The Selfish Side of Gratitude
January 3, 2016 6:59 PM   Subscribe

New York Times Sunday Review Opinion piece "The Selfish Side of Gratitude" by Barbara Ehrenreich "Perhaps it’s no surprise that gratitude’s rise to self-help celebrity status owes a lot to the conservative-leaning John Templeton Foundation. At the start of this decade, the foundation, which promotes free-market capitalism, gave $5.6 million to Dr. Emmons, the gratitude researcher. It also funded a $3 million initiative called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude through the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, which co-produced the special that aired on NPR. The foundation does not fund projects to directly improve the lives of poor individuals, but it has spent a great deal, through efforts like these, to improve their attitudes."
posted by pjsky (50 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Martin Seligman, the father of “positive psychology,” which is often enlisted to provide some sort of scientific basis for “positive thinking,” has been offering instruction in gratitude for more than a decade.
also torture
posted by edheil at 7:21 PM on January 3, 2016 [13 favorites]


There is something delicious in seeing Ehrenreich eviscerate self-help platitudes.
posted by Cash4Lead at 7:22 PM on January 3, 2016 [29 favorites]


"Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.

The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, “solidarity” — which may involve getting up off the yoga mat."

Yes.
posted by xarnop at 7:26 PM on January 3, 2016 [76 favorites]


Compare and contrast to the mealtime verse chanted at my local Zen temple (where I studied for many years):
Innumerable labors have brought us this food
We should know how it comes to us.
Receiving this offering, we should consider
Whether our virtue and practice deserve it.

It's real hard as a middle class white American to answer that verse in the affirmative. No, I probably do not deserve this.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:47 PM on January 3, 2016 [66 favorites]


I can’t say that that made a lot of sense to me. One of those "You think you’re doing something good, you’re not" that Huffington Post and Mother Jones have embraced for ad clicks. Everyone’s doing it wrong.

It’s hard to see how this is addressing a problem. It seemed like a bitter rant.
posted by bongo_x at 7:58 PM on January 3, 2016 [5 favorites]


Perhaps you have not embraced your inner gratitude for what you received. Happiness comes not from what you get, but from appreciating what you have.

This article must be worth having gratitude for. You might need to let go of your negativity about this article, refrain from judgments for judgments hinder our inner progress to health and peace.

Or perhaps you just haven't spent enough time around people who talk like this to those who are suffering or have a legitimate complaint with their situation and not interested in bullshit platitudes as a means of "attaining wellness" whether from actual professionals or random people with opinions on how to shift your attitude and love unconditionally every single thing in your life.

In which case, lucky you! I'd be grateful for that too. I'm glad you've never been mistreated when you needed real support in a way that left you bitter and critical of how you and other vulnerable people were and are currently being treated. But for the sake of those harmed by extremely damaging forms of "help" I am actually really grateful that being able to say "no that is not help, that hurts" to well meaning people is becoming more ok. Too many vulnerable people are expected to endure charity, advice, or even patronizing and outright controlling harms without being able to have any voice in what their actual needs are.

The self help guru's get away with all kinds of bullcrap that makes it's way into cultural consciousness and even professionals who use it on the most vulnerable people who can't defend against it because everyone doing it seems so "nice" and genuinely well intentioned.

Barbara is one of my heros.
posted by xarnop at 8:14 PM on January 3, 2016 [39 favorites]


The self help gurus get away with all kinds of bullcrap that makes its way into cultural consciousness and even professionals who use it on the most vulnerable people who can't defend against it because everyone doing it seems so "nice" and genuinely well intentioned.

