The Problem with Gratitude

The Problem with Gratitude

When tasked with writing a gratitude-themed post for this month of proFmagazine, I was stumped. I joked to the rest of the staff that I’m far better at complaining than being thankful. But nevertheless, I set out to write something about gratitude and giving thanks in the workplace, an increasingly popular topic in recent years. Over my years of working as a staff member in academia, I learned about gratitude from a number of large-hearted colleagues, who made an effort to write thank-you-notes, organize gift exchanges, to throw special events to recognize achievements, and to foster a kind and compassionate office. This environment helped me develop better, stronger relationships with my colleagues and employer.

And yet…something bothers me about the term “gratitude.” The kinds of genuine efforts listed above are, of course, the good stuff. But “gratitude,” especially as it relates to work, has become something of an empty buzzword, one easily manipulated by a capitalist society to suppress the working class. “Gratitude” can become twisted into an expectation: be grateful for your employer, simply because they employ you. Not happy at work? Your thinking is wrong – learn to count your blessings. And to those in power, “gratitude” is a convenient token, a pat on the head in place of fair compensation and benefits.

My skepticism about the concept of workplace gratitude only increased this past week as I read about the new Republican tax bill, which promises to cut the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent. Paul Ryan and other conservative supporters of the bill claim this tax savings will prompt corporations to invest in more jobs and higher salaries for workers. This despite the fact that corporate profits have been at an all-time high for the past decade, which has seen stagnant wages and little investment. But sure, give them more money with no strings attached and they’ll probably decide to help the little guy this time. Right?

To me, the connection to “gratitude” is clear: while it’s nice to be recognized for one’s hard work and achievements (and to extend that recognition, regularly, to others), acknowledgement is little substitute for decent compensation and merit-based raises. As someone who has worked at an underfunded state university (due to state budget shortfalls produced by exactly this kind of tax cut) I can tell you this: gratitude from the top down tends to ring a little hollow when year after year, you’re denied even the slightest cost-of-living raise. Or when you’re asked to increase your workload because there are more students, but no new staff positions to meet demand. Or when, as a faculty member, your research funding is cut to the bone but you’re still expected to publish-or-perish. That’s when a “thank you” luncheon doesn’t quite feel like enough.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed – one of the best books out there on the plight of the working poor in America – wrote about the insidious nature of the pop culture “gratitude” movement back in 2015 for the New York Times. In an opinion piece entitled “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” she writes,

But is gratitude always appropriate? The answer depends on who’s giving it and who’s getting it or, very commonly in our divided society, how much of the wealth gap it’s expected to bridge. Suppose you were an $8-an-hour Walmart employee who saw her base pay elevated this year, by company fiat, to $9 an hour. Should you be grateful to the Waltons, who are the richest family in America? Or to Walmart’s chief executive, whose annual base pay is close to $1 million and whose home sits on nearly 100 acres of land in Bentonville, Ark.?

The main point of Ehrenreich’s piece is how the “gratitude” trend focuses inward, on a sort of self-satisfaction, rather than on the active appreciation of others. Which brings us back to the Republican tax bill and that fantasy of trickle-down economics. One way for corporate CEOs and the top 1% of earners to show gratitude would be to put some of their surplus cash back into the pockets of their workers, into communities, into the people and infrastructure that have made their wealth possible. But will they? Not likely, according to experts. And it’s not just them – it’s all of us haves, those of us whose cups runneth over, that need to think about putting gratitude into actual practice. As Ehrenreich writes,

Yet 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. Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table? Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.

The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, “solidarity” — which may involve getting up off the yoga mat.

Sure, I realize Ehrenreich and I both sound like Debbie Downers here – there’s nothing implicitly wrong with gratitude as a concept. But like many things in a capitalist, materialistic society, it has been co-opted and used against the better interest of the 99%. So instead of navel-gazing about how “#blessed” we are this holiday season, let’s put our gratitude into practice by caring for others – our colleagues (especially those at the bottom of the ladder), the people in need in our communities – and on a larger scale, fighting for them, by standing up for fair wages and human rights.