Is gratitude selfish?
Barbara Ehrenreich thinks so. In an opinion piece published in Sunday’s print edition of the New York Times, the bestselling author criticizes a movement to encourage thankfulness, suggesting that it’s “all about you, and how you can feel better.”
She dismisses scientific research on gratitude, and in citing proponents of “holiday gratitude,” she points to the recent radio special on The Science of Gratitude that the Greater Good Science Center co-produced, which was narrated by Susan Sarandon and distributed to 170 NPR member stations nationwide.
Ehrenreich correctly notes that the GGSC has been at the fore of the movement to better understand gratitude and its benefits, particularly through our multi-year Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project. Indeed, all of our work underscores the importance of meaningful social connections and “pro-social” skills like compassion, empathy, and generosity—and our work on gratitude is no exception.
So we were surprised to see it sharing a headline with the word “selfish.” At the same time, we’ve long been fans of Ehrenreich’s work, including her recent critiques of forced cheerfulness and hollow positivity, so we were intrigued to read what she had to say.
We were disappointed. In fact, if she had looked more closely at the science, she’d find that much of the research on gratitude—and the gratitude practices that she snubs—profoundly challenge the individualism and self-focus that she finds so objectionable. Her misreading of the science of gratitude and its implications, political and otherwise, isn’t just a matter of academic debate. It speaks volumes about why Americans are struggling to overcome some of the greatest social problems they face today.
What’s the trouble with gratitude?
The evidence Ehrenreich cites of the “selfish side” of gratitude is thin. Her primary example is an unnamed “yoga instructor” who, in a post on CNN.com, recommends a gratitude routine that involves personal reflection and writing exercises, not a direct expression of gratitude to another person. “Who is interacting here?” writes Ehrenreich. “‘You’ and ‘you.’”
She also critiques the Harvard Mental Health Letter’s list of gratitude exercises—which include “thank someone mentally,” “keep a gratitude journal,” and “count your blessings”—because some of them don’t involve human interaction. “If there is any loving involved in this, it is self-love,” she writes, “and the current hoopla around gratitude is a celebration of onanism.”
But her harshest criticisms are political. To Ehrenreich, gratitude is nothing less than a plot to maintain an unjust social order. She argues that “there is a need for more gratitude, especially from those who have a roof over their heads and food on their table. Only it should be a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now.”
If we must be grateful, she writes, we should thank the unseen and underpaid people who pick, process, and deliver our food so that we can enjoy it on the holidays and everyday. “There are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible,” she writes. “The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them.”
She advocates “solidarity” with these workers as a more “muscular” alternative to gratitude, by “supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions”—important social and political goals if there ever were any, and certainly goals that we share.
How gratitude ties people together
Ehrenreich misses the mark, however, because she overlooks the role of pro-social emotions like gratitude in making social change happen.
On our website and in our radio special, which draws on the work of Robert Emmons and other leading scientific experts, we argue that the essence of gratitude lies in recognizing our connection to, and even dependence on, other people. When we practice gratitude, we recognize the many gifts in our lives, and we realize that we can’t take credit for them ourselves—they’re at least partly the product of other people’s generosity, support, or sacrifice.
“I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion,“ Emmons has written on our website, “because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
It’s important to recognize, however, that expressing gratitude to another person isn’t the only way to build gratitude and its “relationship-strengthening” powers. Instead, gratitude is better understood as a mindset that fosters appreciation of, and a sense of connection with, other people. You can build that mindset through a variety of practices; some may involve direct expressions of gratitude to others, some may not.
But no matter how it’s cultivated, the benefits of a grateful mindset are profoundly social. The research finds that grateful people have stronger relationships, are less materialistic, and are more generous. Grateful adolescents have more positive attitudes toward their families and schools, and are more motivated to contribute to society. These benefits aren’t just available to the naturally grateful or, in Ehrenreich’s words, the people who “actually have something to be grateful for”: Dozens, if not hundreds, of studies to date have found that these and similar benefits result when researchers instruct ordinary people—not the super grateful or super rich—to regularly count their blessings.
By contrast, simple exhortations to “express our debt” to the people who pick our food and provide us with other services are likely to fall flat. While it may feel satisfying rhetorically, this approach ignores the ways our minds actually work—psychological research suggests that it might even be counter-productive. Studies by researchers like Philip Watkins of Eastern Washington University have looked at the differences between feelings of gratitude and indebtedness, and their results clearly suggest that making people feel indebted to others is simply not a way to get them to take the kinds of pro-social actions that Ehrenreich—and the GGSC—would like to see.
Instead, a far more effective strategy is cultivating what Ehrenreich dismisses as “an attitude of gratitude.”
Why? Consider that when you recognize how other people have contributed to the good things in your life, it becomes harder to convince yourself that you’re somehow uniquely entitled to those goodies. Gratitude challenges our tendency to take the good in our lives for granted, including the privileges and good fortune we’ve been lucky to receive. And, unlike indebtedness, which carries a lot of emotional baggage, the positive feelings we get from gratitude actually motivate us to “pay it forward” to others.