It took me a long time to see that the reflexive, deeply-engrained US bourgeois cultural focus on "civility", positivity and not making a scene is actually a viral con designed to keep anyone who might object off balance and looking crazy.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:21 PM on January 3, 2016 [55 favorites]


I don't think it's fair to denounce a mental health booster for failing to heal the injustices of society. I do think that people who are often trapped in the tangles and dark corners of the mind, are not in a great position to fight for a better world, when it takes so much of their mental resources just to care for themselves. And that people who feel better about their lives and themselves, perhaps aided by the practice of gratitude, are likely going to be more open, giving, helpful and involved members of society. Even if that's not the stated purpose of the practice. I don't fault anyone for wanting to feel better themselves first, and would think that being grateful for the good things in life actually supports pro-social behavior.
posted by hummingbird at 8:25 PM on January 3, 2016 [7 favorites]


I am personally trying to focus more on the good things in my life than the bad things, because I think that's good for my emotional well-being. I sure as shit am not going to tell anyone else that they should feel grateful, though.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:32 PM on January 3, 2016 [15 favorites]


And I guess I resent a little bit the implication that you're being selfish if you do something just because it makes you feel better. I'm all for solidarity, but it's ok to attend to your own happiness sometimes, as long as it's not hurting other people. I mean, there are lots and lots of things that I do that are worse than occasionally taking a minute to be glad that I have good friends and a job that I mostly like.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:40 PM on January 3, 2016 [8 favorites]


I often wonder if it's possible to be consistently content while also striving for a more just society. It's hard for me to imagine political motivation without focusing on injustice, and it's hard to deeply think about injustice without getting angry or depressed.

It reminds me of the thread from a while ago about stoicism and how it was a philosophy great for finding happiness under empires through silent acceptance.

In a way, this kind of meek gratitude is an extension of solipsistic consumerism, where your direct comforts are the first priority. It's all well and good that thanking people makes them feel valued, but what's really important is you'll feel less sad. And you don't have to change your self or your environment one bit.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:53 PM on January 3, 2016 [9 favorites]


And lord knows, your duty as a human being is to be sad all the time, and anything else is "meek gratitude". But if you make yourself feel better by, say, buying expensive tech gadgets or drinking craft beer, that's manly tech-bro stuff, so it's not soft or girly or "meek".
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:04 PM on January 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


And I guess I resent a little bit the implication that you're being selfish if you do something just because it makes you feel better.

I laugh out loud at it. Because that’s what most people spend every waking moment doing. Even when their writing and reading articles about how other people are doing things wrong.
posted by bongo_x at 9:05 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


The "gratitude" stuff is overwhelmingly aimed at women, and most women spend a whole lot of time attending to other people's physical and emotional needs.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:10 PM on January 3, 2016 [15 favorites]


I don't think it's fair to denounce a mental health booster for failing to heal the injustices of society.

As an individual practice, no, but it's absolutely an ethical responsibility for mental healthcare practitioners to make sure we're not just medicating/gratituding/shaming people into uncomplaining compliance with an unjust status quo.
posted by jaguar at 10:23 PM on January 3, 2016 [16 favorites]


just medicating/gratituding/shaming people into uncomplaining compliance with an unjust status quo

You just described life in the United States for everyone with no money. How do you propose to manage the messages of the snake oil salespeople?
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 10:44 PM on January 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


A couple of Januaries ago a coworker said "We should all be thankful that we get to go back to our warm homes," and I said, "It's actually fifty degrees in my apartment" -- which, well, in my defense I was sleeping very poorly, and sad all the time, because it was fifty degrees in my apartment. And she insisted that I should still be grateful because I wasn't homeless.

Gratitude isn't necessarily a positive mental health practice. It can also feel like yelling at yourself to stop feeling so bad because your problems are so tiny compared to other people's problems; it can feel like a deligitimization of real pain and fear. It was a positive step for me to give myself permission to feel angry, to feel that I deserved better than what I had (even while acknowledging that I had it better than a lot of people).
posted by Jeanne at 1:17 AM on January 4, 2016 [48 favorites]


I don't see gratitude as a way of comparing my problems to others, I just see it as honestly recognising the parts of my life that aren't complete garbage. I doubt I'd stay afloat without it.
posted by Greener Backyards at 1:31 AM on January 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


Here's the thing -

Encouraging people to cultivate gratitude, when done properly, can help people like Greener Backyards, who may need reminders of the good bits of their life so they don't have a skewed self-image.

