The Anatomy of Gratitude: The Nature and Blessings of Gratitude in the World’s Great Spiritual Traditions


Check out this review of Ronald W. Pies’ latest book!

The Anatomy of Gratitude: The Nature and Blessings of Gratitude in the World’s Great Spiritual Traditions By Ronald W. Pies

The Anatomy of Gratitude: The Nature and Blessings of Gratitude in the World’s Great Spiritual Traditions by Ronald W. Pies


The Anatomy of Gratitude: The Nature and Blessings of Gratitude in the World’s Great Spiritual Traditions

By Ronald W. Pies

Independently published, 2024; 151 pages

Reviewed by Daniel Morehead, MD

O Gratitude, Where Art Thou?

We live in a profoundly ungrateful age. This is to be expected in our current circumstances. Ages characterized by reforming zeal are unlikely to pause and give thanks for all the goods they have inherited. In times such as these, individuals are focused on highlighting current problems and righting past injustices. They understandably lack the complementary instinct for focusing on how much they have, or how much they have been given. This is not to shame our current focus—it is only to note that when we have 1 focus, we necessarily lack others. By definition, it is impossible to focus on everything at once.

At the same time, there is another obvious reason for the relative lack of gratitude in these times: we have too much. Certainly we have inexcusable poverty and want for such a prosperous society. But, taken as a whole, our culture possesses a wealth that is incomparable to any other by world historical standards. And the fact that we have so few restrictions on our food availability, our mobility, our access to knowledge, and our ability to gratify most other human desires, that it is only natural to lose sight of the glorious circumstances that we now inhabit. Paradoxically yet axiomatically, individuals who have less, or have it less consistently, will certainly be more grateful for what they have. We who never lack anything lack the mindful awareness that everything we need, and so much more, is unfailingly at hand.

Finally, it is unavoidably evident that our material plenty is accompanied by spiritual vacuity. We who are so rich in material things are manifestly poor in spirit. These times are characterized by polarization, conflict, fragmentation, and desperate grasping on all sides. None of this speaks to great spiritual development on the part of our culture. To the extent that healthy spiritualties stimulate us to grow in virtue and maturity, our forgetfulness of gratitude might well be part and parcel of the outward focus and chronic distraction demanded by our technology and our opulence.

What Manner of Book Is This?

With such thoughts of our lack of gratitude and spirituality in mind, Ronald W. Pies’ book strangely appears at an opportune time. I say ‘strangely’ because it is difficult to classify the genre or even the aim of this book (more on this later). On the other hand, I wonder if there has ever been a better time for a book which explicitly addresses “the nature and blessings of gratitude in the world’s great spiritual traditions.” Whether or not we consider ourselves individually religious or even spiritual, all of us can acknowledge that humanity’s spiritual traditions are our repositories of collective wisdom, ways of coping with the human condition which have been refined over countless generations. Even if circumstances have changed over time and life today is unrecognizable from our premodern past, it nevertheless remains true that human nature has not changed. The human condition is still the human condition. We forget this at our peril.

Of course, gratitude is not entirely forgotten in our age. As psychiatrists, most of us are passingly familiar with positive psychology and its power to influence both human happiness and mental health. In that subdiscipline, the cultivation of gratitude plays a prominent role. The cultivation of gratitude carries benefits for general well-being and mental health.1,2

Pies, perhaps surprisingly, spends little time on positive psychology. He is entirely focused on his subject, gratitude in religious traditions. The book is organized according to our 5 common religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism—with a final chapter on gratitude in Stoicism. There is a brief introduction to each religion/philosophy at the commencement of each chapter, followed by examples of gratitude from primary sources, drawn from both ancient and contemporary writers within the tradition. Pies demonstrates a truly impressive breadth of scholarship in these pages, and I cannot imagine any potential reader who would fail to find a host of new writers, quotes, and terminology within these pages.

On the face of it, therefore, “The Anatomy of Gratitude” sounds like quite the scholarly undertaking. Who, after all, can boast of expertise in both gratitude and in every one of these complex and subtle traditions? I was therefore shocked to see that the text amounts to only 130 pages of largish type font. It is astoundingly brief for such a subject. The aim of such a book, therefore, is not a kind of comprehensive survey or deep analysis of the subject. It is something much simpler, and simultaneously, much more important.

What Manner of Person Am I?

Pies is a colleague and friend, but I did not ask him the point of his book. Instead, I read, meditated, and puzzled over it. Here it lay on my bedside table, a thin book consisting primarily of edifying quotes about gratitude, with introduction, commentary, and conclusion. And not much else. By the time I got to the last chapter on stoicism, however, I think I began to get it. This work is not so much a contribution to scholarship as it is a parallel to Marcus Aurelius’ own Meditations: a series of brief, thoughtful reflections upon the nature and desirability of gratitude. If I understand Pies’ book, its purpose is very much the same as Marcus Aurelius’ work.

The point of such a work is not to become an expert on the subject, or even knowledgeable. The point, if I may be so bold, is to become a better person. The point is to allow ourselves to be enriched by these traditions, by so much of the wisdom that surrounds us and came before us. The point is to feel our hearts warmed and dilated by our own experiences of gratitude, and our own spiritual cultivation of this virtue. Pies invites us to this undertaking not by lecturing or browbeating, but by acting as a sort of happy docent who wants to guide us through every piece of exquisite art in the gallery, and find joy and enlightenment along with us in the process.

In such spirit, it seems petty to critique or evaluate different aspects of the book as good or bad. I think it would be better honored by an effort to share its virtue. To that end, I will simply end this review with a couple of my favorite ‘meditations’ from the book and leave the reader to judge whether judgement is in order.

The first concerns a recommendation found in several of the traditions: we should always consider ourselves to be guests in this life. Therefore, “What does a good guest say?” “How much trouble my host goes through for me. How much meat he has offered. How much wine he has set before me. How many cakes he has brought before me. And all of this trouble he went through for me. But what does an inconsiderate guest say? “What trouble has my host gone through? I have eaten [only] one piece of bread and a single piece of meat. I have had but one cup of wine. All the trouble the host has gone through has only been for his family.”

The second is a reminder of can happen when we do live a life of acceptance and mindful gratitude: “Every day brings innumerable gifts—life, love, nourishment, shelter, challenges, friendship, and more—and is an opportunity to remember our indebtedness when we reflect within ourselves. On a basic level, we try to remember that there is a power-beyond-self in our lives… and do our best to give back by being patient, helpful, and caring.”

Would that all of us go and do likewise. For, in the words of the stoic philosopher Seneca, “The greatest blessings of humankind are within us and within our reach.”

Dr Morehead is a psychiatrist and director of training for the general psychiatry residency at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. He frequently speaks as an advocate for mental health and is author of Science Over Stigma: Education and Advocacy for Mental Health, published by the American Psychiatric Association. He can be reached at


1. Portocarrero FF, Gonzalez K, Ekema-Agbaw M. A meta-analytic review of the relationship between dispositional gratitude and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences. 2020;187:111380.

2. Iodice JA, Malouff JM, Schutte NS. The association between gratitude and depression: a meta-analysis. International Journal of Depression and Anxiety. 2021;4(1):1-12.

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