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An Ode To Gratitude — The First Step To A Better Life

Learning to actively be more grateful to those in our lives, even when it's hard, can change everything.

Photo of two wooden mannequins in an embrace

Time to appreciate the value of generosity?

Ricardo Iacub


BUENOS AIRES — A medic and friend of mine recently told me he was trying to help a woman with medical tests. She had cared for him as a child and youngster, and now she needed surgery. I was struck by his sense of gratitude, but also by the fact that a friend of his had advised him against helping. Was it his problem, really? he had asked.

The conversation reminded me of the elderly people who feel their grown-up children don't appreciate the efforts they'd made in the past as much as they should. Despite the inherent difficulties of close relations and some further, "Oedipal" complications, such parents feel a little left behind, and may even see their affection and past service become a source of resentment.

I am not interested so much in the Manichean tale of long-suffering parents "who did everything" for their ungrateful children, as I am in observing how some entire societies can forge ties that include a lifetime of caregiving and support.

Throughout the 20th century, caring for parents or grandparents was a virtue for which certain interests might be sacrificed, even if in extreme cases the parent might be like the overbearing mother in Laura Esquivel's 1992 movie Like Water for Chocolate. The question instead is: How does one balance the individualist ethos that opens personal doors but may lead to loneliness, with a communitarian way that prevents abandonment, while at the same time avoiding a level of family interventionism that is intolerable today?

How can we be grateful, even when it's hard to be? 

A reduced sense of gratitude seems to have changed our perceptions of this type of responsibility, compared with past generations. Recognition of the other used to respond to specific collective criteria and involved clear, communal sanctions for those who failed to meet them. Today, many forms of social conditioning aim to strengthen the self and its needs, except perhaps for the strict rules governing childcare and for the elevated status now given to children.

Gratitude helps to create the type of bonds that turns solidarity into reality.

The question is, how do we maintain feelings of gratitude toward figures that are less appreciated socially, and overcome specific difficulties in turning those feelings into action? How does one turn that sentiment into real assistance without suffering it and doing it merely out of guilt or obligation, or to avoid a parent's total abandonment?

The Roman politician Cicero considered gratitude to be not just the greatest of virtues, but the mother of virtues. Gratitude helps to create the type of bonds that turns solidarity into reality. It is a valuable term for describing a close relationship that implies exchange and sharing, but also transformation of both giver and receiver, and an appreciation of the value of generosity.

Photo of a person holding a sign reading GRATEFUL

Saying it loud — and writing it big ...

Nathan Dumlao

Why is gratitude so important? 

So, gratitude isn't just giving back, in recognition of what you have received, but a desire to give anyway, even to those who didn't help you. In fact, unless you're giving in that spirit, without counting, you will probably always feel short-changed or disappointed with others.

Many older people are prone to feelings of abandonment, loneliness or insecurity as their lives become more restricted, and their professional and social openings slow down. That can make them more demanding in their conduct with relatives or people around them, and more dependent than they once were. That is where the deficit in "networks of gratitude" can create forced obligations on children, which can lead to violence or abuse.

Gratitude is neither business nor commerce

When caring for someone becomes an obligation, without any of that additional emotional significance, it can become arduous, corrosive and harmful. Like my friend was asked: "Must he really help?" as if he were wading into a problem that was absolutely unrelated to him, instead of picking up the common thread of humanity?

Gratitude can thus become another form of self-affirmation: it has its costs but is not without rewards, both palpable and abstract. Studies suggest gratitude can improve self-esteem, which means you feel better and have better control of your personal circumstances. There is evidence it fuels a sense of personal growth, purpose in life and self-acceptance, which in turn can help one overcome difficult junctures. Gratitude is thus neither business nor commerce, but a response to the transmission of love that creates trusting human relations.

As the psychologist Melanie Klein once observed, every time a child is moved to help another, the world becomes a kinder place.

*Ricardo Iacub is a psychologist and lecturer at the University of Buenos Aires.

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What's Spoiling The Kids: The Big Tech v. Bad Parenting Debate

Without an extended family network, modern parents have sought to raise happy kids in a "hostile" world. It's a tall order, when youngsters absorb the fears (and devices) around them like a sponge.

Image of a kid wearing a blue striped sweater, using an ipad.

Children exposed to technology at a very young age are prominent today.

Julián de Zubiría Samper


BOGOTÁ — A 2021 report from the United States (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that 42% of the country's high-school students persistently felt sad and 22% had thought about suicide. In other words, almost half of the country's young people are living in despair and a fifth of them have thought about killing themselves.

Such chilling figures are unprecedented in history. Many have suggested that this might be the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but sadly, we can see depression has deeper causes, and the pandemic merely illustrated its complexity.

I have written before on possible links between severe depression and the time young people spend on social media. But this is just one aspect of the problem. Today, young people suffer frequent and intense emotional crises, and not just for all the hours spent staring at a screen. Another, possibly more important cause may lie in changes to the family composition and authority patterns at home.

Firstly: Families today have fewer members, who communicate less among themselves.

Young people marry at a later age, have fewer children and many opt for personal projects and pets instead of having children. Families are more diverse and flexible. In many countries, the number of children per woman is close to or less than one (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong among others).

In Colombia, women have on average 1.9 children, compared to 7.6 in 1970. Worldwide, women aged 15 to 49 years have on average 2.4 children, or half the average figure for 1970. The changes are much more pronounced in cities and among middle and upper-income groups.

Of further concern today is the decline in communication time at home, notably between parents and children. This is difficult to quantify, but reasons may include fewer household members, pervasive use of screens, mothers going to work, microwave ovens that have eliminated family cooking and meals and, thanks to new technologies, an increase in time spent on work, even at home. Our society is addicted to work and devotes little time to minors.

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