In that way, nurturing an individual’s practice of gratitude can have broad social impact. I’m reminded of a middle schooler who participated in a project led by researcher Jeff Froh, a pioneer in the study of gratitude among youth. After keeping a gratitude journal for several weeks, the student, who was from a well-off family, had an epiphany: “I realized how good I really have it,” he said. “Some kids have nothing. I just never thought about it before.” From that basic realization can come a host of social goods like generosity, humility, a sense of connectedness, and, yes, even solidarity.
Gratitude as a force for change
But what about the kids who “have nothing,” as the middle schooler says? Is gratitude inappropriate for people like those portrayed in Ehrenreich’s bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America?
Ehrenreich considers a Walmart employee who saw her base pay increase this past year from $8 to $9 an hour, and suggests that she’d be a “chump” to feel grateful toward Walmart’s executives. Far be it from me to tell this hypothetical employee that she should be grateful to people who make as much in a week as she makes in a year, and I hope that she—and the rest of us—can close such socioeconomic gaps.
In fact, we completely agree that gratitude is not the appropriate response in certain relationships. As GGSC Gratitude Research Fellow Amie Gordon writes in her Greater Good article “Five Ways Giving Thanks Can Backfire”:
If you are in a bad relationship with someone who is emotionally or physically abusing you—or who just can’t make you happy—gratitude may be the wrong choice. By focusing on all the ways you appreciate your partner, boss, or roommate, you may choose to stay where you are—when you should be finding a way to get out of an unhealthy situation. Account for the entire relationship, not just the good parts!
But here’s the question raised by Ehrenreich’s essay: Will gratitude actually interfere with changing your life—and your world—for the better, as she suggests it does?
Ehrenreich mistakenly presumes that gratitude breeds complacency or subservience. In fact, research by Robert Emmons has found that people who participated in a gratitude exercise made significantly more progress toward a set of personal and professional goals than a non-grateful group did—yet the grateful people didn’t report more satisfaction with their progress than the others. Gratitude seemed to motivate them to work toward some changes in their lives rather than simply accept the status quo. If Ehrenreich had listened to our radio special, she would have heard how gratitude can not only improve social connections but also heighten social consciousness, including a greater commitment to the environment.
How could this be? Based on what we know about gratitude, I’d suggest that it’s because gratitude frees us from getting bogged down by anger and ruminating on all that has gone wrong for us and helps us recognize the forces and people who have actually helped to bring more good into our lives. That can boost our feelings of self-worth and motivate us to believe that more change and goodness is actually possible. You can recognize and feel legitimately grateful for good stuff in your life—as opposed to feeling like you were somehow owed or entitled to that goodness—while still being motivated to protest against unfairness that you or others still face.
Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to injustices or blithely accepting your lot in life. Research by Emmons, Watkins, and others has found that rather than being a luxury of the privileged, as Ehrenreich suggests, gratitude actually helps people cope with stress and adversity; in one study, Emmons found that practicing gratitude even brought a variety of benefits to people who had a rare neuromuscular disorder.
Gratitude is not positive thinking
Ehrenreich also makes the basic mistake of lumping gratitude in with the “positive thinking” movement.
In her book Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich criticizes attempts to get people always to put on a happy face and avoid negative feelings like sadness. We share those criticisms here at the GGSC. However, research suggests that grateful people don’t ignore or suppress negative thoughts or emotions; instead, they show a stronger ability to recognize and appreciate the sources of the good in their lives, without necessarily glossing over the bad. As Emmons has argued, gratitude is not just a type of naïve positivity.
There are still a host of unanswered questions about the potential—and the limits—of gratitude to foster a more just, peaceful, and happier society. But that’s precisely why we need more research on gratitude. By conflating the science of gratitude with flimsy, non-scientific prescriptions for positivity like The Secret, as Ehrenreich does, she makes the mistake of grouping potential allies with her enemies in the battle against bogus notions of happiness.
The difference matters because Americans are engaged in a real struggle to connect with each other. Is happiness all about me—or is my well-being tied up with the well-being of other people? The science to date suggests that social connections are vital to happiness and that happiness motivates pro-social behavior. What’s more, no one is happy in isolation—and social inequality dramatically undermines our ability to connect with other people.
Gratitude is one tool for strengthening our relationships—and some research suggests that Americans are having a hard time expressing gratitude to each other. This hints at why loneliness is on the rise in America, with Americans having fewer close friends and social affiliations than they have had in the past; on top of that, socioeconomic inequality is getting worse. It seems reasonable to conclude that our social isolation affects our ability to address collective problems like inequality or climate change, and simple calls for “solidarity” are not likely to help us overcome our divisions.
Ehrenreich’s essay might have made more sense as a caution to look out for some potential pitfalls of gratitude, rather than as a criticism of current gratitude science and practices, particularly since the existing evidence she cites to support her case is so slight and limited. I appreciate the reminder to beware of the selfish side of gratitude, but of course there can be a selfish side of everything: We can be kind just to make us feel good about ourselves, become politically active just to stroke our ego and inflate our sense of importance. And so far, research on gratitude suggests that even if people are drawn to it for selfish reasons, they might come away with a deeper sense of social connectedness and a newfound drive to do some social good.