Encouraging people to cultivate gratitude, when done IMproperly, makes people like Jeanne (and me, in the past) second-guess their own emotional response to problems because it makes us feel like those problems aren't "real", and so the nagging negative feelings must just be because we're just too sensitive, dammit now that's another thing wrong with us.

The problem isn't as such with the action of being grateful, or with promoting that idea in others. The problem is that "gratitude" is being presented as a one-size-fits-all panacea.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:44 AM on January 4, 2016 [15 favorites]


Telling other people what to do or how to feel sucks. Stop doing it and feeling so smug about it.


PS: Ehrenreich is so so great
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:15 AM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Pick up a pen. A sheet of paper, maybe two.

At the top of the page write "I'm grateful for" and then go on down, line by line.

This may not change the ills in the world, it may not change anything except your own attitude.

But what's wrong with having a good attitude?

If I have a good attitude, if I have a smile on my face that's real, the kind of smile that reaches my eyes, then there is a much better chance that I'll be a better citizen. A better chance that I can be the change I want to see happening in the world. Etc and etc.

Unless you are absolutely determined to *not* allow any happiness into your life, writing even five minutes of the things in your life you are grateful for will make you happier than you were before you picked up the pen. Sometimes a lot happier.

Putting onto paper the things in your life for which you are grateful can help you gain a new perspective, and allow you to drop the negativity that you might have been focusing on.

Don't do this if you're certain that it won't work -- I'd hate to see you get proved wrong. And I'll support you in your holding onto your unhappiness. Meanwhile, I will be writing a gratitude list -- when I remember to do so -- and smiling inside of five minutes.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:27 AM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


One of the best things I have ever read is Joseph Heller's Yossarian (in Catch 22) determined to hold tight to his anger, while his lover is shooting for gratitude. As follows:
"Now you're changing the subject," he pointed out diplomatically. "I'll bet I can name two things to be miserable about for every one you can name to be thankful for."

"Be thankful you've got me," she insisted.

"I am, honey. But I'm also goddamn good and miserable that I can't have Dori Duz again, too. Or the hundreds of other girls and women I'll see and want in my short lifetime and won't be able to go with even once."

"Be thankful you're healthy."

"Be bitter you're not going to stay that way."

"Be glad you're even alive."

"Be furious you're going to die."

"Things could be much worse," she cried.

"They could be one hell of a lot better," he answered heatedly.

"You're naming only one thing," she protested. "You said you could name two."

"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossarian continued, hurtling over her objection. "There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else He's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about--a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?"

"Pain?" Lieutenant Schiesskopf's wife pounced upon the word victoriously. "Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers."

"And who created the dangers?" Yossarian demanded. He laughed caustically. "Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of his celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't He?"

"People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads."

"They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupefied with morphine, don't they? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It's obvious He never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!"

Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. "You'd better not talk that way about Him, honey," she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice. "He might punish you."

"Isn't He punishing me enough?" Yossarian snorted resentfully. "You know, we musn't let Him get away scot free for all the sorrow He's caused us. Someday I'm going to make Him pay. I know when. On the Judgement Day. Yes, that's the day I'll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and--"

"Stop it! Stop it!" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. "Stop it!"

Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed. "What the hell are you getting so upset about?" he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. "I thought you didn't believe in God."

"I don't," she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. "But the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be."

Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. "Let's have a little more religious freedom between us," he proposed obligingly. "You don't believe in the God you want to, and I won't believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?"

posted by dancestoblue at 2:59 AM on January 4, 2016 [16 favorites]


I do think that people who are often trapped in the tangles and dark corners of the mind, are not in a great position to fight for a better world, when it takes so much of their mental resources just to care for themselves. And that people who feel better about their lives and themselves, perhaps aided by the practice of gratitude, are likely going to be more open, giving, helpful and involved members of society.

Eh, I don't know about that. Based on my friends list, and their friends, the people who are grappling with mental health issues and significant trauma are often the ones most dedicated to social change and solidarity - they're the activists, the healers, the community organizers, the ones highly vocal and active about social justice.

