Gratitude is emerging as an important deficit in American culture.
At a midlife crossroads with the opportunity for career adjustments, I’ve been reading life-improvement and business-type books, and one repeated theme that wouldn’t necessarily come first to mind in that genre is the value of gratitude. Being grateful affects how you approach problems and how you present yourself, which affects your ability to overcome challenges and enlist the help of others.
Gratitude is important to both well-being and success, and those who do not cultivate it in themselves will suffer. Of course, many motivated people will find material success anyway, but to whatever extent a lack of gratitude holds a person back, it will breed resentment. Put differently, a failure to appreciate what one possesses and has done nothing to deserve will produce a tendency to blame others for bad outcomes that you does deserve. This dynamic may explain a large portion of the hostility we see in our communities and the news every day.
With this in mind, Jeremy Adams’s article for Public Discourse, “The Death of Gratitude in the American Classroom,” is both saddening and filled with explanatory power. Adams teaches high school and has noted a precipitous decline in gratitude among his students, most directly in their response to him, but as a more-general cultural shift, as well.
My real concern is that gratitude may no longer be part of the lives of young Americans. They seem to believe that their blessings—technology that is the stuff of science fiction, unparalleled wealth, unfathomable comforts and forms of communication, bountiful freedom, and opportunities unrivaled in human history—are owed to them. They see no need to be grateful; it makes no sense to them.
The decline of gratitude portends a disturbing pivot in our culture. I worry not that my own world may be crumbling, not that civilization’s decline may be imminent, but that unless the younger generation learns the virtue of gratitude, they will not find joy in life. They will not believe the world is, to quote Hemingway, “a fine place and worth fighting for.” [Emphasis in original.]
Adams notes the role of Marxist and progressive thinkers who have striven to undermine those principles that have provided stability in our culture. He also highlights the decline of religious faith.
Whatever the causes, perhaps this is one area in which addressing a symptom can help to reverse the disease. As I began by noting, gratitude has direct benefits to the grateful person. In contrast, even where it isn’t a career-killer, ingratitude produces direct and immediate adverse and unpleasant effects for the ungrateful.
Human beings have great capacity for self-delusion, of course, but it isn’t really possible to gain the benefits of gratitude without being grateful, which means both finding what’s good in your life and attributing it to someone or something other than yourself. We need to teach that practice more, and it shouldn’t be very difficult if we decide to do it.
Featured image by Nicholas Bartos on Unsplash.