpretation of gratitude and should be avoided. 

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