In the past few years, the concept and practice of gratitude have been offered as a cure for many ills. A virtual cascade of copy, from the headwaters of New-Age gurus, practical life-hack mavens, and journalists reporting on supposedly scientific studies, has gushed to flood the web in affirmations of the restorative, soothing, rejuvenating power of gratitude (here’s an example; and another). Take five minutes each day to be thankful, supposed experts say. Keep a gratitude journal. Simply expressing gratitude can revolutionize your life, they advise. Some are overtly religious, some covertly, and others profess to derive their advice from science.
And we, the consumers of all this counsel, looking for something to make ourselves feel better in our lives, think: why not give it a try? What could be bad about feeling grateful? So, the month of November is measured out on social media in daily posts of thankfulness, blank journals and colorful pens are sold, along with tracking-apps for our phones, and everything from wine glasses to t-shirts to wall decals are emblazoned with platitudes promoting gratitude. We buy in, figuratively and literally.
But what is this time — and this money spent — getting us? Does it really cure what ails me to have my coffee mug remind me to “cultivate an attitude of gratitude”? I can appreciate the idea of cultivating healthy practices, of giving some help to a beneficial, fragile thing that might not otherwise flourish. But a plant that is beneficial in one ecosystem may be an invasive species in another, choking out the natives because it has no predators or other checks on its growth. What if gratitude, under certain circumstances, has become a weed?
The thriving industry of gratitude — which thrives because we literally buy its products and promote its language and imagery for free in our personal social media posts — dovetails neatly with the rising social norm of Total Work (check out Andrew Taggart’s writing on this subject here). As we are consumed by work’s increasing demands to the point that we live our non-workaday lives on the same calendar that governs our work lives, as we schedule our children from play-dates to extracurriculars, as we schedule date-nights and girls’ nights and guys’ nights in order to have social connections even with the people we share homes with, we become exhausted, drained, and soul-sick, and we don’t really know why.
So, we try to fix ourselves. We buy art supplies, books, craft-saws, grills, deck furniture, hot tubs, pets, all in hopes that we will be creative, keep learning, have parties, and teach our children to take care of other creatures responsibly, but it’s hard to find time. The paints and books go unopened, the saw fills half the garage, the furniture-cushions grow moldy in storage, the kids play video games while the adults give the dog a half-hearted, rushed walk to pee at the end of the driveway. Our private ambitions languish as we have less and less time for them, and we feel guilt, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. What is wrong with me? we think.
Careening from one activity to another, from pre-school to school to work, volunteering, socializing, commuting, texting at stop-lights because otherwise we never stop long enough — the possibility that the way we spend our time is sucking the life out of us is frightening. If we go looking for the source of the problem, we might be crushed when the whole structure collapses on us. Is that what we fear? Whatever it is, we keep looking for solutions instead of sources, and the hawkers of gratitude have one for us. Just stop for a minute and be grateful, they say. It’ll make you feel much better.
But what does it mean to be grateful for so much busy-ness, so much work? Are you supposed to be grateful to be told where to be for eight or more hours of the day, five or more days of the week? Are you supposed to be grateful to be told what to do with your time and your mind? Are you supposed to be grateful to have so many of your life’s hours occupied with work that you have to farm out the care of your children and pets, the making of food, the cleaning of your home, and the tending of your yard to others? Is it healthy to be grateful that you can “optimize” every waking and sleeping moment of your life in the way you’ve been told you should “optimize” your work? If you start down that line of questioning too far, you’ll hear the voices of the status quo: working hard is proof that you’re a valuable human being, and it means that you can afford the good schools and the take-out and the lawn-crew, so you should be grateful, they declare.
We should feel gratitude, yes, but only for things, actions, situations, and people that do us good. Gratitude as a feeling that arises out of my awareness that I am alive because of the goodwill of others and the bounty of the earth is right and necessary. Its healing and soothing properties are indisputable.
When we find that we’re hanging our sense of our own value on how close we are to working ourselves to a nub, we shouldn’t turn to gratitude to distract us from that problem. Human beings should be valued equally AS HUMANS, not stacked hierarchically on the basis of their ability and willingness to work. We are not deserving of our lives, of rest and recreation and kindness and compassion, only insofar as we can prove our worth in work done.
Under those circumstances, gratitude of the kind that’s promoted as a band-aid solution to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction at work or in relationships is brainwashing. It serves the system, not the individual. It serves the owners, the management, the people who get rich off others’ labor, whose positions are far more secure when we work longer hours, stay (unhappily) married, buy bigger houses, fill them with more things. The false flower of gratitude edges out, like any parasite, the vital host. It might keep you alive, just, to keep feeding it, but you won’t flourish. It will take your rage, your resentment, your righteous indignation, your skepticism, your defiance, and it will grow fat and prolific on them while your abused free spirit withers.
Less lyrical and more to the point: if you fall for the “hack” of gratitude, your prompted thankfulness may keep you from rightly acknowledging that your circumstances are sorely in need of change. You may be able to soothe yourself temporarily with dictated self-help mantras. You’ll need them daily, because they aren’t solutions; the underlying problems will still underlie. Your gratitude will not move mountains; it will not change your world.
And when we don’t believe we can change our personal world, through measures like quitting a job or negotiating for paid family leave and more vacation, isn’t it also harder to believe that we can change our social and political worlds? Band-aid gratitude can tell us that, for example, women, POCs, and LGBTQ+ have more rights now than they ever have (be thankful!), but if we cling to that bit of driftwood, we’ll never get to a shore where the rights of everyone who used to be persecuted are equal to those of white men.
For that, anger, indignation, even outrage, are the appropriate and necessary emotions. When things are wrong, those feelings are supposed to move us to action. They are not, in every case, ugly and destructive, as we are so often told by those in whose best interest it is to discourage angry uprisings. Those feelings need not be accompanied by violence and atrocity. They need only move us to take steps toward our own freedom: to say “I quit.” To say, “I want a better government.” To say, “I don’t want my children to have to endure racism or sexism or the further destruction of the environment.” To say, when it’s the truth, “no, I am not grateful. I’m unhappy, and I’m going to do something about it.”
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.