Meanwhile the people who are all "~~make a #gratitude list~~" are not willing to acknowledge their privilege, take any comment about racism/sexism/etc as "zomg why are you so ~~confrontational~~" and think that the only reason anyone would ever be depressed or in trouble or hurt is because they're "not grateful enough" and "are manifesting bad energy".
posted by divabat at 3:35 AM on January 4, 2016 [17 favorites]


dancestoblues: your post about the gratitude list comes off as extremely condescending and thoughtless, especially in the light of a whole bunch of comments saying that other people telling them they should be grateful is hurtful and harmful to their well-being.
posted by divabat at 3:36 AM on January 4, 2016 [14 favorites]


I agree with Divabat, Dancestoblue.

There are times when a "positive attitude" can help you, yes. But there are also times when anger is called for, and grieving, and nervousness, and...

Look at it this way - would you tell someone whose child just died that "well, look at it this way - at least his sister didn't also die too"? Or tell someone whose house just burned down that "well, hey, at least your car still works"? Or tell someone who just got mugged that "well, at least they didn't stab you as well"?

Trying to always find the positive side of things so you can "be smiling within five minutes" isn't always appropriate. The grief you feel after a loved one dies is necessary. The fear you feel after your house burned down will help you to be more cautious in your next house. And the anger you feel after having been mugged will spur you to take action and fight back by going to the police to get those fuckers arrested.

Now, I'm sure you know that. But the problem is that this kind of "gratitude yay!" advocacy sounds way too simplistic. People who are angry or sad are not always thus because they're "trying to hold on to negativity" - sometimes it's because there is some major shit that just went down for them, and telling them to "be positive!" is really, really cruel.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:09 AM on January 4, 2016 [16 favorites]


What is gratitude but a sense of debt, a "debt" to the past and a mystification of the history that produced the horrors and injustices of todays' world. To have gratitude is to accept the status quo as a necessary debt that must be honoured. This sort of thinking does not lead to change. The leads to a blissful acceptance of the status quo.

Maybe today we should not be happy? Should one be "well-adjusted" to abject poverty, to a deceitful and corrupt political practice across much of the western world. The irony is that it is the USA in which this nonsense seems to be lapped up most whole-heartedly, the country with the most, corrupt, abominable, rigged oligarchy disguised as "democracy".

Should one really have gratitude that you have been lied to and deceived?
posted by mary8nne at 4:15 AM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


I don't think dancestoblue was being thoughtless or condescending. I think they were saying what works for them, and that clearly implied it was not for everyone. The one about the "dark corners of the mind" was clearly talking about some people who find it a struggle to have the energy to get out of bed
posted by discopolo at 4:33 AM on January 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


discopolo: from dancestoblue's comment:

Unless you are absolutely determined to *not* allow any happiness into your life, writing even five minutes of the things in your life you are grateful for will make you happier than you were before you picked up the pen. Sometimes a lot happier.

This is not "if it doesn't work for you, that's cool". This is "the only reason you won't want to do this is because you don't actually want to be happy". And this is coming after a string of comments from others asking not to be told how they should feel.
posted by divabat at 4:35 AM on January 4, 2016 [23 favorites]


Divabat, I see what you mean, but I don't think they meant it that way. Obviously they're speaking from their own experience, as are you. I'll give dancestoblue the benefit of the doubt that they are reflecting on their own situation and experience, as we all are. I don't think attacking them for their personal practice after they say it has benefitted their lives or helped them tremendously is necessary.
posted by discopolo at 4:44 AM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Actually, Divabat, on second thought, you're right; I skimmed that with one eye open because my glasses are on the table. I think I'm a little defensive about the gratitude stuff myself, but doing the whole arguing and being assertive tends to sap me of all my energy when it's about something deeply personal, like how to handle the moment to moment living of life or not be paralyzed by anxiety. So I'm deeply biased and I don't think participating in this thread is good for me.
posted by discopolo at 4:56 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


would you tell someone whose child just died that "well, look at it this way - at least his sister didn't also die too"?

When I lost my oldest child, I got "at least you're young enough to try again," never mind that she came after 8 years of trying and was of course an irreplaceable human being. As previously discussed here on the blue, society's capacity to deal with grief is in a weird spot right now, trapped in discomfort and a kind of magical thinking that if you present people with something that sounds cheery, it will cheer them up.

