A Re-Evaluation of Gratitude

by Rebecca Baumgartner

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

Last year, I watched a Kurzgesagt video about the science of how gratitude practices can make you happier, so I decided to start a gratitude journal. It could only help, right? 

I started jotting down a variety of things I was grateful for: my family, my piano, my cats and dog, my financial stability. I also listed smaller and more fleeting pleasures like solving the day’s Wordle in two tries, listening to a good podcast, a lovely rainstorm to break up the scorching heat. 

Then, after only about three days of journaling, a switch flipped. I suddenly wanted to chuck the gratitude journal out the window. I was rebelling not just against the journaling exercise but against the very idea of being grateful, although I wasn’t sure why.

Over the next few days, the truth gradually bubbled to the surface. Gratitude journaling felt punitive and performative, like having to write lines in school or recite prayers on a rosary. Even though the journal entries were only for me, I’d felt like I was on trial, like I was being accused – of not appreciating my life, of not trying hard enough to live in the moment, of taking my life for granted. Each journal entry was an indictment: What could I possibly have to be unhappy about?

The fact is, the feeling of thankfulness is much more complex and ambivalent than common knowledge assumes. Gratitude has a dark side that we lie to ourselves about, and this is hardly ever indicated in the bubbly, feel-good cultural conversation surrounding it.

The Dark Side of Gratitude

We know intuitively that gratitude is often about power and control, even though we pretend like it’s not. Adults frequently use the language of gratitude to shame their children and alleviate their own embarrassment when their kid isn’t quite as polite or appreciative as society expects. “What do you say?” parents ask when their child receives something and doesn’t immediately express gratitude, or isn’t effusive enough. 

This “What do you say?” carries a lot of subtext with it: You must say thank you quickly and enthusiastically; it doesn’t matter if the gift was thoughtless or unfairly distributed. You must perform your gratitude and make the adults comfortable.

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From the kid’s point of view, gratitude often looks pretty indistinguishable from obedience and compliance, just another set of rules to follow. In this dynamic, many kids learn that the important thing is just to express gratitude, regardless of how forced, formulaic, and joyless it may feel. 

From the parent’s point of view, it’s embarrassing to have a kid who acts entitled or materialistic, and gratitude is seen to be the appropriate stance to signal that your kid is neither. This is understandable, but the way it plays out in real life is troubling. In part it’s because we rush kids into expressing gratitude and prescribe that it be done a certain way, i.e., verbally, usually in an extroverted manner that feels inauthentic for more introverted kids. There’s a template for what gratitude is supposed to look like. This is despite the fact that I think most of us would rather see a kid happily playing with the toy we got them (even if they neglected to thank us), than receive a formulaic “Thank you” from a kid whose mom is prodding him in the back. 

If your psychological history is anything less than ideal, you likely have mixed feelings about discussing how thankful you are, especially if injunctions against being “spoiled” or “ungrateful” were a common refrain you heard growing up. The childhood experience of gratitude is often one of control and obligation, and rarely is it ever given the breathing room to develop spontaneously or find authentic expression on the child’s own timeline or in accordance with their own personality, or with consideration towards the type of relationship they have with the benefactor. It’s no wonder many of us find that our brains aren’t naturally inclined to associate gratitude with happiness. 

We carry these mixed childhood lessons about gratitude forward into our lives, without the flexibility or nuance that our adult brains are capable of bringing to it. When you’ve been told for so long to appreciate what you have and prostrate yourself in front of your benefactors, it can be difficult to undertake everyday adult challenges like negotiating what you need in a relationship, asking for a raise, responding to criticism, achieving a level of success your parents didn’t, or making a scary life change that entails giving up some of the good things in your life for the possibility of something better. (“What, this isn’t good enough for you?”) 

As I entered adulthood, for example, it took quite a while before I stopped labeling myself ungrateful for completely normal things like advocating for myself, expressing disappointment, disagreeing with authority figures, or establishing a boundary.

