Gratitude: More Than a Holiday Custom, It’s a Fundamental Aspect of Human Evolution

by Ryan Lee
Gratitude Evolution

Gratitude is not merely a custom reserved for holidays; it has been an integral part of human evolution.

Researchers exploring gratitude’s science have discovered its significant role in our ancestors’ survival, fostering unity and cooperation.

This innate tendency for gratitude continues to shape our human identity and influences our interactions with others.

“Gratitude is embedded in our human DNA,” says Sarah Schnitker, a psychologist at Baylor University. “It acts as a social adhesive, binding us together.”

The Social Nature of Humans and Reciprocity

Our social nature has been pivotal in human survival, relying on collaboration rather than physical prowess.

Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist at Duke University, highlights the importance of reciprocity in forming relationships: mutual favor and kindness foster mutual liking.

Parallel behaviors of give-and-take are evident in animals, as observed by Malini Suchak, an animal behavior researcher at Canisius University. Her studies with capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees show increased willingness to help those who have previously assisted them.

Jenae Nelson, a gratitude researcher at Baylor and Harvard universities, posits that gratitude evolved to perpetuate these beneficial exchanges, encouraging the reciprocation of help.

“This reciprocal nature is fundamental to cooperative societies,” Nelson remarks. “Without it, societies would be dominated by selfish individuals.”

In both animals and humans, these interactions are not always direct exchanges. An ape may assist a grooming partner in a future conflict, indicating that reciprocity is about forming emotional bonds, not just tallying favors, Suchak explains.

Early signs of this social indebtedness likely existed in our evolutionary ancestors, although we can’t definitively confirm gratitude expressions in primates, according to Suchak.

Gratitude’s Evolutionary Roots and Contemporary Significance

Gratitude has deeply rooted itself in human beings over thousands of years.

Research suggests that gratitude may be associated with specific genes and brain areas related to social bonding, reward processing, and understanding others’ perspectives.

Children as young as 2 or 3 exhibit gratitude by showing a desire to reciprocate favors, observes Amrisha Vaish, a moral development researcher at the University of Virginia. By age 4, they also exhibit a tendency to “pay it forward.”

Vaish’s study revealed that children who received assistance in tasks, such as finding a key, were more inclined to share rewards with others, demonstrating that gratitude transcends mere transactional exchanges and fosters general generosity.

A 2016 study underscores the personal benefits of gratitude: individuals who expressed gratitude through letters experienced enhanced mental health and observable brain activity changes even after several months.

However, Nelson emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the benefactor, not just the benefit. She suggests focusing on expressing gratitude towards people, especially during Thanksgiving, aligning with gratitude’s evolutionary purpose.

“It’s about the relationships and actions of others, and what we can reciprocally offer,” Nelson concludes.

This article is a product of the Big Big News Health and Science Department, supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP holds exclusive responsibility for the content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Evolution of Gratitude

What is the Role of Gratitude in Human Evolution?

Gratitude has played a key role in human evolution by fostering cooperation and social bonding. This behavior, rooted in our DNA, has been crucial for survival and maintaining relationships.

How Does Gratitude Manifest in Human Behavior?

Gratitude manifests in human behavior through the concept of reciprocity and the desire to give back when we receive help. This behavior, observed even in children as young as 2 or 3, goes beyond mere transactions, fostering a general sense of generosity and cooperation.

What Are the Mental Health Benefits of Expressing Gratitude?

Expressing gratitude has been linked to improved mental health. Studies show that activities like writing gratitude letters can lead to better mental well-being and changes in brain activity that persist over time.

How Does Gratitude Compare Between Humans and Animals?

Similar behaviors of reciprocity and mutual aid are observed in animals, such as capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees. However, in humans, gratitude forms more complex emotional bonds and is linked to specific genes and brain areas related to social interactions.

Why is Acknowledging the Giver Important in Gratitude?

Acknowledging the giver, not just the gift, is essential in gratitude as it aligns with its evolutionary purpose. Focusing on the people who contribute to our lives, rather than the material benefits alone, reinforces the relational aspect of gratitude.

More about Evolution of Gratitude

  • Understanding Gratitude in Human Evolution
  • The Social Nature of Gratitude
  • Gratitude and Mental Health Benefits
  • Gratitude in Children’s Development
  • Comparing Human and Animal Reciprocity
  • The Neuroscience of Gratitude
  • The Psychological Impact of Gratitude Practices
  • Evolutionary Psychology and Gratitude
  • Social Bonding and Gratitude Expressions
  • The Role of Gratitude in Cooperative Societies

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Mike O'Brien November 23, 2023 - 12:36 pm

Good read, but I think there’s more to gratitude than just social bonding and evolution, what about cultural aspects? feels like it got missed out.

Jenny Smith November 23, 2023 - 4:10 pm

really liked how this article dives into the science of gratitude, its amazing to see how something so simple is actually part of our evolution and all.

Sarah Connor November 24, 2023 - 8:41 am

interesting stuff! never thought about gratitude in terms of brain activity and genes, that part about kids showing gratitude from such a young age is fascinating

Tom Williams November 24, 2023 - 9:42 am

the comparison between humans and animals was cool, but could use more depth? like how do we really know what animals feel, just a thought.


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