A Transcendent View of Gratitude


In transpersonal gratitude the “other” is no longer a gift or a person, but a recognition of benefit that comes from a source beyond the self or through a deep connection with nature.” John Elfers & Patty Hlava

The goal of this study was to examine the understanding of gratitude as a complex emotion that arises in response to the receipt of some recognizable benefit and to test the viability of an expanded definition of gratitude while the primary contribution of this study is the introduction of a transpersonal dimension to
the construct of gratitude. The research reported here introduces a promising assessment tool for exploring the dimensions of caring and transpersonal experience of gratitude, and points to specific areas of potentially beneficial research.

Defining Gratitude

Gratitude is a complex emotion that arises within the transactional dynamics of human relationships. A fundamental understanding, used by many researchers, is that gratitude requires three essential elements: a benefit, a benefactor, and a beneficiary (Roberts, 2004). Evolutionary theories suggest that gratitude is an adaptation for reciprocal altruism, involving the exchange of gifts between nonrelatives, and providing a benefit to human social communities (Komter, 2010; McCullough, Kimeldorf, & Cohen, 2008). There is also evidence from both theory and research that the experience and behaviors associated with gratitude extend beyond the exchange of tangible benefits. Steindl-Rast (2004) portrayed gratitude as encompassing a spectrum of experiences related to the nature of the benefit. On one end of the continuum is the feeling of thankfulness upon receipt of a gift. On the opposite pole is gratitude arising out of a peak experience of cosmic oneness that one might experience upon receipt of an undeserved gift, or in a feeling of profound connection with nature.

The subjective experience of gratitude seems to vary with the perceived value of the gift, the intention of the gift-giver, and the level of sacrifice involved in giving (McCullough & Tsang, 2004). Algoe, Haidt, and Gable (2008) discovered that two powerful predictors of gratitude were the level of enjoyment of the benefit and the perception that the benefactor was being sensitive to the receiver’s personal needs and wishes. Several researchers portray gratitude as an empathic emotion, asserting that the benefactor must be sensitive to the needs of the recipient and that the beneficiary must recognize that the gift was given freely and involved a voluntary sacrifice on the part of the benefactor (Fredrickson, 2004; Lazarus & Lazarus, 1994).

The Study

Taking a grounded theory approach to the construct of gratitude, the authors conducted a study of the lived experience of gratitude (Hlava & Elfers, 2014). Based on semistructured interviews, 68 participants shared examples of profound experiences of gratitude, as well as experiences within the context of everyday expressions of appreciation. The emotion of gratitude was described across a range of somatic descriptors and emotion labels, including feelings of warmth, joy, awakening, release, feeling blessed, and awe. The range of emotional experience of gratitude supported a prototypical approach to the construct. The intensity of affect associated with gratitude varied from mild feelings to feelings of overwhelming emotion.

A thematic analysis revealed that experiences of gratitude could be classified within the domains of personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal experience. In fact, all of the 68 interviewees shared at least one example of a profound experience of gratitude in nature or similar transpersonal context.

The Gratitude Scale

The Transpersonal Gratitude Scale (TGS) was designed and tested as an instrument that would measure the more generalized features of gratitude across several domains. The development of such a measure would support the expansion of the construct of gratitude beyond benefit-triggered conceptualizations and include a transpersonal dimension. Given the reported commonality of experiences of gratitude with a transpersonal other (Hlava & Elfers, 2014), there are potential implications for the understanding of the phenomenology and construct of gratitude within the field of transpersonal studies.
The targeted development and application of gratitude holds potential for the psychology of transformative experiences. “As an emotion, the roots of gratitude can be seen in many of the world’s great religious traditions” (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000, p.59).

The initial phase of scale development began with identifying common descriptions of gratitude experience drawn from transcripts of 68 interviews on the lived experience of gratitude (Hlava & Elfers, 2014). These descriptions were used to generate statements expressive of its various features. Most statements were edited for clarity and readability. An emphasis was placed on maintaining as much participant language and sentiment as was possible in order to achieve the goal of creating an instrument based on lay understandings. The result was a sample of 110 statements describing the outcomes, context, motivation, and expression of gratitude.

Experience-Spiritual-Gratitude-Nature-Life-1350037.jpgGratitude Expanded – The World Transformed

The elements of the traditional model of gratitude—as feelings that arise in response to the receipt of a benefit from a benefactor—were not rejected in this study. Gratitude clearly emerges within transactional and relational dynamics of all kinds. The benefits that trigger transpersonal gratitude are in response to “just being alive” or for “the blessings I have received.” In contrast to an exchange-based model, transpersonal gratitude seems to describe feelings that emerge in response to a transformed view of a benefit and its relationship to the beneficiary.

Read More

To read more about this study, you can download the article from Academia.edu.

To read the The Spectrum of Gratitude Experience, written by  John Elfers, PhD, Associate Core Faculty in the Global PhD program and Patty Hlava, PhD, former faculty in the MATP program, you can find it on the Google Play Store and through the publisher’s, Palgrave MacMillan, website. The book extends the subject to include transpersonal gratitude, a perspective often missing in discussions of gratitude in positive psychology and social psychology.and describes the development of the Transpersonal Gratitude Scale, a psychometric instrument developed by the authors to measure the features of transcendence that emerge with grateful experience.

About the Authors

imgres.jpgJohn Elfers, PhD is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist and a credentialed teacher and school administrator in California. For the past 20 years he has created programs and conducted professional development in the areas of mental health, adolescent reproductive health, drug intervention, and community building. He co-developed the Positively Speaking program for the California Department of Education, training people living with HIV/AIDS as presenters in the classroom. He was founder and director of a school-based adolescent drug treatment program called the Sober School. He is currently associate core faculty for Sofia University

patti square.JPGPatty Hlava, PhD is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Minnesota. Her research has focused on the transpersonal nature of gratitude and its dynamic role in interpersonal relationships. She is the author of Exploring the Lived Experience of Gratitude, Living Gratitude, and Cultivating Gratitude. She is adjunct faculty for Sofia University and the University of St. Thomas. She has been a featured lecturer on gratitude at universities and conferences.





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