Unfortunately, the work world gives us plenty of opportunities to practice this as we get older. I remember there was one time early in my career when I scheduled a meeting with my then-boss to discuss the possibility of a raise. I came prepared with hard facts about the extra responsibility I’d taken on and felt I presented my case well. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that long before executives were wringing their hands about “quiet quitting,” employees were shouldering the burden of “quiet promoting” – i.e., being given more job duties with no accompanying pay increase – for much longer.) 

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When I finished presenting my case, my boss smiled benevolently and explained that in her experience, “these things had a way of working themselves out,” and in the meantime, she recommended I appreciate and make the most of any opportunities (i.e., extra responsibilities) that came my way. 

Today, I see this as a profoundly patronizing and un-transparent way of discussing salaries, but at the time, being relatively new to the norms of the work world and coming from a childhood legacy of keeping your head down, the key message I took from this exchange was that I should feel grateful just to have a job. I should appreciate that someone trusted me enough to give me extra work. Asking for more pay in exchange was – apparently – simply not done.

I eventually realized how mistaken and manipulative this was. I now see that conversation as an example of how the invocation of gratitude is used as “soft power” against others to further a certain agenda. In this case, my boss’s agenda was to avoid giving me a raise, to avoid having a forthright conversation about compensation or workload, and to manage and direct my emotional response to this information (i.e., she wanted me to keep doing the extra work happily, without complaint). 

It was a visceral lesson in how gratitude is used by those with more power to keep those with less power quiet, compliant, and indebted. 

Ingratitude Journaling

Because it tends to slip dangerously close to invalidating normal negative feelings, setting up social comparisons, and triggering guilt and obligation, the way gratitude is touted today is not an appropriate therapeutic approach for everyone, and can even lead to worse mental health in certain people. 

It’s presented as a self-improvement hack that’s somewhat based in psychological research, but which ultimately over-promises and under-delivers – or even completely backfires – for the people who could benefit from it the most. This is almost never discussed in the many research studies about the benefits of gratitude or the pious finger-wagging about ingratitude

But the apostates of gratitude practices are definitely out there, and seem to be increasingly speaking out. One writer describes the catharsis she got from creating an “ingratitude list” instead:

“I learned that stuffing down anger and sadness with a stack of gratitude lists doesn’t make them go away. Writing down the things that made me miserable and furious didn’t make them go away either, but it helped me focus on the things in life that I wanted to change because they caused me suffering over and over again. My ingratitude lists gave me direction, focus and helped me move away from shame and toward acceptance and action.”

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Another writer with chronic health issues wrote about her realization that gratitude journaling had led her to downplay her pain and lie to herself and her doctors about how serious her condition was:

“I could no longer run, do yoga, or be as social as I used to, but I should be grateful for what my body was capable of, instead of focusing on what it couldn’t do…right? I went to the doctor a few times, but I understated my pain. I did the same thing mentally each night in my gratitude journal. The doctors recommended lifestyle changes, but I knew deep down there was something bigger that needed investigating. For years, I didn’t push it. Who was I to receive medical help for my small problems, when other people had it so much worse? Looking back, it’s heartbreaking to see that thought process. I had somehow used my gratitude practice to convince myself I wasn’t worthy of medical help.”

The danger with over-prescribing gratitude for what ails us is that, especially for those who are experiencing depression or anxiety (but also potentially anyone experiencing chronic disease, poverty, or a complex psychological history), the emphasis on gratitude can send the message that if you still feel bad after noticing all the ways you’re fortunate, you’re simply not being grateful enough. 

In the front matter of my gratitude journal, this mindset is endorsed explicitly: “If you have a home and a friend or two and make enough money to be able to afford this book, you already have a lot more than many others.” Surely (or so it’s implied) none of the negative aspects of your life could possibly outweigh having a place to live, a friend, and $14.99 in disposable income. If you dare to believe this is inadequate, you have simply not learned how to be grateful.

This fits in with the general ethos of the wellness industry, which relies on cloaking societal issues as personal failings to be addressed on your own.

Who is Expected to Feel Grateful?

