This gratitude craze bugs the shit out of me. Yeah, yeah, I’ve read the research, too. I know that counting your blessings lowers your blood pressure and elevates your mood. Plus, unless you’re so insufferable that you’ve driven everyone away, a grateful attitude usually means having lots of loved ones who can actually stand to be around you.
The fact that it works infuriates me even more.
Apparently, I’m not alone.
“‘Dear Amy,’” writes Needs a Hug, “ … I realize that in the grand scheme of things, I have a very good life. Still, I get a little blue … Many people seem to feel … I will perk up if reminded how much better off I am than others … I feel as if I have no right to feel tired, sad, or overtaxed. If I hear one more, ‘Well, at least’ statement, I could fall apart.’” (Chicago Tribune, 1/7/08)
Tell it like it is, Needs a Hug. Maybe your happy-talk friends just need a knuckle sandwich.
Speaking of sandwiches, check out Café Gratitude, a new landmark in the corporatization of self-esteem. There you can indulge in “I Am Cheerful” veggie burgers or “I am Fabulous” lasagna, washed down with an “I Am Eternally Blessed” milkshake. Forgive me, but I am nauseated, and it’s not because of an overabundance of goddess-kissed food.
Call me old-fashioned, but I am suspicious of any feeling that has a menu item named after it. Perhaps I’m being unfair. After all, Café Gratitude is merely the logical outcome as the Positive Food and Positive Psychology movements join forces. Merging “You Are What You Eat” with “You Are What You Think” perfectly embodies the trend toward self-esteem as commodity. This instills in me not so much a feeling of gratitude as the desire to launch a competitive franchise. Maybe I’ll call it Café Curmudgeon. How delicious to imagine the chains battling it out on rival street corners, like Starbucks and Peet’s!
Now don’t get me wrong. Through nature and nurture, I am a cheerful and optimistic person. But just as Heaven is flat and boring compared to the juicy degradations of Hell, life without cynicism and darkness is depressing. What would Peanuts be like without Lucy, serene in her crabbiness? Besides, maybe she wouldn’t be so cranky if her sanctimonious little brother, Linus, would just stop radiating goodness all the time. Can’t he give it a rest?
Where would the world be without the temperamentally morose? The evolutionary advantages of depression are clear: after all the more outgoing people have killed one another off, those emerging sluggishly from the cave to take a piss can repopulate the planet.
But once outside the cave, do we really want to live in a lobotomized world? The Stepford Wives depicts a society of happy, grateful people. There’s just a slight catch—harmony is achieved by killing off real women and replacing them with zombies. This seems a bit much, even for the suburbs.
Gratitude, positive thinking, relentless cheerfulness—maybe it’s all part of the same Stepford conspiracy to sanitize authentic emotion. As my friend Avvy says about our horror of dark feelings, “Wash out all aggression. Rinse and repeat.” But woe to those who are not so fastidious about their laundry.
At a Brownie meeting when my daughter was five, I took exception to the part of the oath that demands “A Girl Scout is always cheerful.” Heedless of my daughter’s social standing, I told the other moms that, in my experience as a therapist, many of my clients’ problems stemmed from exhortations to be cheerful no matter what. There was dead silence for a few beats before one of the mothers said, “Maybe Girl Scouts isn’t for you.”
My therapy clients, too, have been banished by families who do not welcome their lack of good cheer in response to difficult childhoods. They hear, “You’re so sensitive. It’s water under the bridge. Can’t you just let it go?” Well, no, actually. My clients fear that letting go lets derelict people off the hook. It’s not that they want to feel angry and unhappy, but premature gratitude is like a thin coat of whitewash that seals in the toxins.
My clients have read the research, too, though. We know the hazards of lingering in the muck. Shouldn’t we at least try to put on a happy face? Fake it till we make it? If only it were that easy. Now my clients not only feel miserable, but also guilty for making themselves sick, trapped by their inability to choose gratitude.
But gratitude is not something you can pick from a menu.