Gratitude Comes Hard to Us



Thanksgiving is here, and we who invented the holiday are squirming as usual. We have been subjected to a series of (usually commercial) exhortations to be grateful (and show it by buying something). Pop psychology has tossed a lot of mawkish reflection in the same direction, insisting we make gratitude lists and feel thankful now.

Which is the fastest way to make me feel cranky instead.

I should be grateful for family? We are both only children; our parents are gone. Ah, but for friends? Yes, and usually they would be with us, but one refuses to get vaccinated. For the lovely food? Which all costs twenty percent more this year, and money is getting tight. A lingering pandemic is a tricky time to be grateful, because mainly, you are glad just not to be sick or dead, and that is itself a reminder of just how precarious life is . . .

In any event, we have decided to go to the Zoo for Thanksgiving. No one will be there, the weather will be cold and bleak, and the residents will be thrilled. My mood will ease, and tiny bursts of gratitude—for the company, the spontaneity, the sense of playful freedom—will ignore all the self-help preaching and moralizing and sneak into my heart. And that just might save my soul.

According to Seneca, all crimes “spring from ingratitude, without which hardly any sin has grown to great size.” Here he agreed with his predecessor, Cicero, who saw gratitude as the greatest of all virtues, parent to the rest. I might place compassion higher, but I have noticed even the selfish benefits of gratitude (do they cancel the virtue?). There is no faster way to dispel a disgruntled mood. Or to remember how much you really do love your spouse, friends, job, existence.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh checked back with heart transplant recipients a year after surgery. Those who practiced thankfulness and appreciation as part of their religious faith felt better—and had not struggled nearly as much with diet and medications—than those who did not deliberately take time to feel grateful.

Robert Emmons declares gratitude “one of the few things that can measurably change people’s lives.” It makes sense that here, in the land of self-improvement, we should grant gratitude its own (albeit politically confused, deceptive, and tainted) holiday. But I suspect we also need Thanksgiving because we are so bad at it. As Americans, we are told to go out there and get what we want; we have a hard time being humbled in receipt of it. Awkwardness, silence, embarrassment, discomfort, breezy superficiality—these are the frequent signs of our discomfort.

Cross-cultural researchers have shown sharp differences in the way both children and adults in the U.S. show gratitude, compared to those in other countries. Our kids, for example, are better at “concrete gratitude.” Asked their dearest wish and told to imagine someone granting that wish, they choose to reciprocate by giving the wish-granter something they think is cool, like candy or a toy. Kids in China and South Korea reciprocate with something they know the wish-granter would like. Researchers call that “connective gratitude,” and the U.S. kids who are raised right do grow into it. . . .  but on average, they lean toward the concrete.

Nor are kids here eloquent as kids in, say, Guatemala, when it comes to expressing their gratitude in words. There, after listening to grown-ups say “Thanks be to God” throughout the day, kids use their words to thank someone for a favor.

Other research showed Iranian adults more likely than Americans to acknowledge a favor directly (“You did me a great favor”) and to apologize, which requires a similar humility.

That is what we forget: the humility part. Casting our minds over our blessings, we feel entitled to them, note how hard we have worked to earn them, bask in our good fortune in a congratulatory, capitalist way. And we have a hard time letting a gift-giver or wish-granter have the upper hand. Instantly, we minimize: “You shouldn’t have done that.” “That is too much.” Our thanks are often breezy, using phrases a linguist would call phatic—nearly meaningless social lubricants. The French are even worse: Their response to a thank you is “De rien.” It was nothing.

Admit that someone has added to your well-being, filled a need, granted a wish, and you are in their debt. You are the one less powerful; you have less control of the situation than they, in their sweeping generosity, have claimed. I am thinking about this dynamic when I open a Longreads piece and read the quote at the top: “Maybe the most powerful person is the one who dares to refuse the gift.”

Granted, the Longreads piece has its own context. But in what other culture is it a power rush to refuse a gift? In what other culture is a gift considered a way of wielding power over another?

When the Chinese are struck by gratitude, they use a phrase that literally means “thank sky.” We say “thank heaven,” but more often in relief, having evaded some crisis. In Taiwanese, the expression of gratitude literally means “feel heart,” and it acknowledges that everyone else benefits from a good deed done to a single individual. Kindness strengthens the social fabric.

Hindi culture, notes Deepak Singh, is threaded with gratitude, and it shows up so easily in gesture, word, and practice that its importance need not be explained. The namaste gesture, for example, just feels grateful, the hands gentled and brought to the heart.

We do not have a gesture that profound, or if we do, I have not found it. We speak in terms of money, not heart: “I owe you one!” “I’m in your debt.” “How can I ever repay you?” We make a calculus, try to give back something of exactly the same value or perhaps a little more or less, if we want to steer the relationship toward more or less warmth.

Jeremy Engels urges a new understanding of gratitude as the foundation for a democracy that truly works for the common good. Our breezy transactional approach, so often deep-down awkward or individualistic and arrogant, has not led us toward a commonweal. Seeing appreciation as indebtedness…leaves us cold. Religious commands to be grateful to God make us bristle: “I didn’t ask to be born!” Commercials that play on false sentiment just remind us of all we want and do not have.

As a remedy, Engels suggests yoga. Seriously. Not downward-facing dog or child pose, but the philosophy beneath them, with its central concept of santosha. Thankfulness without obligation to power. One does not owe anyone or anything for the gift of life. We are interconnected, not engaged in one-upmanship. We cannot each provide everything for ourselves, so we band together.

What better reason to become a nation? And had we done so in that spirit, gratitude would come easily to us.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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