I actually do believe in gratitude in my life on a personal level, but I came to it after at least trying to come to terms with some of the horrendously unfair aspects of my life. (And yes, I am born in a privileged time with privileged skin colour in the West.) For me, gratitude is a result of my privilege and my work at breaking family cycles, not so much a tool.

What I hate about weaponized self-help concepts like The Secret is that it places difficulty and failure at the feet of those experiencing those times rather than encouraging a 'how can I or we as a society help' response. It is not helpful to talk to someone with a broken leg about healing until you've gotten them a cast. There is no One True Cure because first you have to listen to people. A single mum constantly one childhood illness away from losing her job due to shaky daycare and an hourly impermanent workforce isn't stuck in her thinking; she's stuck in her life.

That doesn't negate that some people find help and solace in those things, which is fine. Lots of people find the same in belief in heaven. But just like "pray harder" is not an okay response to someone suicidally depressed "keep a gratitude journal" should be advice calibrated to the person suffering.

I think Barbara Enrenreich speaks quite an amazing set of truths to power; when you start at Nickel and Dimed and follow through her book on looking for work and then Bright-Sided (I'm underground typing this so forgive my memory here.) I thought to yoga mat comment was a bit snarky but I do know where she's coming from.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:00 AM on January 4, 2016 [19 favorites]


Her book on the topic of positive thinking, Bright-Sided, is really excellent. It apparently sprang from her experience of having breast cancer, and being exhorted by other women with cancer, by doctors, by the general populace, friends, and family to just Think Positive and treat cancer like a gift, or an opportunity, and keep battling cancer bravely. Which - though it may be a useful approach for some people - is an incredibly limiting way for people to deal with their feelings and fears about having a disease. She presents a lot of research about how this sort of Positive Thinking has been used as a battering ram for people in vulnerable spots: people with cancer, people trying to get a job, prosperity ministries, The Secret, people with depression, etc.

This essay strikes a very similar note, and it's true: I'm incredibly grateful that I have a job doing what I love. I'm fucking pissed that every day I walk past a group of homeless men suffering from mental disorders and freezing and asking for money on the street next to a university that makes millions of dollars off of a group of primarily black young men and so on and so forth. Get so caught up in how grateful you are for your small blessings, and you can very easily blind yourself to larger tragedies. How many people have decided that they just can't cope with reading the news because it's too depressing? That's the real world out there, no matter how #blessed I feel on a personal level.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:05 AM on January 4, 2016 [23 favorites]


I'm a huge fan of both Ehrenreich and Brene Brown who recommends gratitude practice in her self help books.

The paradox with all the positive psychology advice is that while it is benign and helpful when willingly applied to the self in the form of personal optimism and appreciating the good in your life it very quickly becomes oppressive and poisonous when demanded of others as when critical thinking is dismissed as negativity and people with legitimate grievances are waved away with an admonition to be grateful for what little they have.

The positive psychology movement needs to be more proactive about explaining the difference between using their ideas as tools for getting through life versus cudgels to wield against others who are inconveniencing you with their own viewpoints.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:16 AM on January 4, 2016 [31 favorites]


Outside of whether the real goal is solidarity or not, the problem with modern day "gratitude" is that it is aimed at serving selfish goals. The point of "gratitude" as traditionally understood is to realize that you should be thankful for and humbled by what you have rather than puffed up with pride and denigrating others for having less because they hadn't "earned" it like you have. The modern day "gratitude" movement is about helping people give themselves reasons to feel good about everything they have, not to mention turning "gratitude" into yet another accomplishment/possession for people to achieve and take pride in.

True gratitude is very humbling. It's the realization that for all you have, much of it came from fortunate circumstance and could go way in an instant.
posted by deanc at 6:29 AM on January 4, 2016 [19 favorites]


The paradox with all the positive psychology advice is that while it is benign and helpful when willingly applied to the self in the form of personal optimism and appreciating the good in your life it very quickly becomes oppressive and poisonous when demanded of others as when critical thinking is dismissed as negativity and people with legitimate grievances are waved away with an admonition to be grateful for what little they have.

