Essay Gratitude

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If only, like de Hooch, we knew how to recognise the value of quiet domesticity, many of our burdens would be lifted.

It gives voice to the right attitude: the big themes of life – the search for prosperity, happiness, good relationships – start with the way we approach little things.

It is a corrective for those among us who are in danger of overplaying ambition. There is in many of us a fear of enjoying the present moment – as if to pause to appreciate a flower or the rapid movement of clouds over the horizon might make us ‘soft’ and leave us open to fatal complacency and grievously sap our will to take on bigger challenges.

It is equally important to know that the advocates of gratitude aren’t merely being naïve when they tell us to stop and appreciate flowers or a pretty sky; they know about suffering and darkness and are speaking up only because they have been to hell and back and concluded that in the end, what makes the journey worth it are a few outwardly humble but deeply significant things. We are prone to make an odd and deeply unfortunate connection between safety and a mood of anxious dissatisfaction.

In part, that’s because the call to be more grateful stands in deep conflict with a central drive in human nature: ambition.

We know in theory that we should be grateful for what we have, but day to day, we are dominated by striving: for better relationships, working lives, communities and nations.That’s why it is so deeply important to hear exhortations to be grateful – to appreciate what we have and to recognise the value of simple, natural things – from people who understand a lot about striving and effort and who have not fallen into gratitude simply from a lack of initiative or strength.To trust the message, we have to trust the motives, experiences and character of the person telling us to be grateful – just as the reminder to be faithful in love gains weight when it comes from someone who has had every option to explore multiple partners.Much of the problem comes down to our images of what is ‘normal’ – distributed through society by the media.Take someone who might be deeply dissatisfied with their appearance on the basis of the models they have seen.To be convincing, gratitude needs to be in a constructive dialectical relationship with aspiration.The call to gratitude isn’t for everyone at all times.Our mood is also frequently affected by who and what we are implicitly comparing ourselves with.And though we’re not generally clear what our comparison points are (we build them up unconsciously and don’t take the opportunity to question them often enough), we are prone to comparisons that are deeply unfair to our achievements and strengths.Feeling grateful about the good aspects of our lives is something we all know we should do a bit more often.And yet there’s often something curiously uncomfortable, even maddening, about being reminded to do so.

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