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26 January 2021updated 27 Jan 2021 1:08pm

The dark side of practising gratitude during a pandemic

Focusing on what we appreciate in life may seem an easy way to boost morale, but does it inhibit political action? 

By Sophie McBain

When sadness and pandemic anxiety threaten to overwhelm me, practising gratitude is one of the few things that helps. I force myself to remember that I am healthy, as are my close family, that I have a home and a job that I enjoy. After I have read so many Covid-19 news stories that I am almost paralysed with horror, I will push myself to go for a walk and appreciate the scenery and how good the winter air feels after another day stuck inside.

Sometimes this impulse feels as much a moral necessity as a psychological one. I know others feel this too. Frequently when friends tell me how much they are struggling I hear them catch themselves and add, “I can’t complain really. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Gratitude has been considered a moral virtue for centuries. But it was only around a decade and a half ago that It became a self-help tool as well, with the growth of positive psychology, the new science of wellbeing pioneered by figures such as Martin Seligman. One of Seligman’s best-known experiments required participants to write down each day three things that had gone well and describe why. It found that the people who had kept the gratitude journal felt happier even six months on. Subsequent studies have suggested that higher levels of gratitude can protect people from stress and depression, can improve their relationships and can even boost physical health, such as by promoting better sleep.

It’s not hard to see why gratitude caught on as a psychological intervention. As far as mental wellbeing initiatives go, it’s relatively cheap and simple: it doesn’t take much professional guidance to begin gratitude journaling or to send gratitude letters. And so gratitude became a wellness trend.

But is our determination to find the good in things and feel grateful always in our best interests? And does it come at a cost that we haven’t considered, with our noses down in our gratitude diaries?

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During the pandemic, the self-help trend for practising gratitude has no doubt provided comfort for some, but the urge to keep counting blessings can also feel oppressive, as though we are denying ourselves the right to feel scared and miserable and lonely. That life could be worse doesn’t stop it feeling bad. Research has shown that gratitude exercises can exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety for some people, sometimes because they feel like a failure when they struggle to find things to feel grateful for. A few weeks ago, I was taken aback when a friend said she was sick of trying to feel grateful. She knew other people were worse off than her, but couldn’t she just speak frankly about how she’d never felt so miserable in her life? I wonder if she has a point.

[See also: It’s not just you: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health]

Gratitude is also linked to expectations: one path to greater gratitude is simply to stop wanting more. You can stop wishing the government hadn’t gambled with tens of thousands of lives and stop yearning for the chance to hug your parents or see your friends, instead focusing on enjoying beautiful sunsets and binging on box sets. But while that might make you feel better, it’s not exactly constructive. Gratitude is the “antithesis of successful organising”, Collette Shade argued in the Baffler. Political progress, in contrast, happens when people imagine how things might be different, rather than resign themselves to what they have. Gratitude can be, in a way, intrinsically apathetic.

And there is another dark side to the gratitude craze. The author Barbara Ehrenreich has observed how gratitude, like many other positive psychology ideas, has become commercialised. Writing in the New York Times she noted that a major funder of gratitude research is the conservative-leaning John Templeton Foundation, an organisation less interested in directly improving the lives of poor individuals than in trying to “improve their attitude”. Although she was writing in 2015, well before the pandemic had brought into public focus how our food supply and other basic services rely on an underpaid, undervalued workforce, Ehrenreich argued that true gratitude would require a political commitment to ending labour inequality. “The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, ‘solidarity’ — which may involve getting up off the yoga mat,” she wrote.

From a social perspective, the worst sort of gratitude might be the kind that provides people with a sense of personal absolution: instead of tackling injustice or unfairness, the privileged can focus on being grateful for what they have. At a moment when our predicament demands solidarity and collective action, the wrong kinds of gratitude can undermine it. No one benefits from the self-serving, closed-minded gratitude epitomised by the awful Band Aid line: “tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”. But is that the trap we have fallen into during the Covid crisis? While many NHS and essential workers have felt uplifted by public displays of gratitude, others have expressed their frustration that they don’t need our thanks – they need adequate protection, priority vaccination, decent wages and sick pay, and for us all to play our role in reducing transmission.

Ideally, of course, essential workers should receive both kinds of gratitude: the heartfelt thanks that is easy, painless and personally rewarding to give, and the “muscular” kind that involves political solidarity and hard work. The worry is that political and public focus on the former diverts attentions from the latter.

As for me, despite my scepticism I still practise personal gratitude – it feels like an act of self-preservation, the best method I have found for personally managing my despair and anxiety. But I know its limitations. Gratitude can work, it’s just never enough.

[See also: Can robots make good therapists?]