It’s Thanksgiving week in the US and, taking time off from their usual diet of gloom and uneasy foreboding, various American media outlets have been asking readers to list things for which they feel grateful. I don’t know about you, but personally I thank my lucky stars that the British are too self-conscious to have any national ritual of gratitude on our books. Against a secular backdrop, trying to conjure up a feeling of thankfulness towards no one in particular has always seemed to me a bit like attempting to experience remorse for something I know I haven’t done. In both cases, all I can do is make what I hope are vaguely appropriate facial movements, and pray I get away with it.

There is also a worry that vague statements of gratitude, launched diffusely into the void, perversely make it less likely that we will give credit to real human benefactors where it is actually due. It’s so much less effort to mentally thank the universe than to thank a friend out loud, after all. But such misgivings seem to put me in a minority. Along with kindness, the bland social capital of unfocused gratitude has been surging for a while now — much beloved of yoga teachers and Instagram influencers, and perfect for a humblebrag when you want to show off about that new kitchen extension without making it seem obvious (#grateful).

In a similar vein, various academics and medics frequently extoll the benefits of a daily “gratitude practice” for things such as combatting depression and boosting the immune system. We are presented with psychological case studies like that of the unfortunate “Susanna”, described in one influential journal article from 2013. Immediately after her husband had a terrible motorcycle accident and went into a coma, Susanna discovered that he had been having an affair with her friend for years. And that wasn’t all — she also found out that he had been secretly addicted to gambling and had emptied their bank account. Still, luckily for her, the article reported that Susanna was able to shift “to a context of thinking about all she still had in her life, as well as a stance of gratitude for the opportunities that remained open to her”, and so was able to continue functioning despite these crushing blows.

Though it wouldn’t work for everyone, I’m glad that some people can find relief from despair in this way. Still, as with other attempts to motivate people into prosocial behaviours by saying they will be good for you — see also kindness, forgiveness, and empathy — it seems to me that the general line of defence misfires.

It’s not just that ethical behaviours such as gratitude are by definition outward-facing and other-regarding, so that to reduce them to narcissistic exercises in self-improvement is to destroy their whole point. It’s also that it’s difficult to disentangle whether any supposed resultant physical or psychological benefits come from the particular behaviour itself, or rather from a surrounding self-congratulatory awareness that, by displaying the behaviour, you are doing something that would be approved of by your peers. Milan Kundera once characterised “kitsch” as causing “two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” In effect, the challenge for psychologists is to work out whether the supposed health benefits of gratitude stem from the sort of feelings accompanying Kundera’s first tear, or those accompanying his second.

Equally, in cases like Susanna’s, the explanation for any resulting psychological improvement seems even more overdetermined. Was it really her feeling grateful that helped her recover her equilibrium? Or was it simply the act of reminding herself of some good things in her life that made it all seem less bleak? You could easily do the latter without feeling the former specifically, and it might work quite as well.

In any case, it seems that we are all a bit like Susanna these days — desperately trying to bat away the incipient darkness by clinging onto thoughts of what isn’t already completely terrible or spoiled. It surely will not have escaped your notice that there is very little good news around — a state of affairs obviously not helped by awful wars, but not wholly caused by them either. Declinism and doom-mongering are in vogue everywhere you look; and, though they take on different flavours on the Left and Right, the net result is still bloody depressing. Whether it’s the collapse of the environment and the implacable rise of bigotry, or the collapse of Western civilisation and the implacable rise of cultural Marxism, there’s not much out there to put a spring in your step. In fact, it’s almost as if all the despairing and all the gratitude were two sides of the same psychically dysfunctional coin.

And nor can it be said that we tend to look upon bad news with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger. Grievance and resentment are now absolutely mainstream. Practically irrespective of its content, people rush to find the angle in the latest piece of news that most satisfyingly fits their vision of an unjust universe. The point is well-established for the Left – albeit that their catastrophising is usually done on behalf of histrionically imagined others — but applies equally to the Right. Increasingly among social conservatives, there is a kind of deliciously grim, told-you-so satisfaction at the thought that we are all going to hell in a handcart.

No doubt there are many reasons for the human tendency to attend disproportionately to the bad rather than to the good in life. A basic one is adaptive: a lot of human attention is geared towards eliminating personal risk. But just as merely noticing the good things in life doesn’t automatically mean feeling grateful for them — because a range of quite different emotions might accompany an identical observation — so too finding bad things in life need not automatically mean feeling aggrieved. Other attitudes are also available: detached curiosity about root causes is one, and stoic resignation another. One’s first thought does not always have to be about whose fault it probably is.

Jonathan Swift once observed that “men are grateful in the same degree that they are resentful“; perhaps noticing that with both gratitude and resentment, there is often an accompanying desire for payback. Centuries later, philosopher P.F. Strawson identified the two kinds of feeling as his paradigmatic “reactive attitudes”: when properly formed, each involves an attribution of responsibility to another person, and an assessment of his or her original intention in forming how you feel in response. Strawson wrote of resentment, for instance, that:

“If someone treads on my hand accidentally, while trying to help me, the pain may be no less acute than if he treads on it in contemptuous disregard of my existence or with a malevolent wish to injure me. But I shall generally feel in the second case a kind and degree of resentment that I shall not feel in the first.”

These days, though, something strange is happening. While we no longer treat the good things in life as intentionally produced, or as the responsibility of anyone in particular, we seem unable to treat the bad things in life as anything but. And as feelings of gratitude get more scattered, resentment and grievance seem to get more laser-like: directed without deviance towards favourite cultural or political bête noirs, whether those are Tory politicians or cultural Marxists.

Or to put it another way: the dominant attitude to happy tidings is barely reactive, in Strawson’s sense, at all anymore — but the attitude towards more ambivalent events is all reaction, all the time. When gratitude loses its moorings from a proper relation to another person’s intention and responsibility, we end up with nice vibes. When resentment does the same, we end up with increasing amounts of conspiratorial rage. And unfortunately for us, the former doesn’t seem to have the power to cancel out the latter.

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