Speaking of Smith

An Attitude of Gratitude

sympathy theory of moral sentiments gratitude adam smith

Alice Temnick for AdamSmithWorks

Smith suggests that the sympathy, or fellow feeling we have toward others develops with experience. Perhaps it can be thought of as a life-long project to work at “conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation”. Walking in another’s shoes and working hard to get it right. 
Much has been written about the power of gratitude in our lives. In recent years, there has been a boom in the publication of books with title variations including “choosing gratitude”, “the gratitude effect”, “leading with gratitude”, “gratitude works!” and many more. Extensive psychological research has revealed that indeed, “an attitude of gratitude” can have beneficial effects on our emotional well-being. “Gratitude journals” are often suggested as a tool to focus our attention on the positive things in our lives. A daily habit of committing bullet points to paper naming the people, events or any pleasantries that are recalled with a gentle smile, is a practice many deem worthy.

Consider Jeremy Adam Smith’s description from his article, "Six Habits of Highly Grateful People" (related to the book he edited, The Gratitude Project): 

Gratitude (and its sibling, appreciation) is the mental tool we use to remind ourselves of the good stuff. It’s a lens that helps us to see the things that don’t make it onto our lists of problems to be solved. It’s a spotlight that we shine on the people who give us the good things in life. It’s a bright red paintbrush we apply to otherwise-invisible blessings, like clean streets or health or enough food to eat. 
Not only does it feel good to languish in thought about the circumstances and people for which and for whom we feel grateful, but the practice of reviewing cherished memories and emotions may be good for our nervous system by eliciting a calming effect. Smith wrote that “the duties of gratitude are perhaps the most sacred of all those which the beneficent virtues prescribe to us.” 

Over two hundred and fifty years ago, Adam Smith illuminated this powerful sentiment in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He describes the sympathy or approval we feel towards another person when we observe that person’s actions toward yet another person (party). While this may seem complex, Smith fully develops the concept of our ability to observe others’ behavior from our position of a spectator. If we observe a friend demonstrating kindness to a stranger on the street, our judgement is one of approval or gratitude. (The opposite judgement is one of disapproval or resentment). How able are we to enter into the situation of other people and how likely are we to react in the same way and to the same degree? Smith suggests that the sympathy, or fellow feeling we have toward others develops with experience. Perhaps it can be thought of as a life-long project to work at “conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation”. Walking in another’s shoes and working hard to get it right. 

To be the proper and approved object either of gratitude or resentment, can mean nothing but to be the object of that gratitude, and of that resentment, which naturally seems proper, and is approved of.

But these, as well as all the other passions of human nature, seem proper and are approved of, when the heart of every impartial spectator entirely sympathizes with them, when every indifferent by-stander entirely enters into, and goes along with them.

He, therefore, appears to deserve reward, who, to some person or persons, is the natural object of a gratitude which every human heart is disposed to beat time to, and thereby applaud:   TMS II.i.

Smith wrote six editions of his great book on moral philosophy. His masterpiece spanned decades from the first publication in 1759 to the final publication in May of 1790 (he died that July). The Theory of Moral Sentiments might be considered a blueprint for our lifetime project of learning to live our best and gracious life. 

Want to Read More?
Jeremy Adam Smith, Six Habits of Highly Grateful People
Edward Harpham's book chapter "Gratitude in the History of Ideas" in The Psychology of Gratitude
Liberty Matters article on What Adam Smith Means to Me

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