Spanish speakers say “gracias” to express their gratitude. Italians show appreciation with a “grazie.” Both of these words come from the Latin root “gratia,” which denotes grace, graciousness, and gratefulness. For those who speak Spanish and Italian, their way of saying “thank you” has purely positive connotations.
The French “merci,” on the other hand, derives from the Old French “mercit” and the Latin “mercedem.” Both of these words denote forgiveness and pity, which are tinged with guilt along with gratitude. Pan east across the globe and you’ll find other translations of gratitude that aren’t only positive in association. In Japan and Korea, gratitude is often expressed by saying “I’m sorry” and the terms for gratitude and indebtedness are used almost interchangeably.
These linguistic differences only scratch the surface of both the problem and the potential of studying gratitude, which is this: gratitude manifests in distinct ways across different societies. It follows that research should should capture the diversity of these expressions. But while the past two decades have seen an explosion in gratitude research, studies remain extremely narrow in scope.
The WEIRD nature of gratitude research
Up to this point, the majority of research on gratitude has been conducted on people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic nations, also known as WEIRD societies. What we know about gratitude comes mostly from findings in Western and Northern Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Even though research on the subject is booming, the sample size represents only a sliver of humanity.
In order to expand our understanding of how gratitude manifests itself around the world, researchers need to account for cultural and socioeconomic differences.
Exceptions to this WEIRD-centric pattern do exist. Researchers have conducted studies across Latin America, from Mexico to Guatemala to Chile, though they’ve focused largely on university students and have skipped Caribbean countries altogether. Several Eastern European countries are represented in studies, including Russia and Romania, as well as in certain Middle Eastern countries like Jordan and Turkey. Some research has focused on China, Japan, and India, as well as most countries in Southeast Asia, but Central Asia is missing from the literature. African societies are sparsely investigated, with only a few gratitude-related studies completed in Ghana and Cape Verde, and research on Pacific Island societies is virtually nonexistent.
It’s not just large swaths of the globe that go unexamined. Studies comparing multiple societies help uncover the cultural specifics and universals of gratitude—yet only a handful of research papers are explicitly cross-cultural. And even these cross-cultural studies are limited in scope, usually contrasting two WEIRD societies. While a 2005 study compared university students in Japan and Thailand, and a 2015 study looked at students in Iran and Malaysia, these narrow samples prevent researchers from drawing larger generalizations. If current cross-cultural studies only consider a specific slice of people—the differences in gratitude between a Japanese literature major and a South Korean economics major, for example—then social scientists will lack the data to recognize larger patterns across cultures.
Different places, different meanings
When it comes to cross-cultural studies on gratitude, most researchers have focused their investigations on how people express thanks. The goal has been to distinguish the feeling of gratitude from its linguistic practice. In the United States, saying “thank you” to someone may indicate that one feels gratitude toward that person, or at least for their actions. But this isn’t necessarily the case in non-English speaking societies, where verbal expression and emotion can be less intertwined.
The approach of asking participants about the extent to which they currently feel “grateful,” “thankful,” and “appreciative” carries obvious limitations. Many languages don’t have identical translations to map the nuanced distinctions between these words. Beyond linguistic variations in people’s conceptions and expressions of gratitude, major social and even religious differences exist across cultures.
In Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, gratitude is a familiar concept, even a regular spiritual practice. But Hinduism emphasizes duty and obligation in relationships, which makes gratitude tightly intertwined with indebtedness.
In the field of gratitude research, there’s a need to deepen scientists’ understanding of what gratitude means within individual cultures. How does a child in Poland understand gratitude? Do they think of it as an expression, a pattern of behavior, a gesture of politeness, or something else? How does this understanding differ from that of an elder in Zambia, or a young professional in Pakistan?
Filling in the gaps
These are some of the questions that a newly-formed team of researchers hopes to answer. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, this interdisciplinary team will carry out a multi-year, cross-cultural research project to advance our understanding of the universal aspects of gratitude by reaching beyond the so-called WEIRD populations. The project will explore how gratitude is experienced around the globe and how gratitude impacts the wellbeing of people worldwide.
Led by Michael McCullough at the University of California, San Diego, and in collaboration with the Psychological Science Accelerator, the team plans to study how to measure gratitude and its effects in at least fifty countries around the world. “We believe that crossing the next scientific frontier of gratitude research will require researchers to cross their own cultural and geographic frontiers to explore the shared and unique terrains of gratitude,” writes McCullough. The team hopes to increase standardization of gratitude measures across cultures and facilitate future research by bringing together current multi-cultural data on gratitude into a single, open-access database. Ultimately, the project will transform gratitude research by setting a new roadmap for future scholars wanting to investigate questions around the universality of gratitude.
One thing that makes the field of gratitude research an exciting one is the number of questions that remain to be answered. How do the social, mental health, and physical health consequences of gratitude both differ and remain consistent across cultures? What role does socialization, upbringing, and parental guidance play in people’s expression of gratitude? Has gratitude largely become a platitude for people in wealthy Western societies since they rarely need to count on their neighbors for survival?
The project is a necessary step in the progress of gratitude research, one that helps remedy the WEIRD-centric nature of existing research and looks to diverse people, places, and cultures to help expand our understanding of the human experience of gratitude.
Annelise Jolley is a journalist and essayist who writes about place, food, ecology, and faith for outlets such as National Geographic, The Atavist, The Rumpus, and The Millions. Find her at annelisejolley.com.