I have started a gratitude lists/journal many times so this article in the New York Times was a wake-up call to me that the typical forms of expressing gratitude are in fact self-centered.
The article title is, The Selfish Side of Gratitude, and it is worth a read to shake all of us up and out of some of our complacency and self-indulgence.
The article addresses the very popular notion of “an attitude of gratitude” and how proponents of positive thinking suggest that nourishing that attitude translates into increased happiness, better health, and overall wellbeing. The author points out that much of what we do to express gratitude does not require interactions with other people and is selfishness. An example of that selfishness is creating a gratitude journal and writing down things like being grateful for having a roof over your head and food on the table.
It is great to be thankful for having food on the table, but this type of gratitude doesn’t recognize all the people (the community) involved in putting food on our tables – farmers, laborers, truckers, and many others. The author suggests that instead of gratitude we should instead practice “solidarity” and try to get people a better working environment or conditions and higher wages – as a way of truly expressing gratitude that does much more than making a list.
I’m not going to throw out the idea of a gratitude journal or list. I like putting gratitude in the forefront of my thoughts every day, but the premise of the article is great to consider. I see how keeping a list does something to elevate my mood, but it doesn’t do anything for anyone else. A list may make me feel good, but it doesn’t make the world a better place.
As a writer, working alone in my living room most days of the week, it is important for me to do things for other people. It is important for me to get out of my thoughts and my world from time to time. Writing is a solitary experience and although I can write articles and essays that address inequality, marginalization, injustice, etc. it isn’t the same as talking to people, thanking them and finding out what it is that would make their life better.
And even if it turns out that there is little I can do to make someone’s life better, I can be kind to the people behind the counter at the grocery store. I can be kind to the baristas at the coffee shop. I can be kind to the mailperson, and the garbage collectors. I can wish them a good day, and maybe even ask them their name. I can keep my eyes and ears open for ways to make their lives better because their work makes my life better and being willing to act on that is true gratitude – a kind of thanksgiving- giving something to those who make our lives easier and more comfortable. It takes a community to create a working society, and every member’s contribution is valuable. Maybe keeping a list can be the beginning of not taking anyone for granted.