Three cheers for the November 21st Washington Post book review by Mitch Horowitz, for bringing attention to our culture’s current fascination with gratitude. While indeed questionable whether this contemporary phenomenon is worthy of being dubbed a “movement,” gratitude is certainly one of the latest yellow brick roads in our individual preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness. We believe that gratefulness can offer a greater path…
Gratitude as sought and seen through a hedonic lens – which is how most of the current trend articulates the benefits – will inevitably struggle with struggle, and suffer under the weight of suffering.
Look at T-shirts, tchotchkes, and book titles right now and it is easy to conclude that gratitude is trending, but the reach and relevance of the positive psychology effects of the gratitude wave are surely self-limiting as soon as people experience and encounter difficulty or pain. Gratitude as sought and seen through a hedonic lens – which is how most of the current trend articulates the benefits – will inevitably struggle with struggle, and suffer under the weight of suffering. It leans towards the transactional, acquisitional, and conditional. The aperture of feel good, self-satisfying gratitude is simply too small to be sustained, and does not allow for the inevitable, messy truths of life to enter the picture. This will seriously – and rightly – constrain any ability for “buoyant” gratitude to take hold across the vast landscape of our lives and culture.
It can be relatively easy to hold an “attitude of gratitude” when we have what we need, get what we want, and inventory happy occurrences in our journals at the end of a day. It is quite another proposition to still feel grateful when life brings us and others circumstances none of us would willingly choose. We are assured all kinds of moments in life. The challenge is—and always has been—to be grateful especially when life does not deliver on hopes, expectations, and most especially on fairness.
Noticing the gifts already in our lives, taking fewer of our privileges for granted, …seeing opportunities in challenges, and embracing the great fullness of life are some of the domains of the moment-to-moment practice of gratefulness.
For the sake of exactly the kinds of shortcomings that Horowitz addresses in his article, we draw a set of distinctions between a momentary experience of gratitude and gratefulness—the state of being grateful. These nuanced differences can allow us to orient to life through a wider, more inclusive lens and still maintain a fundamental experience of gratefulness when the proverbial fan gets hit with less savory things. While gratitude may serve us well when the weather is good, the meal is great, the company enthralling, and the body does what we want it to do, gratefulness helps us remember to be grateful for the ability to simply breathe (it won’t always be so), to feel anything and everything (better than the alternative), and to be alive in this very moment (not everyone who expected to be here today still is).
Noticing the gifts already in our lives, taking fewer of our privileges for granted, actively appreciating what we value, acknowledging impermanence, seeing opportunities in challenges, and embracing the great fullness of life are some of the domains of the moment-to-moment practice of gratefulness. In these ways, gratefulness sets itself apart as eudaemonic and more qualified as a social movement precisely because—recognizing the fact of our interconnection and inextricability—its locus of consideration extends to our shared vulnerability, well-being, and the greater good. In a state of being grateful, we are awakened to greater empathy, generosity, and concern for the well-being of all.
Positive thinking says the glass is half-full. Dour thinking says it is half-empty. Gratitude helps us to better enjoy whatever is in the glass. But gratefulness can help us focus more intently on the radical fact of having a glass at all, making the most of the glass we have, and on ensuring that those around us have a glass as well.
Three cheers for the limits of gratitude—they may point us to a more meaningfully grateful way of being, and cheering.
If you have been touched by the transformative power of gratefulness, and see the promise of grateful living as a way of bring healing to our lives and world, we invite you to make a gift to help support our work.
With warm thanks for your support!
A version of this piece was originally submitted to the Washington Post as a Letter to the Editor on November 23rd, but was not printed. Kristi Nelson is the Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living. To read more about her visit this page.