Gratitude has a dark side.

Posted Jun 25, 2017

Gratitude.  It is a milder form of revenge. ~ Nietzsche (1878; Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister [Human all too human, a book for free spirits]

How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b)

Get over it. ~ The Buddha, unverified

Gratitude is one of the signature concepts of positive psychology. Gratitude serves many positive ends. It repairs and equalizes social relations, it keeps people humble, and it steers them away from a focus on the negative. Indeed, we may be thankful for being able to experience and express gratitude. We can experience and express it even when there is no one in particular to thank. We can thank an imaginary god or the universe, imagining that he, or she, or it, cares. Or we can just think and marvel at the good fortune we have had and feel grateful for that.

Clearly, gratitude is a fascinating topic. Within .02 seconds, google produces ca. 1,3100,00 results. So many that even google does not know the exact number. I am grateful to google because I now don’t have to give you all the references. Search for yourself.

Gratitude is among the many few things that make us uniquely human. It is one of the products of our social brain. As our sense of morality is also a product of the social brain, gratitude is readily classified as a moral emotion. The hallmark of a moral emotion is that something negative has evidently gone on and now an emotion presents itself with the social-evolutionary goal of setting things straight. Consider its similarity with anger, regret, shame, or guilt in this regard. What is the ‘something negative’ in the forefield? Isn’t it the case that the antecedent event was positive? Someone gave us something, helped, or opened metaphorical doors. Now we ‘owe’ gratitude. And there it is. Owing means being in debt and under the obligation to pay back. The negative antecedent is the state of being down and behind, out of equilibrium. Being grateful and expressing it is something we must be or do, or else, there’s shame and guilt for us, and anger for the other. Children are taught to feel and express gratitude. ‘Have you thanked Uncle Willie for the birthday gift? You better!’ Perhaps humans bring a natural inclination toward gratitude to the table, but parents and society seem to think it is not enough.

In positive psychology, the theme is similar; we have the capacity to be gratitudinous, but we should make more use of it, for our own sake, and for the sake of the people who have to live with our grumpy personae. So sit and do your gratitude exercise and more good things will come to you to be grateful for. Now, I realize that there is a fair amount of truth here. As humans, we are vulnerable to a general negativity bias. We rapidly adapt to positive things or states, and we can be easily seduced to dwell on the negative. Gratitude is one way to bring the positive to mind, and to cultivate positive social relations. But it is not the case that there are no risks.

Strategic downward comparison is one way to feel okay (Wills, 1981). Whereas comparisons with those better off may be motivating, they can also be debilitating (Payne, 2017). Comparisons with those worse off can ease psychic stress. But there is something unsavory about it. Parents urge their children to eat their spinach because children in Ethiopia are starving. Not that New Jersey consumed spinach eases the famine in the Sahel, but the psychological point is made. Here, gratitude is expected to work because it is mixed up with guilt. Two moral emotions at once! Bon appétit! Having learned the lesson, children invoke gratitude when contemplating the misfortunes of others. ‘At least I did not fall off the bike.’ ‘At least I don’t have that physical flaw!’ [Add your own example here.] Adults go on like that. They thank the lord for getting off that plane when they later learn that it crashed. They consider themselves ‘blessed.’ What about the 200 souls, now dead, who the universe saw fit to call home? In cases such as these, there is no social repair. No debt is being erased. Sure, any self-conscious organism with a will to live will be happy to not have died, but what is gratitude doing here? Gratitude suggests the idea of uniqueness. The survivor has been singled out because god/universe still has plans (perhaps just plans for more exquisite suffering in the future, but who knows).

Incidentally, some religious traditions recognize the dark side of gratitude. God is said to have silenced the angels when the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. There was to be no rejoicing. The question is then how much gratitude is ethical in the face of the suffering of others? In other words, gratitude is not automatically and invariably the moral response.

So far, the psychological experiences I have described are either private (intrapsychic) or transactional (interpersonal). Now let’s add the dimension of propaganda. Once you feel and express gratitude, why not share the sentiment with a wider audience? Why not trumpet it? People who say ‘I am so grateful for (or to)’ or ‘I am so blessed because . . .’ are sending a mixed message. There are the laudable sentiments of humility and reciprocity, and there is the subtext of self-celebration. ‘Look at my good fortune at the center of which I stand.’ The subtext is always there, but it asserts itself most clearly when the expression of gratitude comes without provocation or invitation. Then it begins to look like ‘Look, mom, no hands!’, a tactic of self-advancement and compliment-fishing that mature adults are expected to have outgrown.

But some don’t. They broadcast their successes and their gratitude (directed at whom?). Suppose you win the Goethe Prize for your fiction. That would be fantastic. The people who know what this means and care are there to applaud. Would you broadcast the news on social media so that Uncle Willie, who doesn’t know the difference between Goethe and Goober cheers with delight? If it were an Oscar, Willie would know; it it’s the Goethe, what does he care? With this tactic, expressed gratitude amplifies to good news with the goal of doubling the credit. ‘Look, not only did I get a Goethe, I am also ever so grateful for it. I am terrific and humble!’ This, in my opinion, is a risky game (Heck & Krueger, 2016 – ooh, self-citation).

Gratitude is a blade with two edges. You can (try to) wield it for personal benefit, and you can declare that you don’t expect it. The latter is as brilliant as it is devastating. To say to someone whom you benefacted that you ’don’t expect any gratitude’ is to play the ultimate trump card. Trump himself, incidentally, intoned that he “didn’t want congrats for being right on Islamic terrorism but [he’d] sure appreciate it.” The psychology is clear. Here is an attempt to get double credit. Of course, he wants congrats and he wants extra credit for tromboning that he doesn’t want it.” The real psychological challenge is to explain why crude tactics like this still impress so many people.

The Buddha said, I am told, that the first step toward enlightenment is to recognize your own selfishness. Own it. Admit that you seek gratitude. Don’t be a hypocrite. Life will be easier, and resentments directed at you will be fewer.

Heck, P. R., & Krueger, J. I. (2016). Social perception of self-enhancement bias and error. Social Psychology, 47, 327-339.

Payne, B. K. (2017). The broken ladder. How inequality affects the way we think, live, and die. New York: Viking.

Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245-271