Gratitude (and Honor?)

When a child is hungry, they eat. As that child ages into maturity, sensations as simple as hunger take on different significance. What they eat begins to matter, so does their method of procuring food.

When a toddler steals a mashed handful of beans from his parent’s plate, people laugh. When a high school senior steals a sandwich from a peer in the cafeteria, the school enacts disciplinary measures.

As one matures their internal conversation of ethics, of community and integrity, evolves.  

In order to cultivate integrity in a young person, it essential to have conversations regarding the logic of their actions (including potential repercussions). It is important that we don’t assume qualities such as integrity are obvious. Those qualities must be taught.

What’s wrong with stealing a sandwich? After all, you’re hungry!

We teach our young people to understand that the act of stealing a sandwich will negatively impact the person from whom it is stolen. That other person will remain hungry. Additionally, that person will feel slighted, cheated, and deceived. It’s important to lay this framework down so that young people can begin to construct a logic of relative opportunity. “I have increased my opportunity but limited someone else’s.” In the grand scheme of human development, this often happens implicitly. But we would be well-served to provide young people with explicit examples.

Though these ideas can seem simplistic, they are not. And they are certainly not reflected in behavior, as selfish behavior remains a common concern in many companies, organizations, and teams.

By explicitly outlining logical approaches to complicated scenarios, young people are able to more efficiently construct conceptual frameworks, apply them to their interactions, and strive for the nuance that we are all so regularly asked to employ. When emotions are high and situations are chaotic, we ride our own logic like a train on tracks. If the logic isn’t there, we steal what we need, we throw punches (metaphorical or actual) to defend ourselves, and we end up in a constant state of reaction.

We often hear that people, especially young people, “should know better.” Well, maybe we should have taught them better.

And what’s the deal with adults who, assumedly, understand integrity and decide to behave against that virtue?

Two ideas stand out. The first is that perhaps the logic outlined above was never explained to them in any explicit way. Perhaps integrity was alluded to, loosely identified, and not upheld by those around them in their developmental years. The second is that – surprisingly – perhaps they are not grateful enough.

An airborne sandwich thief.

The Role of Gratitude

Dr. David DeSteno of Northeastern University (Boston) studies traits which have meaningful impacts on human behavior. He has identified compassion, pride, and gratitude as an essential trifecta. Gratitude in particular, based on a 2014 study, seems to influence behavior in ways which might not seem immediately obvious…

Gratitude might have the power to enhance our integrity.

DeSteno’s findings suggest that, when measured and compared to two other emotional conditions (happy, neutral), gratitude had the largest impact on the subsequent experiment, which measured integrity. If participants were grateful, they were less likely to cheat on subsequent tests.

This makes logical sense as we imagine the application to real-world scenarios, like the sandwich. If you are feeling regularly ungrateful, wronged by the world, and untrusting of your environment, then you might be more likely to eat the sandwich when hungry. Who cares about the next person, what have they ever done for you?

But if you have built a positive relationship to your environment and are grateful for it, then you might be more likely to recognize that the sandwich does not belong to you. Maybe you wait. Maybe you go find sustenance elsewhere.

The findings are especially meaningful when compared to the ‘happiness’ condition. The positive psychology movement of the 90s was an important one, full of thoughtful research and significant outcomes for students. It has birthed so much of the essential literature we pull from today. But as human nature might predict, in certain cases it went too far.

Too much “nice” is actually “mean” – too much of a good thing can in fact be a bad thing, as outlined in the research of University of Virginia professor Shigehiro Oishi and others.

Although gratitude might lead to happiness, it seems that we would be wise to teach for gratitude instead of trying to ensure a student’s happiness… assuming we hope to encourage honorable behavior. That’s a tricky distinction. DeSteno’s study confirms that this nuance is necessary, especially when it comes to “parsing the influence of positive emotional states.”

It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

Dr. David DeSteno, Northeastern Univeristy

A Comprehensive Approach

Integrity and Gratitude seem to go hand in hand. Integrity is the behavior we’d like to see in the world, on our teams, and in our classrooms. Gratitude might help us see more of it. That sort of relationship is undoubtedly true for other virtues.

Character traits exist in a personal ecosystem, rather than individual pockets to be pulled from as needed.

The ecosystem of cross-influencing virtues we espouse will determine how we behave. Decisions regarding our behavior are central to how we engage with our environment. How we engage with our environment depends on how we see it. How we see and interpret our environment depends on a complex causal relationship with countless factors that are regularly evolving. This seems like a lot to manage… so how do we do it?

Answer: we keep looking. We teach core strategies as best we can (like the building blocks for integrity), we enhance and encourage a culture of gratitude, so that those virtues may shine, and we listen to the feedback we are given.

Step One: Explicitly build the behavior/virtue you expect (in this case, integrity)

Step Two: Create a culture wherein virtue may flourish (include gratitude as a foundational virtue)

Step Three: Evaluate your methods and adjust as needed (set up a feedback loop and listen well)

This is by no means easy. We will have to look, listen, and reinvent regularly. Keep an eye on the literature and pursue our own professional development. The research on these subjects is ever-enhancing. And as we seek to understand, we should not be headline readers – we should be thorough investigators of truth.

Take your time, do the work. Be patient. After all, that’s what we’d ask our kids to do. If you ever need support along the way, be sure to reach out to us. We’re here to help.

More from Dr. David Desteno: