Why you should care
Because pessimism has its perks. Really.
“Everything is awesome! / Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!” So goes the most nauseatingly peppy song of the 2014 animated hit The Lego Movie.
Of course everything isn’t awesome. In a plot that’s as much cultural critique as entertainment, the (Lego) protagonist stuffs his feelings deep down inside so that no matter what happens, everything is, well, awesome. Pretty dark for a kids’ movie — and stealthily relevant to parents: After all, they live in a society where thankfulness is the ultimate virtue. Being grateful is supposed to be a solution for everything from a bad night’s sleep to months of grief. To which we say … thanks, but no thanks. Screw gratitude.
Today’s emphasis on gratitude is part of a massive “cultural movement involving positive psychology” and “strong cultural value on anything that’s positive and feeling positive,” says psychologist Julie Norem, who studies the benefits of pessimism. Studies that purport to empower people also signal that we’re the only ones standing in our own way. All we need to do is stop and smell the roses. While we’re all for thanking lucky stars, we refuse to do it while we’re standing in a pile of shit.
Gratitude is a privilege for those without serious problems.
The stakes are higher than mere grousing. The thankfulness trend has an insidious dark side. Gratitude is not some magical good or even a neutral feeling; it’s hurting us. It erases a safe space to talk about negative feelings, or to address problems so that they might be fixed. Those who are depressed might feel pressured to cover up their malaise, until matters are dire. With the suicide rate in the U.S. skyrocketing — the highest in 30 years — maybe we should stop telling people they need to be thankful and start asking them what’s on their minds.
Then there’s the matter of privilege. Gratefulness does diddly-squat for a foster kid who’s been shuffled from home to home with little love and a whole lot of rejection. Gratefulness won’t help a woman get out of an emotionally or physically abusive relationship. Gratitude, in fact, is a privilege for those without serious problems. People in “low power” relationships need solutions that can help them change their situations in measurable ways. “What they need to do is to feel angry and empowered,” says Norem. And for people with anxiety, so-called defensive pessimism — focused negative thinking in which you think through negative outcomes and work backward — can help create focus and reduce stress.
My problem with gratitude goes beyond the dire and depressed — and to people who should be aiming higher. The gratitude push colludes nicely with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” encouraging certain types (e.g., women) to be happy with what they get. No startup became a unicorn because its founder was satisfied with its first round. No athlete has won a Heisman for being thankful.
Gratitude “tamps down the sense of hunger” and is “like a corporate regulator of employee demands,” says Rachel Bellow, principal at Mind + Matter Studio and co-host of the Big Payoff podcast. Women are particularly vulnerable to the thankfulness trap because “so many women walk around feeling like they’re too much — too fat, big, loud, needy.” We must be able to demand more: more money, more responsibility, more from our loved ones. We need to swap #blessed for #hustle, #drive and #demand.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t appreciate the good things in our lives. But thankfulness is not the endgame, it’s a starting point. Instead of five minutes of gratitude a day, try spending five minutes a day visualizing what it is you want to kick ass for and how you’re going to get it. Maybe then you’ll really have something to be thankful for.
Do you think my attitude about gratitude is insufferable? Or are you grateful for my honesty? Let me know in the comments. Thank you.