Gratitude 3: Differentiate between indebtedness and gratitude

How is a sense of indebtedness associated with gratitude? Do they mean the same thing? Are they correlated?

A 2006 study published in the Journal of Cognition and Emotion revealed that gratitude and indebtedness are indeed related, but they represent two distinct emotional states. Gratitude is the recognition that you have been the beneficiary of someone else’s kindness. Indebtedness is the recognition that because of that kindness, you now owe something to that person, and ought to pay it back.

Furthermore, gratitude is a feeling which comes from within—no one needs to tell you to feel grateful—you automatically feel it deep, down inside. If someone reminds you to feel grateful, then chances are you will feel indebtedness instead—you feel an obligation to repay the liability and bring your account into balance.

As part of the study, the researchers found that if you gave a recipient something they weren’t expecting, when the recipient felt an obligation to pay it back, the person felt indebtedness rather than gratitude. In fact, the more they felt indebted, the less grateful they became. Furthermore, the researchers found that the recipient who felt indebted was far less likely to help their benefactor in the future.

Gratitude and indebtedness are not only different from each other, but they lead to very different behaviors. When you feel gratitude, you want to seek out your benefactor and improve your relationship with them; you experience positive feelings, such as happiness, thankfulness, and contentment. When you feel indebtedness, you feel external pressure to pay the benefactor back; you don’t have a strong desire to return the favor anytime soon, in fact, you may even try to avoid the benefactor. Indebtedness almost always evokes negative feelings such as shame, regret, anger, and uneasiness.

Thus, feelings of gratitude often lead to behaviors that build and enhance relationships while feelings of indebtedness often lead to behaviors that tear apart relationships. To enhance your relationship then, when you give a gift, don’t let the recipient feel indebted to you. If that doesn’t work, try giving the gift anonymously. Of course, you won’t receive the immediate relationship benefits that come with gratitude, but you will feel the supernal joy that comes with genuine altruism.

“To the generous mind the heaviest debt is that of gratitude, when it is not in our power to repay it.”

Benjamin Franklin
Assignment A: Conduct your own experiment. Give a small gift to someone without strings attached. Next, give the same gift to a second person but infer they need to give something back to you. Observe their behaviors. Report your findings.
Assignment B: Think of someone you feel gratitude towards. Write down your feelings about this person. Next, think of someone you feel indebted towards. Write down the feelings you have about this person. Compare the lists and report your findings.