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Gratitude was the topic du jour on my morning commute today. CBC Radio’s The Current had a psychologist from Northeastern University on the program to talk about the “upward spiral” of gratitude and generosity that can result if we cultivate these attitudes and behaviours, and how this upward spiral can be passed down our social networks leading to strengthened relationships and healthier mental well-being. Sounds pretty good!

It’s a seasonally appropriate topic, of course. We are two days from Christmas when many people celebrate and honour the birth of Christ—the gift of God for our salvation, and a pretty important thing to be grateful for! And even if we aren’t religious, we are supposed to be grateful at this time of year, whether for family and friends, for health, for satisfying and productive work, or even for a few days off.

But gratitude isn’t always easy or even necessarily appropriate (one of the other guests on the program, Julie Norem, is the author of a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking!). Some argue that being grateful is a false and naive response in a world where there is much to be ungrateful for, whether global poverty, war, injustice, or various other forms of inequality. Even in our own lives, sometimes there just doesn’t seem like much to be positive about. Telling people to be grateful is, in some views, not only unwise but unjust because it piles guilt onto misery. It can be condescending and paternalistic to tell someone to just “be grateful” when they do not enjoy even the most basic elements of a satisfying life.

Not surprisingly, I see merit on both sides of the argument. After all, who could argue against encouraging people to cultivate generosity and gratitude? How could this not have an overall positive impact in our relationships, workplaces, etc? And yet, how can we not also acknowledge that telling someone who is suffering to “be grateful” is hurtful and damaging, and can even mask our obligation to continue to work to address the material conditions that cause so many to have such difficult lives? Perhaps, the most pragmatic solution is to be “cautiously grateful?” Hmm, that certainly doesn’t sound right…

One of the interesting things about both positions I heard this morning was the almost exclusively instrumental nature of the justifications offered for both gratitude and, well, less gratitude. We should be grateful because it strengthens our social networks and professional relationships, because it leads to greater mental and physical well-being, because it will lead to others being generous to us in return, etc. And we should be ungrateful because “defensive pessimism” can “harness our anxiety” and “help us perform at our peak.” It seems that both ends of the gratitude spectrum can be useful in securing what we want and need as human beings. And, after all, what other criteria do we have to define the value of something than what it can do for us?

I have nothing against advocating things because they are good for us. Indeed, it would be very odd if the qualities and character traits that we are drawn to and find attractive were not also useful! But I wonder, this Christmas, whether there might be something intrinsically, in addition to instrumentally, good about gratitude. Maybe gratitude is worth promoting, irrespective of what it can do for our mental states or our marriage or the bottom line at work, regardless of how naturally it comes to us.

I don’t find gratitude easy, truth be told. I have very few problems identifying and focusing on what I am not grateful for: a couple of oppressive writing deadlines hanging over my head (deadlines that I foolishly allowed to come during the Christmas season… deadlines I am avoiding in writing this post… sigh), a blistering prairie wind portenting a rather gritty, brown Christmas as opposed to the idyllic white version I had envisioned for our first Christmas back home, an already-mounting January to-do list, a depressing collection of painful realities being experienced by people around me, a kind of vague restlessness that seems to always haunt my steps… and did I mention the wind? The list could go on. Ingratitude is easy.

Perhaps too easy. It’s not hard to be a pessimist, after all—the world provides no shortage of opportunities and justifications for being a grouch. Maybe the cultivation of gratitude ought to go beyond what we can get out of it, valuable as these benefits may be in a mixed up world. Maybe promoting a certain kind of character is important, regardless of its utility. Maybe it isn’t naive to be grateful in situations that seem not to obviously call forth a thankful response. Perhaps gratitude is more like an act of defiance—a declaration that the many things that weigh us down and (rightly) make us sad and angry are, ultimately, passing away—that they are less real than the good, the true, the beautiful.

Maybe, this Christmas, gratitude can be viewed as an expression of faith that the staggering gift of God in Christ is still worth celebrating—that it is enough—even in the midst of uncertain, unsettling, and dark times. Our darkness is, after all, no darker, no more unsettling, no less peaceful or certain, than the darkness into which the light first shone.

I wish you a Christmas full of gratitude that the dawn from on high has broken through, to give light to hearts and minds accustomed to and weighed down by darkness and death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:76-79).

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    As always, a fair and intelligent rendering of divergent opinions.

    Ryan you write here, “Telling people to be grateful is, in some views, not only unwise but unjust because it piles guilt onto misery. It can be condescending and paternalistic to tell someone to just “be grateful” when they do not enjoy even the most basic elements of a satisfying life.”, and I think how true.

    …but then I think this…Perhaps gratitiude for suffering is an anathema to the human heart in the moment of it’s experience but in retrospect, most of what I would call “my faith” and what I would see in my faith as good and true, was developed and strengthened through suffering, not joy.

    December 23, 2011
    • Yes, in retrospect perhaps we can even be grateful for what suffering has accomplished in and through us. It’s a good reminder that as followers of Jesus, we are heirs to an approach to life that goes far beyond tallying up the pleasant and unpleasant features of life, and measuring our gratitude accordingly. Suffering is part of how we are formed into Christ’s likeness.

      And yet, joy remains ultimate. Suffering is only something to be grateful for due to the role it can play in what is good and true. Even Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” is said to “endure” the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb 12:2). We can transcend suffering precisely because we believe it is but a stop on the journey to better things.

      December 24, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #


        December 24, 2011
  2. ‘a depressing collection of painful realities being experienced by people around me…’ Yeah, I got that too, including a dear friend whose cancer has returned.

    The best quote I ever heard on gratitude was when I was a guest at an AA meeting. The man offering the lead said, ‘the key to sobriety is gratitude.’

    Peace to you… and many things to give thanks for.

    December 23, 2011
    • I am sorry to hear about your friend, Chris. I, too, wish you many things for which to be grateful, even amidst the things that hurt.

      December 24, 2011
  3. Thanks, Ryan, for this good meditation on gratitude, the pros and cons, the intrinsic in addition to the instrumental. Just so happens I’ve picked this as my “word for the year.” (New trend? Picking a word for the year instead of making a list of resolutions? Anyways, being the with-it person I am… I jest, of course.)
    Having done so, I’ve already found myself (one day in) almost regretting it. As if gratitude may be more then I can handle. I remind myself to pull it back to its simplest (most intrinsic?) form, which is not so much gratitude “for” as gratitude “to.” It’s a component of relationship, with God, with the people around us.

    January 2, 2012
    • A “word of the year” sounds like a good idea—perhaps more manageable than an impossible list of resolutions? If the book on willpower I’m currently reading is to be believed, we would do far better to focus our efforts on one or two things than picking fifteen things we’d like to change in the new year. Although gratitude is probably also very big in the sense that it (or its lack) finds its way into so many areas of our lives. I, too, often find gratitude to be more than I can handle because so many things in my life and relationships are bound up with its presence or absence.

      I very much appreciate your introduction of “gratitude to” to the conversation. I think you are absolutely right that gratitude is, first and foremost, a relational term. It is not an abstract characteristic that we do our dogged best to produce in ourselves but an orientation toward God and others. So often, when I am feeling ungrateful, my reflexive response is to make a mental checklist of the many things in my life that I ought to be grateful for. But perhaps I ought to first take a step back and ask the prior question: “to whom am I grateful and why?”

      January 2, 2012

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