Is there really a lot to be grateful for?

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“There’s a lot to be grateful for.”

On its face, this doesn’t seem like such a controversial statement. We’ve got a whole holiday dedicated to gratitude, after all.

But more and more I see people in deep conflict with this statement, resisting it, questioning it. They shift gratitude from something to be admired to a symptom of privilege and naivete, as if to be grateful is to not see all the suffering around us. They elevate cynicism and despair from things to be avoided to signs that we “get it”, that we are awake.

A 2016 Vox article, recently reposted on social media in honor of Thanksgiving, aims to foster greater gratitude for our world today. It points out all the ways the world is getting better: 1) longer life expectancies, 2) plummeting global poverty, 3) the eradication of a variety of diseases, like polio, 4) fewer and fewer deaths due to war, and 5) declining crime. I could add to this list quickly evolving views on homosexuality and gender, increasing willingness to acknowledge and address sexual misconduct and abuse, growing collaboration and action on climate change, and on and on.

There are many ways in which things are tangibly getting better and we should be grateful, the article suggests.

But the comments paint a different picture:

  • “Maybe not in the Bay Area: I see poverty everywhere… greedy capitalism keeps making the rich richer and middle class poor.”
  • “Really, then why are over 14 million children in this country living in poverty with nothing to eat and no permanent place to live? That’s not horrible enough you?”
  • “I hate pollyanna statements which, like Pangloss in Candide, state that this is the best of all possible worlds. It makes me think that people have not been paying attention, and need to be woken up. Maybe a 2×4 might help.”

Many folks out there seem to think messages of gratitude and progress are not simply inaccurate, but immoral. They are a symptom of both blindness to the realities of the world and insufficient compassion for the plight of those suffering. Saying things are getting better is to say that things are as good as they could or should be, that we should not be concerned and determined to drive further change.

This needs to stop.

First, such interpretations are simply inaccurate. To say “we have a lot to be grateful for” in no way comments on the existence of things to be concerned about. In most situations in life, both exist at the same time.

But more importantly, such viewpoints actively work against change and progress. Messages that we should not be grateful and that the world is going to shit are necessarily draining and deflating. They sap us of our drive, our belief that things can and will get better. They sacrifice our ability and likelihood to drive change to ensure everyone knows that we care.

Are we to believe that more cynicism and despair are going to result in better outcomes for all those suffering? Are we to believe that thinking things haven’t and aren’t getting better is going to result in things getting better?

Of course not.

Change best flows from a belief that things can and will change, if sufficient action is taken. Gratitude shows us that things have gotten better. Optimism allows us to see that things can continue to improve. They are tools we can and should use to foster more change.

It’s time to dispel the belief that cynicism and despair are the best ways to show we care. They aren’t. The best way to show we care is to get up and do something. And we are most likely to get up and do something when we believe things can and will change. This is what gratitude and optimism offer us.

If we want real change, we need to cultivate both gratitude for how far we’ve come and determination to keep going at the same time.

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