I am thankful for many things, principal among them contact lenses, the Internet, and no longer being a child. Surely, we can all think of things to be thankful for; in fact, many of the things we ought to be very thankful for (The Nazis were defeated! Womenfolk can vote!) are exactly the things we are fortunate to be able to take for granted.
But sometimes gratitude becomes more of a positive thinking exercise. When things aren’t great, we hack gratitude. I wrote in last week’s column that having a vertigo-inducing illness helped me develop empathy and time-management skills. Nothing wrong with finding the proverbial silver lining.
Eight years ago, though, I ran a failing dot-com (and, really, a failing life). I read a lot of Tony Robbins books, which kept me thinking so very positively that I thought I could fix a company that couldn’t be fixed. I stayed stuck. I was so depressed, so mired in failure, that I all I could do was read positive-thinking literature … and then go back to bed. (Meanwhile, I was endorsing the books to anyone who would listen. “They really work!” They sort of work at changing a mythical, non-real world inside your head. Amazingly, that world just stays inside your head! It is not real, for the exact same reason that other people are real and often have goals that are opposed to your own!)
Here is a Punnett square that, I think, sums of the usefulness of gratitude as an emotion:
(Seriously, what kind of career columnist cockblocks Thanksgiving? Oh, this one. Just a little. It is called “Bullish,” not “Eat Bland, Fattening Food and Be Lazyish.”)
In sum, gratitude where gratitude is due. Some people, in times of melancholy, even find it helpful to make a list of things for which they are grateful. Cool. And if you’ve lost your legs in a run-in with the J train, be grateful that you are alive! If you can force yourself to be grateful that being a double amputee has allowed you to meet so many amazing people in the amputee community, etc., by all means, try to feel grateful, but if you don’t, feel free to just sue whoever’s responsible and fill your days with Scotch and righteous anger.
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote powerfully in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Has Undermined America about being made to feel guilty that she wasn’t “staying positive” about her breast cancer, and how even cancer patients with terminal diagnoses were bullied into calling themselves “survivors.”
Ehrenreich rails extensively against an impenetrably blithe approach to life. Irrational optimism leads to ill-preparedness. Assume it won’t rain, and you’re the one caught without an umbrella. Assume that a credit bubble will continue indefinitely, and you’ve got a subprime mortgage debacle on your hands.