Gratitude : Smuggest Sentiment or Second Most Selfish Act?

Gratitude: The Smuggest Sentiment or the World’s Second Most Selfish Act?

By Tony Greenberg, reaffirmed and reposted 2014

“A great many men’s gratitude is nothing but a secret desire to hook in more valuable kindnesses hereafter.” – Francois de La Rochefoucauld

gratitudeWe live in an era of compulsory gratefulness. Ministers scold us to thank God for all His blessings. New Age gurus demand an “attitude of gratitude.” We’re told we must give thanks for the slightest of gifts. It’s all about being grateful, if we want to create a life lived humbly yet well.

Well, gratitude, attitude.

Really, you lazy person, what have you done to be so filled with all this grateful goo? More importantly, what, exactly, did you do to express your gratitude? Did you just talk about it? Well, shut up. Go do something useful for once. And don’t talk about it.

A man’s indebtedness is not virtue; his repayment is. Virtue begins when he dedicates himself actively to the job of gratitude.”  – Ruth Benedict

Herded toward the corral of gratitude, most of us routinely mouth about how grateful we are. Then we show how deep our gratitude is in the most insubstantial, inadequate, even inane ways.

In fact, gratitude may be the smuggest of sentiments, the world’s most selfish act this side of suicide. Its adherents are too often filled with an oozy glow devoid of any corresponding action. As we expand the grasp of our gratitude, we do little to show we actually mean it.

“Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.” – Henri F. Amiel

The point? Words matter. We should give thanks, of course, but that’s different. Those are words, hopefully heartfelt. We should practice acts of gratitude, not just hollow attitudes of gratitude. Attitude is nothing but show. Until you’ve earned it, don’t use it. And don’t gloat about how much of it you have either, because that isn’t the point.

As a small example, what happened the last time you were treated to a lovely dinner in someone’s home, where they created a fabulous meal wrapped in lively conversation? They went to a lot of trouble. You had a wonderful time.  Then you went home.

Did you a) begin planning how to create in turn a similarly wonderful experience; b) dash off a crappy little 20-word email and hit “send;” or c) uh, forget to do anything?

Chances are, you said “B,” and counted yourself a well-bred yet technologically modern person. Or maybe you just said “C,” and forgot to count at all. Could you at least have taken the time to write a thoughtful Thank You card in longhand, stamp and address and mail it?

There’s little in the way of actual gratitude on display here. And it only gets worse the more we embrace the attitude without the action.

“It’s a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation.” – Roberto Benigni

This imbalance occurs because we actively misread what many different spiritual teachers and practices have long said. And we do it because it’s easier this way.

Taoists describe a circular, balanced life in their yin and yang.  Each complements the other, and completes the whole. Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism suggests a unity of opposites, words and action, in building to an Enlightened whole. Jews, Christians and Muslims routinely give thanks to their God for the blessings He has given them.

But it’s not enough to give thanks. All these religions balance a call to recognize our blessings with something more substantive, to actively make the world better, to show, not tell.

More recent spiritual teachers such as Arnold Patent also tell us to put our lives where our mouths are. His Circle of Love and Joyfulness emphasizes giving as much as receiving. Yes, money is an expression of plenty, but it only matters as a way to give back, not as a tote board for how big your….ego is.

Leo Buscaglia went even further. In his equation, love is not something that can be given, but only may be received.  Similarly, you can’t “give” gratitude. Only those who benefit from acts of gratitude can name them as such. Anyone who claims they have gratitude is just a self-absorbed showboat begging for attention.

“Anything that is of value in life only multiplies when it is given.” – Deepak Chopra

Now, appreciating all you have is indeed a lovely idea, so much so that we Americans have created an annual national day of Giving Thanks. It is our most widely celebrated and beloved holiday, the mostly non-religious feast of plenty that virtually all Americans fondly embrace.

So we gather, maybe say Grace, gorge on a feast and slip into a tryptophan-tastic daze. Yet the way we show our thanks on that day is quintessentially American in other ways too.

For most of us, the Thanksgiving consists only of sacrificing millions of turkeys and tons of cranberries to our burgeoning waistlines. Some volunteer to serve at a soup kitchen that morning, but most volunteer merely to watch football and gossip about Uncle Charles. So much for being grateful.

If you want to feel rich, just count the things you have that money can’t buy.” –Proverb

Critics slag the Millennial generation for their sense of entitlement in the absence of any real achievement. But bless those kids: they also share a deep commitment to public and community service, to giving back, and giving back joyfully. Whoever said that about Baby Boomers or Gen X slackers, like, ever?

So it’s time we changed a few things. Cease and desist on misusing “gratitude,” both the word and the idea. Gratitude deserves better. Do something, or a lot of things, that show you actually are grateful. For goodness sake, don’t talk about how grateful you are. And wipe that smug, grateful smile off your yaps. Happy holidays! For 50 ways to express, this is a great start

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. “ – John F. Kennedy

Tony Greenberg

Tony Greenberg

I speed through life building relationships, businesses and finding extraordinary people and contemplating the curious decisions they make. The premise of this space is to expose the bridges and chasms of trust, truth and bias that I encounter daily.

8 thoughts on “Gratitude : Smuggest Sentiment or Second Most Selfish Act?

  • November 27 at 6:13 am
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    Great post. As a Gen X'er I agree with your comments and sadly have fallen into the empty gratitude pattern many times myself. I agree that Millennials will be much bigger on showing gratitude, but I don't think it will necessarily be any more genuine. When I was teaching a class to 12th graders last year and asked them how many of them had volunteered. All raised their hands. I then asked how many would have volunteered even if it would not be able to put in on their college applications. Less than half raised their hands. They realize that the perception of gratitude is and important part of a smoothly functioning society, but even this is not a true expression of gratitude. The GI Generation (born 1901-24) in how they were very civil, but not necessarily genuine (just ask their Boomer kids that rebelled against them in the 60's). Gratitude is just something we have little of in the US, along with humility.

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  • November 27 at 11:48 am
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    Great Article with some great points. Too many times we are too busy in our own worlds that we don't stop to truly thank those who deserve the gratitude for being a catalyst to our needs. We are in a society built on self indulgence, and it is only at the toughest times do we know who has shown gratitude and stood by us and who we should be showering with gratitude because of what they have meant in our lives both on a professional and or personal level.

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  • November 27 at 4:17 pm
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    Tony Greenberg deserves a regular column in the NY Times.

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  • January 20 at 6:41 pm
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    I guess I'm not on the holiday list yet… I'll hold out for some banana bread first. Aho to Dr. Bronners fans world wide!

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  • April 23 at 4:13 am
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    Tony Greenberg deserves a regular column in the NY Times.

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  • November 29 at 3:04 am
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    There were times when Gratitude was expressed in the most of hard and active ways – for being alive, live was given in return http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_f-qRNcELtnE/TOLwhBl38SI/AAAAAAAAABI/rlXBUvNfNqI/s1600/aztec+ritual.gif.

    Humanity moved from that hard showing of gratitude. With the dawn of the information time, and with things becoming easier, simpler (and less dangerous), everything in our lives was replaced by an encoded symbol of the thing – so the gratitude expression was replaced by information about gratitude, which, from the psychological POV, is the emotional state of gratitude. Probably we are swinging towards the other extreme…

    Think, now we are loading wishes on postcards, now replaced by digital cards, while there were times when you hit a road of 100 miles to deliver your birthday wishes to someone…

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  • November 27 at 12:23 pm
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    Nice words…In this time of the year we should make a stop and think in all the things that are priceless

    Reply

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