The shortcoming of pandemic gratitude

What we’re doing wrong and how to be authentically thankful

Photo by Morvanic Lee on Unsplash

Amidst the pandemic, so many of us have been encouraged to express gratitude.

The belief is that this emotion properly resets our value system for the better, helps us understand what matters most, and powers us through dread. Gratitude promoters tell us that showing appreciation for what we have curtails our anxiety while distracting us from potential despair in the future.

Gratitude can also make us better social animals. Two psychologists at Northeastern University conducted a study among 150 people to see the impact of gratitude (i.e. appreciation for what they have and the practice of being thankful). Half were encouraged and assisted in being more grateful for over two years. The other half were not.

The authors of this study found that those who were trained to express gratitude said they had more pleasant experiences with family members, restaurant staffers, colleagues, and friends. They were also more likely to plan events and volunteer in their communities.

But our gratitude muscles are getting harder to flex as the pandemic prolongs. Attempting to appreciate a moment in time where millions died, millions more were impoverished, and some degree of mental stress was brought to everyone feels like trying to keep an ice cube solid on a summer day in Texas.

When I scavenged the web on how to be grateful, I found numerous well intentioned techniques written specifically for gratitude during the global pandemic. I am genuinely appreciative of all those who are attempting to help those in need. However, these quick-trick efforts often seem misguided (i.e. call an ex and thank them), unrealistic (spend three more hours a day in nature), offensive (i.e. feel grateful you are not in a war zone), or privileged (i.e. work remotely by a body of water).

The unsettling reality is, no matter how often or many grateful tips we are fed, we were never conditioned to be grateful in this type of environment.

During the early phases of World War II, the British government put up numerous posters with the now meme-friendly phrase, “keep calm on carry on,” evoking the typical British stoicism to be undeterred, steady, and forthright during good and bad times.

As the war went on, health officials sent pamphlets and created public service announcements encouraging citizens to be appreciative of what they have. “A life removed from the treachery of the battlefields against evil is something we can all celebrate,” one government official claimed. Even years later, well after the war ended, there were enormous public health measures to influence their populace to develop a more grateful attitude.

These measures, by and large, failed. Psychologists found that trying to be grateful during existential times can be difficult for many reasons.

For starters, it is challenging to be grateful when you are a shell of your prior life. Psychology professor Jill Teachman was one of the many academics that studied gratitude during war times. She concluded that it’s difficult to be grateful when you feel so removed from who you once were.

The day-to-day for all of us has changed. The socially active, those who set ambitious goals, the jet setters, and the planners have seen the flow of their lives change dramatically. Personally, I have never had so many days where I’ve felt isolated and listless. As an extrovert planner, I am energized by the proximity of my friends and potential gathering opportunities. Having the inability to be in touch with my closest comrades is more straining than I imagined.

Attempting to feel appreciative of a checkers’ life when you felt like you were playing three dimensional chess seems as futile as pushing rope.

Gratitude also requires thick connections and being tethered to something greater — churches, schools, a community, a club, colleagues, or a team. “In gratitude, we realize how much we need each other to provide and secure us things that we cannot provide and secure for ourselves,” British historian and gratitude researcher Robert Emmons explains.

Being grateful for your ecosystems becomes difficult when they seem so distant. Before the war, English cities were thriving with kids playing, bustling streets, busy farmers’ markets, and crowded bars. Even though these were open during war time, they were largely unpatroned.

I can see this void in my life. Every year my closest friends and I plan a weekend trip to a new city. Obviously there is no plan to travel this year. We are in constant communication during the pandemic. But the euphoria we get from our presence together is missing.

Another observation psychologists found when examining British citizens during World War II was that the ability to be grateful was tremendously difficult with a static life. Appreciation of one’s existence is often spontaneous. Being thankful of one’s existence and possessions is often unpremeditated. Planning gratitude is like planning for any other emotion, an exercise in futility. Gratitude often crashes over us like a wave when we least expect it.

Last fall I attended the wedding of a dear friend in the heart of Truckee, California. The next day my partner and I thought it would be a good idea to eat a pot gummy before a four mile hike in Tahoe. When we came back down we thought we were sober. We then proceeded to eat three and a half burritos and a salad bowl.

We were so stoned we missed a fancy dinner I planned for us that evening. Instead, Thai food was ordered and we ate off the makeshift plates we made out of stuff found in our hotel. The next morning we drove back in torrential rain to attend a high-intensity workout neither was ready for (full disclosure: psychoactive substances aside, I am rarely ready for high-power exercising). Ever since that weekend, there are random moments when I think about and feel immensely grateful for such a beautifully chaotic weekend.

Lastly, psychologists who studied the last great war eventually concluded that gratitude was never a long term remedy for our pain. We humans are all on what psychologists call a hedonic treadmill — emotional peaks-and-valleys of contentment– where our level of happiness eventually subsides no matter how great or terrible things are. No matter how hard we attempt to cultivate thoughts of gratitude, we will inevitably feel morose. Attempting to be grateful for a week is difficult, a month is exhausting, and eleven months is nearly impossible.

As I review the history of how humans attempted to be grateful during prolonged difficult times, it’s easy to feel discouraged. But I am not.

There are ways to cultivate sustainable and healthy bits of gratitude. There are realistic methods to genuinely be grateful. We can learn from our attempts at gratitude from history and this pandemic. According to neuroscientist Madhuleena Chowdry, we can accept our misery, appreciate our current state, and be at peace with what may come.

It must begin with accepting the current state of our world. People are in immense pain. Their suffering is not only likely to continue, but for many, it will get exponentially worse. Countless businesses will be in peril no matter how much federal aid may be eventually dispersed. Many will go under. Millions will lose their job. Millions more kids’ educational development will suffer. Countless will feel prolonged mental anguish that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

As strange as it may sound, by accepting this reality we can find thankfulness. From the ashes of demoralization, the phoenix of gratitude can rise. When we accept we are broken, gratitude is our path to healing. Knowing that we are at rock bottom gives a sense of appreciation that tomorrow can be better. It brings hope. This is the pathway where we can eventually become more grateful about our existence.

Founder of Honest Wednesdays and pragmatic optimist.

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