Gratitude is not a Virtue

Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland#Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Germany

It is often said that gratitude is a virtue, and being grateful for what we have is a precondition for happiness. Besides that gratitude is often invoked in moments of preachiness and attempts to exert social control—”be grateful, young lady”—I have been skeptical of gratitude as an idea. I don’t mean the linguistic politeness formula of saying “thank you” in response to courtesy—I mean the idea that one should exist in a constant state of being actively thankful for every little blessing, and that if you are not, you are an “ingrate” and you will not be happy.

For me, I don’t associate being “grateful” with being happy. I associate happiness with the opposite of gratitude—with taking for granted. I am happiest in those moments, or during those periods of life, when the things I love and want and need seem so abundant and secure that I do not have to be actively grateful for them. You know what I’m referring to—the times when you choose not to spend time with a loved one, because you know your loved one will be with you forever. The times when you don’t watch the sunset on the lake, because you know you can watch it any day. The times you don’t eat until you’re stuffed, because you know there will still be enough to eat the next day. Gratitude forces you to think about all the bad things that can happen, but happiness is about forgetting about the bad possibilities—or perhaps happiness is a world where bad things don’t happen as much.

In other words, there is something better than gratitude. There is the feeling of being so secure in what you have that you do not need to be “grateful” for it. There is the feeling that what you want or need is so abundant, or so accessible, or so equitably distributed, that you can afford to take it for granted. There is the feeling of giving to others for its own sake, and not expecting any prescribed attitude in return. There is the possibility of a world where compassion and generosity are so commonplace, mutual, and so freely given, that they would not have to be met with gratitude.

Gratitude, in short, is not a virtue. Gratitude is an adaption to a world of scarcity.

I’m not absolutely against gratitude as a mindset. There are realities that we cannot change—tragedy, death—and gratitude is a tool to inoculate ourselves against those “whips and scorns of time.” It is also an appropriate response to the real charity, generosity, and love that does happen in our world as it currently exists. But why do we valorize and celebrate gratitude so much? Isn’t gratitude just a reflection of the default state of the world and life—unjust and cruel? Wouldn’t it be a better world if it were one where none of us had to be grateful for having our reasonable needs and wants met?

I, for one, live for those moments when I don’t have to be explicitly grateful—and I strive for a world where no one has to be grateful.

Image: Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland

The ideal-real dichotomy and the importance of observation

A screenshot from Y Tu Mamá También, a film where ideals and realities collide dramatically (because I never claimed I don't watch movies).

Whenever discussion turns toward TV, I always make it a point to claim vociferously, “I’ve never heard of that show. I don’t watch TV. As a matter of fact, I haven’t watched TV since middle school. Maybe since I was an infant! Actually, could someone remind me, what is TV?!”

If you were to do a participant observation of my life, you would discover that, in fact, I do watch television shows. Or at least a television show. Specifically, I watch episodes of the sitcom 30 Rock that are available on-demand on Netflix. When I get to the last streamable episode, I start over again at season 1. Additionally, I’ve watched a few scattered TV episodes with friends or family. As such I’ve watched about 50 hours of television in the past year–a number which contradicts my repeated claim that I do not, under any circumstances, watch TV. (Sidenote: the average American watches about two months worth of TV in one year.)

Most people call this contradiction “hypocrisy” or “posing” or “being a hipster.” Anthropologists, being all sciencey and objective-like, call such divergences between word and action the ideal-real dichotomy. Ideal behavior is what people should do or how they should behave in a particular situation. Real behavior is how people actually behave. The prototypical example of the ideal-versus-the-real is traffic lights:

Most people will say that when a light turns yellow, you should slow down. If you actually stand on a street corner and observe traffic when the light turns yellow, however, you will notice people actually speed up instead of slowing down. Slowing down is the ideal behavior in that situation, though speeding up, what actually happens, is the real behavior.

This is why keen observational skills are important. Obviously, we are not all Anthro Department grad students conducting fieldwork for our Masters theses. But in a way we are all participant observers in the mass cultural performance that is life–“all the world’s a stage.” So it pays be a shrewd observer. If you just listen to people’s words you might get trapped in an ideal fabrication and miss out on what’s really going on. After all, most of what’s going on around us is much more significant than a yellow light or a 20-something’s TV habits.