There is a gendered dimension to being assured that the cure for your dissatisfaction is to embrace the status quo harder (even if that status quo isn’t benefiting you), and that you must signal your appreciation for what others do for you (even if they don’t appreciate what you do for them). It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that most of the people who are told to try gratitude journaling, and who actually do try it, are female. Girls are more likely than boys to be socialized to express gratitude and women are held to higher standards of gratitude than men are.

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We could extend this to say that women are taught not to seem greedy or ambitious or hungry. To not complain or point out problems or be a “Debbie Downer.” To count their blessings rather than ask for more. To be content with their lot in life. The psychological legacy of generations of women being told to be content with their lot in life is that, if their lot in life feels unsatisfying, they stifle that feeling by rushing to assure us, and themselves, how grateful they are.

Society really hates when women are ungrateful enough to imagine a better life, or when they point out that they are owed more than what you’ve given them (like equal pay for equal work). There’s this idea that they should feel lucky just to have a seat at the table and take progress one slow step at a time. After all (to paraphrase my former boss), these things have a way of working out, and we should just appreciate whatever comes our way. 

For a very long time, at every turn, women have been faced with the question: “Why can’t you just be content with the way things are?” This is ultimately what gratitude is: an acceptance of the way things are. This is why my gratitude journal is sprinkled with nuggets of advice from Stoicism. The amor fati of the “Broicism” trend might be a useful mindset for some people, some of the time. Just as there is some truth and usefulness to the claim that we are all interdependent, it is possible to see the positive side of being content with the way things are. To enjoy the here and now, to make the most of whatever you’re faced with, to focus more on what you have than what you don’t have – surely that’s a good thing? 

But we have to remember that some of us are more encouraged – or compelled – to accept the way things are than others. Amor fati makes more sense as a life philosophy if you’re part of the ruling class who has more say in what that fate is. 

In reality, Stoic-inflected gratitude norms have a gendered dimension that keeps women from innovating, dissenting, showing disappointment, expressing anger, giving honest feedback, declining a responsibility foisted on them, acknowledging injustice, and putting their own fulfillment ahead of the duties society has assigned them by virtue of being women. In other words, the ideal of accepting the way things are is very often another way of telling women to smile and play nice for the sake of others’ comfort, of reassuring others that they don’t have to change. 

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Thanks to the fearless late Barbara Ehrenreich, who famously rebelled against the toxic pink-ribbon cheerleading foisted on her during her cancer treatment (and who most definitely did not love her fate, or feel the need to), we recognize this as part of the uniquely American cult of positivity. We know that this kind of “bright-siding” is a sneaky way of silencing people’s voices, invalidating their lived experiences, and bullying them into denying their truth. 

By contrast, the relatively lenient application of gratitude norms for men allows for more charitable interpretations of their behavior. It’s easy to accept the way things are when you can count on people usually giving you the benefit of the doubt. 

Men who don’t end their emails with a thank-you are considered preoccupied; women who don’t end their emails with a thank-you are considered brusque. Men who don’t care for their elderly parents are seen as busy; women who don’t care for their elderly parents are seen as failing to repay a debt. Women who are asked if they feel thankful for being “rescued” from mistreatment, and who instead turn the question around and ask why it took so long, are decried as ungrateful.

Retired soccer icon Abby Wambach spoke about the gratitude women are supposed to feel in a commencement speech she gave in 2018: “Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done.” When she was honored with an ESPY award in 2011, she described initially feeling grateful to be standing alongside two famous male athletes, Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning, and feeling that women had finally “made it.” But then, she realized that the three of them were heading into drastically different futures:

“Each of us, Kobe, Peyton and I – we made the same sacrifices, we shed the same amount of blood, sweat and tears, we’d left it all on the field for decades with the same ferocity, talent and commitment – but our retirements wouldn’t be the same at all. Because Kobe and Peyton walked away from their careers with something I didn’t have: enormous bank accounts. Because of that they had something else I didn’t have: freedom.…And it hit me that I’d spent most of my time during my career the same way I’d spent my time on that ESPYs stage. Just feeling grateful. Grateful to be one of the only women to have a seat at the table. I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us.”

