The philosophers’ guide to gratitude
Feeling grateful about the good aspects of our lives is something we all know we should do a bit more often. And yet there’s often something curiously uncomfortable, even maddening, about being reminded to do so.
Don’t remind me to be grateful
In part, that’s because the call to be more grateful stands in deep conflict with a central drive in human nature: ambition. We know in theory that we should be grateful for what we have, but day to day, we are dominated by striving: for better relationships, working lives, communities and nations. The advocates of gratitude sound like they are recommending that we be content with how things already are. Mediocre situations could (these people seem to be saying) be so much worse. People in developed nations, irritated by the ineptitudes of their governments, should be more grateful that their politicians are not like those in Zimbabwe. Someone fed up with having a cough should be very glad they don’t have bronchitis…
This sort of thinking is deeply at odds with the underlying attitudes of modern societies. Capitalism stimulates constant ambition and longing and rewards astute, intense assaults on excellence. Restlessness is the precondition of progress. Nothing should be good enough for very long. The idea of being content with what we have and who we are has come to feel strange and dangerous. At best, gratitude appears like the consolation prize – the loser’s counsel.
Furthermore, encouragement to be ‘grateful’ is not always the kindly act it seems. It may just be another person’s convenient way of disguising their fear of competition or their refusal to engage with the stress and turmoil of aspiration. The insistence that we be more grateful could just be a jealous friend’s way of sidestepping our anxieties while ennobling their lack of effort.
That’s why it is so deeply important to hear exhortations to be grateful – to appreciate what we have and to recognise the value of simple, natural things – from people who understand a lot about striving and effort and who have not fallen into gratitude simply from a lack of initiative or strength. To trust the message, we have to trust the motives, experiences and character of the person telling us to be grateful – just as the reminder to be faithful in love gains weight when it comes from someone who has had every option to explore multiple partners. To be convincing, gratitude needs to be in a constructive dialectical relationship with aspiration. The call to gratitude isn’t for everyone at all times. It is a corrective for those among us who are in danger of overplaying ambition.
The Roman Emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, was a most convincing guide to gratitude - because he knew so much about power and success. We therefore take note when he points out that we should be deeply grateful for a sunny day, a tasty piece of fruit and a summer evening when it’s warm enough to sit outside without extra layers. In his hands, we recognise that gratitude does not have to be a polite way of opting out of ambition.
It is equally important to know that the advocates of gratitude aren’t merely being naïve when they tell us to stop and appreciate flowers or a pretty sky; they know about suffering and darkness and are speaking up only because they have been to hell and back and concluded that in the end, what makes the journey worth it are a few outwardly humble but deeply significant things.
Why do we grow ungrateful in the first place? Fear may have something to do it. There is in many of us a fear of enjoying the present moment – as if to pause to appreciate a flower or the rapid movement of clouds over the horizon might make us ‘soft’ and leave us open to fatal complacency and grievously sap our will to take on bigger challenges. We are prone to make an odd and deeply unfortunate connection between safety and a mood of anxious dissatisfaction.
Our mood is also frequently affected by who and what we are implicitly comparing ourselves with. And though we’re not generally clear what our comparison points are (we build them up unconsciously and don’t take the opportunity to question them often enough), we are prone to comparisons that are deeply unfair to our achievements and strengths.
Much of the problem comes down to our images of what is ‘normal’ – distributed through society by the media. Take someone who might be deeply dissatisfied with their appearance on the basis of the models they have seen. But the beauty of models is as rare as the violence of mass murderers. The problem is, we tend to think there are far more murders than there are. Three stories of stabbings in a week make it feel as if everyone is knifing everyone else. We have to remind ourselves that, though people do get stabbed and some have perfect faces, these things are extraordinarily rare. We recognise symptoms of panic when the frequency of bad things is exaggerated. We don’t yet recognise the dissatisfaction that arises when the frequency of very attractive things (superlative relationships, careers, bodies) is overplayed. We grow ungrateful because we are, among other things, very poor statisticians.
Not normal at all
We need to fight images of false glamour, to throw the spotlight on people, scenes and activities which deserve far more prestige than they are currently given. Of course, it can be hard to see beauty and interest in the things we have to do everyday and in the environments where we live. We have jobs to go to, bills to pay, homes to clean and keep running and we deeply resent the demands they make on us. They seem to be pulling us away from our real ambitions, getting in the way of a better life.
Art, and art galleries, seem far away from all this: they are for a day off, somewhere to visit on holiday. But art can occasionally usefully remind us that the circumstances of our lives are not as discredited and uninteresting as we are used to thinking. Art can be a prime agent of gratitude, a corrective of false glamour, when we learn to look at our world as certain great artists have looked at theirs. Take the Dutch 17th-century painter Pieter de Hooch, an artist deeply alive to the value of simple moments of domestic life, of the kind most of us know from our own routines.
We have been in similar situations before, by the washing machine, without gratitude
The linen closet itself could easily be resented. It is an embodiment of what could, under an unhelpful influence, be seen as boring, banal, repetitive… But the picture moves us because we recognise the truth of its message. If only, like de Hooch, we knew how to recognise the value of quiet domesticity, many of our burdens would be lifted. It gives voice to the right attitude: the big themes of life – the search for prosperity, happiness, good relationships – start with the way we approach little things. It’s a hard message to hold on to, because we are constantly being told other things. This painting is small in a competitive, status-conscious world – but that many people revere it is hopeful, for it signals that we know, deep down, that de Hooch is onto something important.
The Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, like Pieter de Hooch several centuries before, is alive to the charm of an ordinary day, hanging out at home, sorting stuff out. Here too there are reasons for gratitude
To say that we should be more grateful is not to deny a role for future effort. It is to recognise that there are already at this point some very good reasons to be a little more satisfied with who we are and what we have. A failure to draw pleasure from our current circumstances is an indication of a problem which will likely dog us even if we reach the pinnacle of all our ambitions. Our problem is not not having enough: it is not daring to relax our guard long enough to draw pleasure from any advantage per se.
There is a flexibility about how we tell our stories. It isn’t just one thing that has ever happened to us, there are different angles from which we might come at the same material (what we call being depressed is, at heart, an inability to alter our narrative methods). Compared with some ideals of success, our lives have of course invariably been disasters. We made some serious errors, we lacked courage, we were lazy, we unwittingly upset important people, we messed up… But it is in the end no great achievement simply to locate and fixate on failure. There should be prestige too in being able to identify a forgiving, hopeful perspective; in knowing how to be a friend to oneself. We need moments of gratitude because our greatest responsibility is to endure; to identify reasons not to end it prematurely when it might at first glance make so much sense to do so.
The ultimate corrective is to compare oneself with the dead. By that final standard, so many aspects of life are to be cherished, even what we now consider imperfections. We are constantly undermined by our failure to retain the purity and drama of that insight – which might strike us at a funeral or when driving past a smash up on the motorway – and put it to powerful use in the ordinary bustle of life.
The ultimate road to gratitude
It is by redrawing our unconscious frames of comparison more accurately that our lives start to appear in a more benign, and more valuable, light. Gratitude is the dividend that is due to us when we forego false images of normality and begin to assess our lives against stark but liberating statistical realities.
Five neglected targets of gratitude
1. Buttered toast
2. Warm summer nights
© Time & Life Pictures/Getty
4. Clean Socks
© Heritage Images/Getty
5. Just getting by