G is for Gratitude


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.’”

Tell it like it is, Needs a Hug. Maybe your happy-talk friends just need a knuckle sandwich.

Speaking of sandwiches, remember Café Gratitude, that venerable landmark in the corporatization of self-esteem?  In its heyday you could 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, though. 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 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 ‘til 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.

Yet there’s hope for ingrates and curmudgeons alike, if the annals of restaurateuring are any indication. Café Gratitude’s vast empire has shrunk dramatically ever since disgruntled employees sued them for questionable labor practices. In a letter announcing the closure of most of their restaurants, the owners explained:

 A series of aggressive lawsuits has brought us to this unfortunate choice. . . . We were happy to . . .  sustain ourselves on the transformation and personal growth of our people, while providing local organic vegan food to our community in an atmosphere of unconditional love. That commitment is under attack and we are not able to weather this storm.


Now that’s delicious!

18 thoughts on “G is for Gratitude

  1. Well I’m one of those positive people who is grateful for my blessings. Yes, I have a bad day once in a while – we all do – but why bring that feeling to everyone around you and ruin their day? I prefer to associate with positive people even though I know life hands us all lemons sometimes. There is always light at the end of the tunnel and if you think negatively that’s the kind of energy you’ll attract to yourself. Who wants that? Face it, no one wants to hear about others problems all the time.

    Thanks for visiting my blog earlier today.


  2. I believe in being grateful, but no one should be made to feel they cannot express their true feelings about something. Your story about your daughter in girl scouts reminds me of how two parents decided not to teach their daughter there was a Santa Claus, and she went to school and said so. Rather than the parents encouraging all the kids along, on one blog I actually read parents commenting this girl should be excluded because her parents dared to take the fun of Christmas away from other kids. I am not sure how ostracizing people with different opinions is a sign of gratitude, and sometimes it can be the opposite. i say let people be who they are while not forgetting to keep stock of the things in should be grateful for, but in a real world and authentic way.

    • What’s REALLY ironic is that I went on to become the assistant leader of that brownie troop! Authentic–rather than sanitized–feelings are the key! Thanks for writing.

  3. I love this piece. I enjoyed the metaphor “premature gratitude is like a thin coat of whitewash that seals in the toxins”. Bravo.

  4. As a proud fellow curmudgeon, I adored this post! Mandatory fun, mandatory good cheer.. they’re all poor substitutes for actual thought processes. I’d never heard of the Gratitude Café, but I’m not about to mourn its passing.

    • Thanks, Susan! I’m so glad you like it. It is the mandatory aspect indeed of good cheer that is so alarming. If you’re not familiar with it already, I recommend “Bright-Sided,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of positive thinking. I second your thoughts about Cafe Gratitude. A friend of mine told me about bringing her elderly uncle there who was practically browbeaten into some New Age foolishness about repeating those ridiculous grandiose menu items (now, sadly but wisely, slightly less grandiose in the restaurant’s diminished profile). “I just want to order a damn salad,” her uncle said in a curmudgeonly fashion.

  5. Finally a blog post on this subject-thank you! Being grateful is fine and learning to see the cup as half full is healthy but false gratitude is too much!

  6. Like you I get that feeling positive and grateful for our blessings can lower blood pressure etc and I try and do that. But it really gets to me when happy people don’t get that sometimes people can’t help themselves when they have a blue period. Do they think people choose to get into a fog that it’s hard to pull yourself out of? The rational side of me of course knows that I’m lucky and should be grateful for what I’ve got. The other side of me doesn’t always give a $&&*&!

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