The Hidden Debts of Gratitude: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Gratitude Interventions

Can you think of a particular person in your life you are grateful for? If you have a pen, a paper, or an open Word document, spend the next ten to fifteen minutes writing about why you are grateful to this individual, and how the individual’s behavior has affected your life in ways both big and small. Please  elaborate as much as you can, conveying the extent of your gratitude as fully as possible (Prompt Source).

When you are done, you can continue reading the rest of this article.

Gratitude interventions are one of many positive psychological interventions: scientifically rigorous exercises that focus on creating positive feelings, positive behaviors, or positive cognitions. Gratitude is a trait, a strength, an emotion, or a state that follows receiving a benefit that was not intentionally sought after, deserved, or earned; gratitude is borne out of the good intentions of another. It is an emotion that inspires looking outside of yourself, and is a state consistently associated with well-being.

However, like all emotions, or states, or strengths, and all interventions, context matters:

Instance #1: While gratitude increased well-being among Anglo-American populations when practiced once a week for six weeks, it reduced well-being in a South Korean population.

Instance #2: In a six week study, foreign-born Asian Americans and Anglo-Americans were randomly assigned to either convey gratitude, express optimism, or outline what they had done in the past week (the control condition). Between conveying gratitude and expressing optimism, conveying gratitude had a marginally greater effect on the Asian Americans’ well-being than expressing optimism. Despite starting out with similar levels of life satisfaction before the gratitude and optimism intervention, Anglo-Americans who conveyed gratitude or expressed optimism reported greater life satisfaction than Asian Americans after the intervention.

Instance #3: When Anglo-Americans, Asian Americans, and Indians (from India) responded to a gratitude prompt, it was linked to positive emotions for Anglo-Americans, and a mix of positive emotions, guilt, and sadness for Asian Americans and Indians. Indians expressed gratitude to people spanning over a larger network (including strangers) compared to Anglo-Americans and Asian Americans. Indians articulated being “in their debt” more frequently, which led to feelings of guilt.

What went wrong?

East Asian countries typically emphasize the needs and goals of the group, over the individual, and hence, are called collectivistic societies. Western countries, that emphasize the needs and goals of the individual, are called individualistic societies.

While well-being, the outcome of gratitude interventions, is actively sought after by individuals around the world, well-being is defined differently in different societies. Happiness researchers Boehm, Lyubomirsky and Sheldon noted that while in individualistic cultures, happiness is viewed in terms of personal freedom, accountability, states such as enjoyment and contentment, in collectivistic cultures, people seek a state of balance and harmony with their surroundings. Individuals respond better to, and are more likely to exert effort into exercises that promote well-being complementary to their cultural norms and prescriptions.

While intuitively, in its other-focus, and its emphasis across religions, gratitude seems to be universally positive and ingratitude universally negative, gratitude is experienced differently in different cultures. When Buddhism reached China, for example, the concept of ‘repayment’ was added to the virtue of gratitude. As a result, in East Asian Countries, feeling gratitude is often accompanied by indebtedness (i.e., the state of obligation to repay another). There is satisfaction and appreciation in gratitude, but there is also guilt for being a burden on another, and there is sadness if the benefactor isn’t repaid in time.

Within collectivistic societies, whether the feeling of indebtedness leads to increased or reduced well-being depends on how much the country’s culture emphasizes relationships of mutual inter-dependency. In a country where mutual inter-dependency is encouraged, indebtedness is less of a burden or source of guilt, and can contribute to the well-being of the society.

What does this mean for the future of gratitude research and interventions?

First, a cross-cultural examination of positive emotions such as gratitude is vital to understanding the commonalities and differences in how positive emotions and states are experienced within and across specific cultures.

Second, it is important to look into whether the positive psychological intervention (think back to the gratitude prompt you just responded to!) is appropriate to the culture in which it is introduced (for e.g., kindness interventions did better than gratitude interventions for South Koreans in research comparing happiness-enhancing interventions among Anglo-American and South Korean populations). Does the intervention enhance well-being, as defined by the participants the intervention is targeted towards?

Third, as suggested by Titova and colleagues, “tweaking” the gratitude intervention prompt (removing the burden of indebtedness by asking participants to imagine the benefactor did not expect anything in return) could potentially ease indebtedness from the gratitude intervention experience in collectivistic cultures.

No doubt, gratitude opens us up and is in tandem with leading wholesome, satisfying lives. The above cross-cultural research findings do not dispute this. But they do encourage us to ask (on gratitude intervention research or any psychological intervention research), “to what extent, and under what conditions?”

Pooja Sathyanarayanan