Yes! Exactly. And it can end up encouraging people to dismiss their own legitimate grievances, too; I had a client who got into "The Secret" and decided that all the traumas in her life (which generally stemmed from physically abusive relationships) were because she wasn't thinking positively enough. It can turn into another expression of the Just World Fallacy.
posted by jaguar at 6:59 AM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Gratitude with humility can be a great and transformative thing - I've experienced the benefits of it myself and it's helped me a great deal with various struggles I've had throughout the years. The problem is that people so often forget the other half, and (I believe) the natural, positive extension of gratitude, which is compassion and a desire to help others. At that point, gratitude become a really icky kind of smugness.

It can also become kind of a form of superiority - I see people all the time sharing their gratitude with platitudes like "but for the grace of God" or how "lucky" or "fortunate" they are, which always rubs me the wrong way because it sounds like they're saying (even though they probably don't intend it this way) that people who don't have whatever they're grateful for don't have "God's grace" or "good fortune", which is a very subtle way (again, in my mind) of saying that other people are undeserving. I don't think it requires very many leaps at all for the "attitude of gratitude" crowd to almost kind of get to the point of victim-blaming. We see this manifested in a number of ways - from thinking that people with illnesses (both physical and mental) should be able to somehow heal themselves through their mindset; to (on a more global level) people who are upset by whatever domestic political or social issue being chided for it because what's going on in Syria/Africa/wherever is so much worse. And again, this mindset that we in America are so fortunate and blessed, as if all other countries are lesser and therefore bad or wrong - we see all the time the consequences of this kind of blind and unquestioning patriotism. It's a really subtle but sinister thing and I think is a natural, negative extension of this extreme culture of gratitude.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:12 AM on January 4, 2016 [5 favorites]


At the top of the page write "I'm grateful for" and then go on down, line by line.

This may not change the ills in the world, it may not change anything except your own attitude.

But what's wrong with having a good attitude?


I think you're missing the point. The point is that this attitude of blind gratitude is hurting people because it's removing the social aspect of gratitude. See, if you're grateful, then it means you're grateful TO someone. So for example, I'm grateful that right now A) I'm on a lovely vacation. B) I'm staying in a beautiful apartment in an expensive city. C) I just bought a sweater that will keep me warm, at a great price, so say nothing of all my broader life circustance things to be grateful for.

Alright, so now I'm grateful, I need someone to be grateful, TO. Well normally when you're grateful for something, it's to the people who sacrifice for you to have the thing that you're grateful for. So for my lovely vacation A), I flew here, which is a crapload of carbon-causing, so I should be grateful to all the people who are suffering, dying or losing their homes as a consequence of global warming. Their sacrifice made my vacation possible.

B) For the lovely apartment I'm living in, I should be grateful to all the people who have moved out of this dying city because it is too expensive to live in. It's my airbnb rental that is driving prices up and has resulted in at least one family not having a place to live so I should be grateful to them. (I was just reading on the plane about how the population of the city has halved in the past 50 years). And of course I should be grateful to the people who still live here -- with barely any stores or services that are not targetted to tourists. Their inconvenience has made my stay lovely.

C) For the sweater I bought I should be grateful to the sweatshop workers who made the sweater so affordable, as well as all the more local workers who are unemployed because they cost more than the sweatshop workers. And of course the retail workers who work for minimum wage to keep prices down.

Ok, so far so good...I'm grateful, I know who I'm grateful to, and now all I have to do is do what grateful people do. What do grateful people do? Well, when someone does something nice for you, we typically have a norm of reciprocity, so now I have to do something nice for those people, the people suffering due to global warming, and driven out of their city by tourists, and working in sweatshops or not working at all.

