I’m Grateful for…

I’m Grateful for…

By: Luke Sims

…many things, but at this moment I’m most grateful for the time I have to collect my thoughts. Today is another test day for the students, the second in a row, and I arrive at my desk fifteen minutes before the other teachers. Looking at the schedule I realize that I will be grading papers in the afternoon, but I can set aside some time in the morning for a writing project. This year has been eventful. My daughter turned a year old in October, and free time is a limited resource. It’s not that I can’t study or write at home, just that I’d rather give that time to her.

As a new parent I have plenty of things to be grateful for. I’m grateful to my employers for allowing me to schedule classes around other commitments. I’m grateful for the support and advice of friends and family. In particular, I’m grateful to my wife and Japanese family-in-law. But disconcertingly, I feel more gratitude to these newer family members than my own parents. This gives me pause for thought; am I being ungrateful?

Perhaps ungrateful is a little harsh. Maybe first I should ask, what is this emotion “gratitude” and why is it so important?

Emotions, most would agree, can determine behaviour. They reflect our physical sense as well as our mental map of the world. In so doing, they span our neurological and hormonal systems. Charles Darwin proposed that some human emotions are universal, and that animals likely experience complex emotions such as jealousy or gratitude. But emotion is a very subjective experience, and empirical research in this area is challenging. Silvan Tomkins, Paul Ekman (1993) and others have found evidence for universal emotions, such as, joy, anger, disgust, fear, and sadness in human beings. Neuroimaging studies have even confirmed the role of particular brain regions in fear and sadness (Luan Phan, et al., 2002) but the mechanisms involved and the extent to which emotions are “hard-wired” is not yet understood.

Whilst the precise biology of gratitude remains uncertain, there are good theories regarding its purpose and evolutionary origins. Malini Suchak (2017), an assistant professor of animal behavior at Berkeley, points out that many of our primate cousins engage in reciprocal altruism. She asserts that gratitude motivates us to return favors, and help those who have helped us in the past. Interestingly, Suchak notes that gratitude is most common when forming new relationships, and less important for maintaining existing ones.

“Aha!” perhaps I’ve found my explanation! Firstly, there’s almost nothing reciprocal about parent-child relationships. At least not for the first fifty years or so. Secondly, it’s literally the oldest, most established relationship in my entire life. It turns out I’m not ungrateful at all, but I may be in danger of taking Mum and Dad for granted. Luckily, it’s nearly Christmas, a perfect opportunity to make some concrete display of gratitude.

Luke Sims - busy teacher, father, and gardener; interested in all things human

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