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The benefits - and limits - of today's gratitude movement

Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks
Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks
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America has a gratitude problem.

Dozens of popular books and articles urge us to embrace the “power of gratitude” - and readers are eager to comply: One of the top-selling self-help books on Amazon is the un-bylined “Good Days Start With Gratitude: A 52 Week Guide to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude.”

Yet many will naturally feel excluded from the increasingly prevalent gratitude equation, in which a mind-set of thankfulness is supposed to multiply one’s blessings. People who lost everything in wildfires, relatives of victims of mass shootings, and those suffering from physical or emotional disorders can understandably feel locked out of the reported benefits of compound gratefulness.

Feeling the peer pressure to “be grateful” can even create a kind of negative loop: When we can’t summon the expected feeling of gratefulness or buoyancy that popular culture demands, we often experience a deepened sense of failure.

It’s not that the urge toward gratefulness is wrong. Rather, it’s that the popularly expressed approach needs to consider the vast numbers of people who have unjustly or chronically suffered.

None of this gratitude-evangelizing is new. Most people credit Oprah Winfrey with promulgating the ever-present term “attitude of gratitude.” But the slogan and its outlook originated in a 1909 book called “The Ideal Made Real,” by American mystic Christian D. Larson.

“The attitude of gratitude,” wrote the native Iowan, “brings the whole mind into more perfect and more harmonious relations with all the laws and powers of life. The grateful mind gains a firmer hold, so to speak, upon those things in life that can produce increase.” Larson framed the core principle of today’s gratitude movement.

Look, for instance, at Janice Kaplan’s popular and infectiously readable “The Gratitude Diaries” (Penguin). Although filled with good insights on cultivating healthier relationships at home and work, the book is written from the standpoint of an urbane sophisticate, who often cops to average-Jane language and aw-shucks self-effacement. Kaplan’s smooth writerly style skips past the problems of underpaid workers, caregivers pressed between the needs of kids and elders and working people who cannot make a car payment.

A more serious seeker’s guide to gratefulness is the recent “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks” (HarperOne). Historian Diana Butler Bass brings literary gravitas to the genre and admiringly draws upon a wide range of source material from religion to sociology to classical ethics. But, like Kaplan, she touches only occasionally on questions of severe challenge, and her examples follow from the same assumptions of Volvo-driving prosperity.

In the pleasingly offbeat “A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life” (Hachette), author John Kralik describes how the simple practice of writing thank-you notes - as in, (BEGIN ITAL)a lot(END ITAL) of thank-you notes - lifted his depression. Full disclosure: I am something of a New Age wingnut myself, and I have used Kralik’s method to good effect. But still: It is a limited technique, like jogging for the psyche - not a philosophy of life, and certainly not a serviceable path for anyone facing catastrophe or staggering illness.

Opting for a more explicitly religious perspective, Nancy Leigh DeMoss’ “Choosing Gratitude: Your Journey to Joy” (Moody Publishers) takes a Christian approach to gratitude. The author frames authentic thankfulness as part of fealty to God’s will, as well as being a helpful daily path. DeMoss’ historical and Scriptural examples lend weight to her perspective; but nonreligious or non-Christian readers will struggle with many of her assumptions.

Venturing outside the immediate gratitude genre, Gretchen Rubin’s recently updated “The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun” (Harper) relies on practical methods like (spoiler alert) “keep a gratitude notebook.” Rubin supplies a codex of healthy psychological habits (my favorite: “quit nagging” - albeit difficult to do).

Yet here, too, is an author who proffers advice (“launch a blog,” “write a novel”) that is largely and inexorably keyed to those who enjoy prosperous, secure lives.

Does this mean that the gratitude-apostles are wrong? No, it doesn’t. They frequently offer serviceable insights. Where the gratitude movement falters, as with the positivity movement in general, is that its leading voices purposefully and somewhat cheaply recoil from the ethical and intellectual heavy lifting of addressing the lives of people in deep or implacable distress. An authentic philosophical principle must be universal in its application and reach.

Hence, the gratitude movement must acknowledge that there’s no way to spin profound personal loss. Life may never be whole again.

However, when consuming half a loaf of bread, so to speak, it is immensely more fulfilling to do so standing fully erect internally, and cultivating greater awareness of - and gratefulness for - the sacrifices made by others.

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I believe that the closest thing that we are granted to an elixir after experiencing grief, or while facing profound challenge, is not only the cultivation of a grittier form of gratitude, but also fighting the very ills - large and small - that contributed to the suffering or structural frictions that you and others must experience. This might include a private decision to sever social or familial ties with people who have made us suffer, or a public-facing resolve to combat domestic abuse and the uptick in suicides that have marred our culture.

And for those of us to whom life does not present staggering burdens: Shame on us if we fail to express gratitude. To consider societies that are riven by civil war, brutal despotism and environmental disasters (and don’t count your blessings too quickly on that score), and to not express gratitude is to enter a narcissistic bubble of self-concern and petty complaint.

So, yes, two cheers for gratitude. But we need a movement today that recognizes the true possibilities - and the limits - of gratefulness for all people.

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