See, now this is where she's saying the whole gratitude movement falls short. By turning gratitude into just thinking "isn't it nice that I..." as opposed to an actual social interaction of gratitude where you are grateful TO someone and you act grateful, gratitude is turned from a social act to an anti-social (in both senses of the word) act. Gratitude isn't just thinking "aren't I just so lucky cause I'm so deserving and lucky!" it's recognizing the sacrifices that others make from which you benefit.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:55 AM on January 4, 2016 [26 favorites]


Besides being a fan of Barbara Ehrenreich, the reason the essay caught my attention was -- why would the John Templeton Society spend over 8 million dollars promoting the idea of "gratitude" instead of spending 8 million dollars to actually HELP people who could then be genuinely grateful? The cynical little elf that lives in my brain says -- the Templetons want the poors (and the soon to be poor) to stop complaining -- so they came up with a plan to teach us to have an "attitude of gratitude" about what we have and stop barking about fairness.

I agree that being mindful of how freaking lucky I am is a positive thing. And I admit that counting my blessings instead of my problems helps get me out of bed in the morning. But the world is inherently unfair and a truly civil society would work to ameliorate that instead of exacerbate it by pummeling people with pinterest inspired pablum who struggle with genuine problems. /end rant/
posted by pjsky at 8:55 AM on January 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


if only I had a penguin, your explanation just changed my understanding of this piece. Thank you!

Off to think harder about this...
posted by wenestvedt at 9:23 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Would it help if I said "appreciation," rather than "gratitude"? I try to appreciate the good things in my life, rather than taking them for granted. One of the things that I appreciate is that I have some tools with which to work for a more just society.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:29 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


> why would the John Templeton Society spend over 8 million dollars promoting the idea of "gratitude" instead of spending 8 million dollars to actually HELP people who could then be genuinely grateful? The cynical little elf that lives in my brain says -- the Templetons want the poors (and the soon to be poor) to stop complaining -- so they came up with a plan to teach us to have an "attitude of gratitude" about what we have and stop barking about fairness.

That's pretty close, actually. They fund work that supports/could prove their religious beliefs -- in fields ranging from mathematical and physical sciences to sociology and psychology (including the principles of "character development.")

There is absolutely a valid and needed place for foundation funding for academic research, not just direct services, but the John Templeton Foundation is rather self-serving in every imaginable way. The patriarch, one of the richest men in the world thanks to his success in the investment industry, famously renounced his US citizenship and moved to the Bahamas in order to avoid paying taxes on his substantial fortune.

The Foundation and accepting its money is...controversial in academia, and I'm pretty horrified that NPR let them buy their way in like that.
posted by desuetude at 10:13 AM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


I love Barbara Ehrenreich, have read all her books, and this new article is more in the same vein of deflating and debunking self-help woo and putting the emphasis on social issues and injustices.

I have volunteered in the field of adoption reform for many years, which is now drowning in pseudoscience and bogus theories of Primal Wounds and prenatal memories and so-called "attachment disorders". All this obscures the very real need for reform in adoption practice,and the need for legally opening records to adopted adults. It also takes the emphasis off shoddy adoption practice, corruption, and mistreatment of adopted children and puts it all on individual adopted persons and birth mothers as wounded and in need of some questionable therapies. I wish ideas like those that Ms Ehrenreich has put forth here were more widely read and accepted by those in adoption reform, as well as in other areas of life where social justice issues are thrown back on the individual as "your own fault."
posted by mermayd at 10:24 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


The cynical little elf that lives in my brain says -- the Templetons want the poors (and the soon to be poor) to stop complaining -- so they came up with a plan to teach us to have an "attitude of gratitude" about what we have and stop barking about fairness.

Yep. Conservatives are pretty much definitially about conserving the status quo. It's about encouraging the middle class to be grateful and cheery about their position in life, focusing on how much worse things could be for them rather than looking at the sponsors of these campaigns and noticing the absurd inequalities in that direction. It's about an attitude where you can shut yourself off from reality in the interests of self-preservation and then cast that as some sort of virtue.