This is one of the purposes of gratitude – to keep you feeling so thankful, so relieved to be included, that you forget you were supposed to be there from the beginning, that there are others still left out, and to distract you from the fact that you aren’t walking away with the freedom and enormous bank accounts that your counterparts have.

Gratitude Politics

In a piece titled “True gratitude is a communal emotion, not a wellness practice,” Michal Zechariah writes, “Like any emotion that connects us to other people, gratitude can also be psychologically challenging.” This is because it “confront[s] us with the extent of our dependence on other people and their power over us,” a condition that is often held up as a positive thing in the gratitude research: We all need each other – it’s part of being human! Which is true; none of us is an island. 

But this idea presupposes that the people expecting your gratitude have a healthy, supportive relationship with you, and that the dependence (and accompanying gratitude) is reciprocated at some point. In the cases where dependence is one-sided, unhealthy, or otherwise detrimental, gratitude can “deepen existing social gaps, since the less powerful in society will be forced into perpetual humiliating indebtedness, with the more powerful left to enjoy the role of charitable benefactors.” 

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The role of generous benefactor and the mandated performance of gratitude is perhaps most pernicious when it applies to rich countries choosing which refugees and immigrants are “worthy” of seeking asylum on their shores and monitoring who displays gratitude adequately. In her book The Ungrateful Refugee, Dina Nayeri writes about seeking asylum from the Iranian revolution and how exasperated she became with people making the facile assumption that she must feel grateful to have left her home.

“Once in an Oklahoma church, a woman said, ‘Well, I sure do get it. You came for a better life.’ I thought I’d pass out – a better life? In Isfahan, we had yellow spray roses, a pool. A glass enclosure shot up through our living room, and inside that was a tree. I had a tree inside my house; I had the papery hands of Morvarid, my friend and nanny, a ninety-year-old village woman; I had my grandmother’s fruit leather and Hotel Koorosh schnitzels and sour cherries and orchards and a farm – life in Iran was a fairytale. In Oklahoma, we lived in an apartment complex for the destitute and disenfranchised. Life was a big gray parking lot with cigarette butts baking in oil puddles, slick children idling in the beating sun, teachers who couldn’t do math. I dedicated my youth and every ounce of my magic to get out of there. A better life? The words lodged in my ear like grit.”

This passage is an example of how gratitude is so often misused as a cudgel, a means of gaslighting, a way for the speaker to reassure themselves that this is as good as it gets, there are no alternatives – so you can take it or leave it. The Oklahoma woman’s smugness rests on her ignorance of what Nayeri’s life in Iran was actually like, re-enacting the Aesop’s fable about sour grapes, in which the woman tells herself she actually has something desirable only because she’s unable to get – or unaware of the existence of – anything better.

Elsewhere, Nayeri writes about other times she had her lived experience glossed over with a “you must be so grateful” comment that shut down further conversation with its assumption that life in America was unquestioningly better, and that she’d better agree – or else:

“I was battling with my teacher over a papier-mache topographical map of the US, a frustrating task that was strangely central to her concerns about my American assimilation. When I tried to explain to her that only a few months before I had lived with refugees outside Rome, and that most of the social studies work baffled me, she looked at me sleepily and said: ‘Awww, sweetie, you must be so grateful to be here.’

Grateful. There was that word again. Here I began to notice the pattern. This word had already come up a lot in my childhood, but in her mouth it lost its goodness. It hinted and threatened. Afraid for my future, I decided that everyone was right: if I failed to stir up in myself enough gratefulness, or if I failed to properly display it, I would lose all that I had gained, this western freedom, the promise of secular schools and uncensored books.”

Later, as an adult, Nayeri notes how even people on the political left, who are ostensibly opposed to nativism, use her as an example of what a “good refugee” is: 

“‘Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff she’s done.’ As if that’s proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment. But isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics? Isn’t it akin to holding up the most acquiescent as examples of what a refugee should be?”

