Americans tend to be very individualistic, in contrast with collectivist cultures that put much more emphasis on the social group. This is an important distinction, because (despite their underrepresentation in gratitude research) 85 percent of the world’s population lives in cultures that researchers deem as more collectivist. In such cultures, people put greater emphasis on harmony and honoring others—values that would support the connective gratitude we see more in China and South Korea, which pays back kindness with things others might actually want. In fact, one study found that the more respect Chinese children show to parents, the more grateful they are. But Tudge and others have argued that separating societies into individualist vs. collectivist is too broad, reducing the colorful diversity of the world to two rigid categories. Instead, they prefer to consider at least two other dimensions of culture: autonomy/heteronomy and separateness/relatedness.
In autonomous cultures, children are taught to be more independent and self-directed, whereas children in heteronomous cultures learn the duty to be obedient to parents and elders. Cultures that emphasize relatedness put greater value on connecting with others and developing relationships, which is less important to those that value separateness.
These two dimensions can be crossed to yield four different types of cultures. Under this (still admittedly simplistic) schema, countries like the U.S. would be described as autonomous-separate, whereas rural areas in developing countries would be heteronomous-related, researchers posit. But urban areas in developing countries, like China or India, would tend to be more autonomous-related, as big cities offer a competitive environment where people can pursue more education and opportunities for themselves.
Theoretically, these autonomous-related societies would be the ones that are most supportive of authentic gratitude, since people would want to strengthen their relationships but would do so freely rather than out of a sense of obligation. True gratitude, after all, is not the polite thank you uttered to avoid seeming rude but a genuine wish to pay back the undeserved blessings you receive.
Who benefits from gratitude practices?
So far, we’ve looked at how children and adults in different societies naturally develop and express gratitude. But what happens when you try to teach people to be more grateful? This was the question behind a 2011 study where researchers invited Anglo-Americans and Asian Americans to try writing gratitude letters to their friends and family. Each week, some people wrote for 10 minutes about their appreciation, and others (as a comparison) simply wrote about what they had done that week. They also reported how satisfied they were with life.
After six weeks of gratitude, the Anglo Americans saw a boost in their well-being—as previous research would have predicted. But the Asian Americans did not; their satisfaction with life barely changed.
Similar studies have found that Indian and Taiwanese participants don’t feel more grateful and South Korean students get a smaller well-being boost after writing gratitude letters, compared to their American counterparts.
Why don’t Asian and Asian American participants see the same benefit from this practice?
Expressing appreciation for other people’s help may generate more mixed emotions for them, like indebtedness, guilt, and regret. In a recent study led by Liudmila Titova, for example, Indians who wrote about their gratitude did feel more positive emotions, but they also felt more guilt and sadness—feelings absent in Anglo Americans. The guilt they carried was mirrored in their writings, which more often talked about feeling in debt. For example, one person wrote, “[The] only thing which always pulls me down is that I could have given some gift as a token of gratitude.”
Researcher Acacia Parks, who co-authored that study and various others on gratitude, has heard from some Asian-American students that expressing thanks is uncomfortable because it attracts attention to them. One student even reported that her parents were insulted by her gratitude letter—as if it implied that she didn’t expect them to be so generous.
“Giving and receiving help is an expected part of daily life for members of collectivist cultures, rather than an uplifting surprise, as may be the case for those from individualist cultures,” write researcher Lilian J. Shin and her colleagues in their forthcoming study.
Gratitude’s unexplored territory
Based on these mixed results, one might be tempted to conclude that gratitude is just not as important for Asian cultures. But recall that young Chinese and South Korean children are particularly skilled at connective gratitude, which goes beyond polite words to reciprocate in a way that is meaningful to the helper—the closest to authentic gratitude that kids can come, according to Tudge. And the culture of Asian cities should be supportive of gratitude. Might this all suggest that, in fact, gratitude comes more naturally to Asians than to others?
We can’t say for sure. It’s likely that we don’t understand the best ways to teach or even show gratitude in different cultural contexts yet. For example, “cultures as varied as the Japanese, the Inuit, and the Tamils of South India have developed entirely different ways of dealing with the receipt of gifts,” explained researcher Dan Wang and his colleagues. They write:
Saying ‘thank you’ is the polite thing to do in the United States but, whereas it is incumbent on the Japanese to repay a gift with one of at least equal value, receiving meat after a hunt is not viewed as requiring gratitude among the Inuit, and although the Tamils find it easy to express their thanks nonverbally, it is much more difficult to do so verbally.
Researchers in that 2011 study touted gratitude letters as a self-improvement exercise—to boost your mental and physical health. But this pitch may be less appealing outside of American culture, with its strong emphasis on chasing personal goals and taking control of your life. That’s why researchers are so careful about how they advertise an experiment—because they know that what people expect can influence their motivation, effort, and perception of its results. If gratitude had been sold as a way to strengthen relationships, might those same students have seen different outcomes?
Another complication is that those few experiments all asked people to write gratitude letters, which simply might not be the ideal way to show gratitude in all cultures. Or it might matter whom we choose to express our gratitude toward. In the study where Indians felt more guilty, they were more likely to spontaneously focus their appreciation on people outside their family and even strangers—the kinds of people whom they might feel obligated to repay for going out of their way to help. To reduce these niggling negative feelings, Titova and her colleagues suggest that people from more collectivist cultures could be guided to think about the help they receive in a different way. “It might be possible to stave off indebtedness by encouraging participants to think of the target of their letter as having given their gifts freely, not expecting anything in return,” they write.
What’s clear is that gratitude deeply intersects with a culture’s attitude about the self and its relation to others. Are we individuals forging our own paths or members of a larger whole? That belief may vary from person to person; cultures are not monolithic. When children in the U.S. say that their greatest wish is for someone else’s well-being, their gratitude tends to become less concrete and self-focused and more connective and relationship-promoting.
Gratitude is, after all, ultimately a skill that strengthens our relationships—and it arises when we pay more attention to our relationships and all the gifts they bring us. “At a time when the society seems to be more about me me me, we really need to get people thinking about connections,” says Tudge.
For Tudge, that means thinking about gratitude less like a good feeling to boost your happiness score—and more like a moral virtue: a repayment and paying it forward of kindness that are part of being a good human being. Continuing to study cultures beyond the United States—ones that acknowledge just how much our lives are enriched by our interdependence with others—may help us get at this deeper and more complex understanding of gratitude. Then, we can learn how to make it a way of life, however different our lives may be.