And it's all rooted in a fundamental misapprehension that happiness and satisfaction are somehow morally superior to every other human impulse and emotion. That is just not true. There is nothing morally upstanding about cultivating ignorance and self-centeredness. Not that there's anything wrong with being grateful and satisfied with what you have in balance with everything else. Of course you should do that sometimes, but everyone knows that already. It's everywhere. Pinterest is lousy with it, any home decor or craft store is full of little plaques and wall stickers you can put up all over your home as a constant reminder, and even if you avoid those things, you'll encounter enough tone policing in your daily life to keep it fresh in your head. Hell, The Secret was just tone policing on a spectral level.

You cannot and should not be happy and fulfilled and satisfied all the time. If it were possible, it would make you an incredibly dull creature, but fortunately, it is not possible. And unfortunately, the way these campaigns cast happiness as some sort of moral imperative actually serves to make people feel shittier that they can't attain it. But at least they're feeling shitty about themselves, and not about the external shitty stuff, like the people behind the most insidious of these campaigns.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:40 PM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Contemplating other people's pain has never made me feel better and I really don't get that sentiment at all. It's sociopathic. "You could live in a society where learning to read means acid is thrown in your face! Be grateful!" Actually, no I'm not grateful that this reality exists, fuck you why should I be? It's terrible that any person has to deal with that. I'm angry about it.

I am only grateful for the love and kindness of others, whenever it comes my way.

I am appreciative of my current health and economic well- being, while still aware that those could both be taken away by circumstances.

I am determined to work/advocate/push for a better world, where everyone can have goals besides mere survival that also don't depend on doing harm to themselves, others or the planet. In the course of doing so, I have to loudly complain about the way things currently are, and generally be unpleasant about it when necessary. But that has nothing to do with my ability to feel gratitude.
posted by emjaybee at 2:15 PM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm not happy for long periods of time in my life and am quite satisfied with that. Templeton and Norman Vincent Peale can both kiss off because their dime store psychology will never change me. Amirite Buddha?
posted by nofundy at 3:10 PM on January 4, 2016


" It can also feel like yelling at yourself to stop feeling so bad because your problems are so tiny compared to other people's problems; "

Hear, hear. Yes, gratitude is lovely when you are actually feeling grateful, like "I'm grateful to be on vacation right now." On the other hand, gratitude can feel like a fucking chore at times. Like yes, I'm grateful as hell to be employed, but forcing myself to be grateful about that is really hard today when my job was just hours and hours of pain and drama and complaints on the first day back. It doesn't really make you feel any better or happier to force the issue. Like yes, I'm grateful to not be homeless, but it doesn't mean I'm not having issues.

This kind of thing is why I get ticked off every time someone makes me keep a gratitude journal, really. On good days, it's fine. On bad days, it's Not Helping.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:00 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Really, the problem is prescriptive speech. Different people need different things. Some people are fucking ungrateful and could use a little gratitude in their worldviews, but who the fuck am I to tell them that? That's bullshit. Some people could use a dose of bitterness, those fucking Pollyannas, but again, who am I to make that call?

I'm a stranger on the internet is who I am.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:17 AM on January 5, 2016 [3 favorites]


Your problems are your problems, whether they are your latte is made with full caff ( I DEMANDED HALF) or you can't make rent this month. It is the perspective you choose to bring to them that makes the difference.

Life isn't fair- no one stood at the front of the line picking people saying - YOU- over there- in the black sweater? Everything is going to be easy for you. You- in the green pants? All of it's going to suck donkey balls no matter what.

Gratitude is a tool. Generally for those of us who don't have to worry about making rent. It's performing mental hygiene- what crappy worldview have I picked up today because my boss sucks/the traffic sucked/ they were out of donuts when I got to the shop.
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 9:06 AM on January 5, 2016


but again, who am I to make that call?

Agreed. I think you’re always on thin ice when you tell someone else how they should think or feel. To me this article did that, even while it was railing against it. "Don’t listen to those people who tell you how to feel, I’ll tell people how they should feel and think". Maybe I misread it.
posted by bongo_x at 11:53 AM on January 5, 2016


A friend of mine once passed on some words of wisdom:
You never know who's doing their absolute best. That 350-lb dude with Cheeto stains on his shirt? He might be overcoming a shit ton of stuff you don't know about.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:55 PM on January 5, 2016 [4 favorites]


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