The connection between acquiescence and gratitude that Nayeri highlights here is an important one. Women, children, immigrants – these are the people into whom society has drummed the gratitude lesson the hardest. As genuinely heartwarming as gratitude can be to experience and receive, it’s undeniable that it’s also frequently used to silence and diminish people with valid grounds for anger or sorrow, to exercise control over people considered lower status, and to allow supposed “benefactors” to ignore the fact that what they’re handing out isn’t the unqualified boon they think it is, nor is it necessarily adequate recompense for what the recipient has had to give up.

What the Science Leaves Out

So, if practicing gratitude really is so full of hidden dark sides, what’s with all the scientific studies showing that it reliably makes people happier? Clearly the science is missing something – but what?

To start with, studies have indicated that men may benefit more from gratitude-related activities than women. One theory for why this might be true is that women are already socialized to feel and express gratitude on a regular basis, but for men this is a more novel experience. Therefore, practices like gratitude journaling may actually be effective for people who aren’t routinely held to a higher standard and expected to perform gratitude by default. 

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There are other possible reasons for the discrepancy between the scientific evidence for gratitude practices and the disappointing results of many who try them. One study found that the effectiveness of gratitude journaling was drastically reduced when the subjects were told to journal three times a week, compared to those who only did it once a week. I think this hints at our natural resistance against being told what to feel, as well as the finite and somewhat repetitive nature of the things we’re most grateful for. How many times can you write “I’m thankful for my family” or “I’m grateful to be able to afford enough to eat” before it starts getting a bit grating, regardless of how saintly you are?

What this means in practical terms is that if gratitude journaling makes you feel angry, especially if you’re a woman, it could be a sign that what you have is not a gratitude deficit but a social support deficit, a therapy/medication deficit, or an overdue life change you’re putting off. In any case, you can give yourself permission to stop willing yourself to feel grateful while you work on finding out what the real problem is, and what a real solution might look like. 

If the idea of writing things down seems helpful but gratitude itself is the problem, you could try keeping notes about times you felt efficacious and stood up for what you wanted. I suspect this would be particularly helpful for people with depression/anxiety or a childhood legacy of being considered “selfish” for advocating for themselves. For people like this, the moralistic overtones of gratitude often do more harm than good, but they can benefit from reminders about their ability to take effective action.

Another point to consider is the one discussed in the Michal Zechariah piece about the communal nature of gratitude. Most wellness practices focus on gratitude as a personal, rather than an interpersonal, emotion – in other words, the gratitude is inward-facing (or generic in a cosmic sort of way) rather than credited to another person, much less ever shared with them. It’s possible that what really makes us happy is the interpersonal bonds that gratitude leads us to create with others, not the feeling of gratitude itself or the act of writing it down. 

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Take Zechariah’s example of people around the world stepping outside during the height of the pandemic to applaud, cheer, and show gratitude to frontline healthcare workers, and compare that to people expressing gratitude for their good health in a general way. Both activities may increase happiness, but I’d bet the former makes people much happier overall, and that it has less to do with the emotion of gratitude per se, and more to do with the extra interpersonal effort and connectedness it entails – connectedness both to the object of gratitude (the healthcare workers) as well as to the others cheering alongside you. This suggests that the most beneficial forms of gratitude may be social and collective, rather than something done alone at your kitchen table.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping someone from keeping a gratitude journal and cheering from a balcony. But for good or ill, we don’t often experience events that compel our collective gratitude quite as strongly as lives being saved during a pandemic. During the more humdrum parts of life, most people don’t have many opportunities for a social outpouring of thanks – perhaps once a year, at Thanksgiving or other similar holidays, but even those occasions suffer from the drawback of built-in expectations and rituals around gratitude, making it less likely to feel genuine and spontaneous.

Ultimately, if your personal history makes gratitude a more complicated emotional state than our culture says it ought to be, it may be helpful to remember that gratitude is just one way to create meaning and bond with the people who are important to you. We can treat others kindly and deepen our connections with them while also refusing to resign ourselves to the way things are, refusing to be compliant when others use gratitude to further their own agendas, and refusing to say thank you for what’s rightfully ours.